Words have such great power, singly and when strung together as phrases or sentences. Whether in the arts, business and most certainly politics they are powerful weapons to excite, inspire and motivate. While most gain their power from the context of their use—as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream" or Komatsu’s “Beat Caterpillar", others can move people and nations merely through cadence or repetition—as Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu or Jesse Jackson in the US have demonstrated. Words, however common, can just as easily demoralize and depress as any teenager can attest. However, even the most powerful words can lose their potency when overused.

Customer Intimacy, Fred Wiersema, Knowledge Exchange, 1996

It is far more revealing to look at words that are avoided or rarely used in the business context. Words such as happiness, intimacy and love. At first glance these not only appear inappropriate—words we usually associate with the personal sphere rather than professional workplace. Yet, we do use some of them in a business context as long as they are about other people or things—such as happy customers or loving a product. The word intimate particularly seems to be taboo (from the Tongan tabu) in the business context.  Most dictionaries define intimate as “closely acquainted; familiar, close as in: intimate friends" or “having or creating an informal friendly atmosphere as in: an intimate little Italian restaurant". The word is all too often perceived as yet another euphemism, for hanky-panky in the office such as when you say two people are intimate.

Yet, this is the word Fred Wiersema, consultant and management strategist, uses for the title of his book Customer Intimacy. In the hoary tradition of other business researchers Wiersema sets out to find out how companies become market leaders and more importantly, why only some are able to retain their market leadership. His research resulted in an earlier book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, co-authored with Michael Treacy. The heart of their findings was that market leaders use one of three strategies—or value disciplines—to choose their customers and narrow their focus to dominate their markets. These three strategies were “product leadership" as Intel and more recently Google have employed, “operational excellence" as Dell, Wal-Mart or Big Bazaar have pursued or “customer intimacy" as Home Depot, Nordstrom or Staples have done.

Customer Intimacy is a follow-on book that dives deeper into this value discipline. Unlike product leadership, particularly well suited for high complexity technology businesses and operational excellence with its key focus on cost leadership, customer intimacy is a value discipline well suited for a wide variety of service and commodity product businesses. Equally applicable to the neighbourhood kirana (grocery) or barber shop and to a national chain of quick service restaurants, customer intimacy is not any easier than the other two strategies.

Nor does it stand alone to the exclusion of the other values, but requires threshold standards for product and operational dimensions.

Customer intimacy is a lot of hard work—hence his choice of the word “discipline"—a wonderfully loaded term, which along with threshold, has deep roots in our school-going days. Certainly worth getting reacquainted with.

K Srikrishna is the executive director of the National Entrepreneurship Network. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers face and books that could help.

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