I am in the relative warmth of the showroom of one of my local auto dealers. Hidden behind the profile of a noticeably finger and hand printed SUV, two sales reps hunch together engrossed by a video playing on one of the reps smart phones. After wandering through the showroom and opening and closing doors and latches on four of the five vehicles, the taller of the two sales reps calls out, “I’ll be with you in a minute or two.”Ten minutes later, having spent a dollar and a quarter for a lukewarm god-awful cup of coffee, I’m still waiting to be approached. Sound familiar?Like many other companies, this brand and dealership’s business plans, mission plan, or value statement more than likely states the importance off putting the customer at the center of their organization. But therein lies the conundrum.As my friend Andrew Stein pointed out in a recent article Tip for 2013 – Become a Market-driving Company, most companies, like this particular dealership, are happy being driven by the market. And while their strategic intent and customer-based initiatives are generally useful and occasionally profitable, most companies never rise beyond the level of market-follower and in the long run are doomed to failure.Are You a Market Follower? Or a Market Driver?Whether you call it market-driven or market-follower, the semantics are not that important because the immutable law of business is that revenues can only come from customers. So, it goes without saying, customers are always “king.” But let’s say that a company is doing an excellent job and customers are delighted, does this mean that a company sailing on smooth water?No. Just as the tides rise, they also fall. According to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association of Canada (JAMA), 2012 was a particularly strong year for automobile sales and as any CMO, CEO, or lowly sales associate knows a strong market place demand often masks a company’s weaknesses. So while the two auto sales reps might be able to hide their lack of sales ability or interest behind strong consumer demand, when demand weakens, the absence of a meaningful competitive strategy will be apparent to not only consumers but competitors who are trying to grow at this dealerships expense.Of course, paying exclusive attention to customers, as a basis for a company’s future is not sufficient to build profits and may even be perilous. As Andrew Stein points out in his article -“The sales-centric approach is transactional and therefore is not a catalyst for deep customer engagement for sustainable innovation. When customers tire of what they purchased last quarter, and the sales team has moved on to close this quarter’s deals, where will they go for innovation and engagement? Marketing orientation (engagement, innovation, value delivery, and so on) is sustainable and drives sales. A transaction-focused sales orientation is not sustainable, and will fail in the long run.”So, if focusing on customers is not the answer to building a growing and sustainable business, what is?Sales Orientation vs Market OrientationWhile some like Andrew might suggest that replacing the sales orientated focus with a market orientated focus as a step in the right direction, and he’s right, only if you view marketing not in its traditional role as a promotional tool but as Andrew states as strategy. And I think that the keyword there is strategy.As helpful as the orientation of strategy is, overall competitiveness requires that a company recognize that a customer focus is not enough to secure sustainability and growth. Rather, companies need to incorporating a competitive context into what they do, including targeting competitors – the right competitors – to create a competitive advantage.Who’s Your Competitor?Competitor targeting does not diminish the importance of customers, but suggests that a company needs to understand the competition, especially as perceived by the customers it values most and use this and other competitive knowledge to change aspects of its technology, processes, and human resource skills to win in the market place.Think of it this way, just a decade ago, competitors tend to be large and slow-moving so that analyzing them and predicting their next moves could be done without much difficulty. In most markets it was possible to know and understand each major competitor quite completely. This was true for not only large companies but for smaller firms with local and regional markets.Today’s challenge is that competitors are often smaller, faster and flexible, and even large companies are often highly mobile, competing in with new tools and techniques and in new markets. And of course, new competitors emerge while old ones disappear and customers and suppliers become new competitors, while historic competitors become customers and suppliers.It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World!In short, business has evolved in the last decade to become increasingly complex, making it hard to identify, understand and assess competitors quickly enough to make a competitive difference. Although understanding and beating competitors is now more challenging than ever because of the sheer numbers involved and the speed in which they move, it remains possible – in fact – essential to identify who to beat and how.So, a customer focus is not enough because in many ways customers and competitors are two sides of the same coin. The challenge that every business faces is to identify, attract and retain valuable customers and to do so more effectively, efficiently and collaboratively than competitors. The problem that many businesses face is that few companies have established a competitive context either their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or broader business strategies and as such are doomed to reacting to what they feel the market tells them to do.Of course, one might answer that by being close to your customer, even to the point of being embedded is one way to beat competitors. Perhaps. But what if other companies maybe even ones that have a broader range of products and services, more responsive customer service, or more favorable terms or margins want your most valuable customers? Would they get them?More generally, the question arises, “how does a company gain and sustain competitive advantage in these times of rapidly changing competitive landscape?” If a company is to beat the competition, which specific competitors are to be beaten? Over the next several weeks, I intend to explore these and other questions and in the end, find out what it means and how transform a company from a market-follower to a market-leader, as Andrew says, “arriving at the future first and drive(ing) the market where leadership wisdom can take it.