Customers are the only group more crucial to a company’s success than management and employees since they are the source of its revenue. Ironically, if a company places customers’ interests before shareholders, it may be a better long-term investment. If feasible, it’s a good idea to try being a customer. Say you’re considering investing in an airline that has reined in costs, beat earnings estimates in three consecutive quarters, and plans to buy back shares. When you try to actually use the airline, however, you find the website bug-ridden, the customer service representatives cranky, the extra fees petty, and your fellow passengers resentful. The negative experience tells you that the company has a lack of priority for its customers and to be careful making an investment in the airline.
A company’s business model and competitive advantage are vital components of qualitative analysis. What gives the firm an enduring leg up over its rivals? Has it invented a new technology that competitors will find hard to replicate, or that has intellectual property protection? Does it have a unique approach to solving a problem for its customers? Is its brand globally recognized—in a good way? Does its product have cultural resonance or an element of nostalgia? Will there still be a market for it in twenty years? If you can plausibly imagine another company stepping in and doing what this one does just a little bit better, then the barrier to entry may be too low. Why will an un-established company be the one to create or disrupt its chosen market, and why won’t it then be replaced in turn?