Smaller supplier-larger customer relationships: an exploration of asymmetry

  • Rhona Elizabeth Johnsen

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Recent research indicates a growing interest in understanding the nature of asymmetry in relationships between large and small firms. Research to date has suggested that asymmetry is often associated with an imbalance in size of the parties, unequal distribution of power, or with one party investing more into and gaining less from a relationship. However, there is a paucity of research on asymmetry in relationships from the smaller firm's perspective and it is as yet unclear what asymmetry in relationships means for smaller firms. In particular, the experiences of smaller suppliers in relationships with larger customers have often been overlooked, and thus there is less known about how smaller suppliers cope and manage in relationships with customers, where they may contribute more but have fewer evident advantages.

A typology of asymmetry and symmetry in relationship characteristics and a subsequent conceptual framework are derived from a literature review and exploratory interviews. These provide a structure to explore asymmetry in relationships between smaller suppliers and larger customers, and to examine the influence of suppliers' capabilities on asymmetry in their relationships. The empirical data collection involved six exploratory interviews and eight in-depth case studies of suppliers in the UK textile industry. In total, the interviews for the study amounted to 48.

The findings from the study provide early indications that it may be problematic to refer to customer-supplier relationships as purely asymmetrical or symmetrical, as asymmetry and symmetry may be apparent across a wide range of relationship characteristics. Furthermore, the findings suggest that smaller suppliers in relationships with larger customers cannot be assumed to have high levels of asymmetry in their relationships, or possess limited capabilities to effect change in their relationships. The findings revealed some of the potentially destructive outcomes of asymmetry in relationships, but also identified that the bridging capabilities of leading, learning and integrating appear to have a significant influence on the development of more symmetry in relationships for suppliers when asymmetry is problematic. Furthermore, the thesis provides indications that different types of asymmetry may exist, and that these different types may offer possibilities to identify and distinguish between different customer relationship options and opportunities for suppliers.

Date of Award13 Jul 2005
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorDavid Ford (Supervisor)

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