Blog Post

Repeat after me: business is always about the customer

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

One of my core beliefs is that if you are in business, it is always about the customer. You need to know your customer and you figure out ways to make them happy. Make them happy and they will spend money (or attention) and everything else – fame and fortune to be precise – will follow. It is a simple business maxim that has worked for centuries. I was reminded of that when I read Greg Smith’s confession about why he was leaving Goldman Sachs in the New York Times

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long.

Simple as that message is, it is something of a forgotten lesson in modern times. Companies big and small keep confusing who they serve and why they are in business. In the recent past, I have become critical of Google (s GOOG) for I believe the company is doing unnatural things that don’t serve their customers. In a recent conversation with Outlook India magazine, I pointed out that:

I believe that companies have a DNA and you have to be true to your DNA. Google is one of those companies whose DNA is to help you find information. In doing all these social and privacy changes, they are doing unnatural things. I don’t think their Google Plus enhanced search is a good thing. It’s actually terrible.

The whole concept of best search engine has been thrown out of the window because Google is trying to fit itself into this vision of a social networking-enabled company and is chasing Facebook. It has forgotten its core values and their privacy decision is also part of that whole failing to understand their core values. I think this is where they are going wrong. It is like people not paying attention to customers. Their customers are now advertisers and not us people. That’s the difference between the Google when it started and the Google today. Their priority list is completely different.

I was reminded of that when I read this letter from James Whittaker, who by the way is a Microsoft-ie going back to Microsoft (s MSFT) after finding utopia at Google — only to realize it was a mirage.

The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus…Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

And these have done nothing to improve the core search experience. Paul Graham, the co-founder of YCombinator put it best when he said:

Google search results used to look like the output of a Unix utility. Now if I accidentally put the cursor in the wrong place, anything might happen.

As I wrote earlier, Google’s problem is with me-too-ism. I was reminded of that when I read this quote from Sir Jonathan Ive, the Apple (s AAPL) design boss, who recently told This Is London:

That’s quite unusual, most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.

The message is exactly the same – you need to know your customer. Period. Or as outgoing Goldman Sachs (s GS) banker Greg Smith says

Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist.

17 Responses to “Repeat after me: business is always about the customer”

  1. palmon350

    Google; Out-of-Touch or Evolution? The survivors of the future will not be the strongest, or the largest… simply those who can adapt to rapid change.

    The Google model; gather the masses -under the cloak of convenient search, collect their data… Market the collection. I cannot see that this model has changed.

    We can certainly challenge the effectiveness of the ‘tools of evolution’ that have developed in their quest to gather the masses -under the cloak of convenient search.

  2. Great post. This is a keen observation and one helps to explain the ever growing list of failed Google products (the Google graveyard, in case you haven’t seen it: But I attribute this less to the fact that Google is neglecting its essential DNA as a search utility (since Google has created some amazing products outside of the periphery of search e.g. Android, Analytics, Chrome) and more to Google’s dogmatic culture and the hiring practices that have resulted. I assert that it’s by pursuing the hyper-technical, hyper-talent that they do they have detached themselves from the practical world of regular human experience, and their culture upholds this dogmatically. I explored this idea in detail here:

  3. Steve K

    Kind of boils down to my personal mantra: “What are we really trying to do here?”. I find that reducing an activity to it’s essential purpose clarifies how to get there. While avoiding what Bruce Lee called the “fancy mess” or “organized despair”. A great deal of Tao of Jeet Kune Do should be essential reading for business people. Lee wrote of people who endlessly practice rote movements that “instead of being ‘in’ combat, in it’s suchness, they are ‘doing something about’ combat”. Substitute a business endeavor for ‘combat’ and you have most current enterprises.

  4. Apple’s customers are the 1 percent, so Steve Jobs doesn’t care about the 99 percent: “the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway.”

  5. I’ve always thought that Apple is so successful because they put the customer’s experience first, and their competition is much less successful because they put their own business concerns first. Apple’s competition apparently forgets that the customer pays the salary of every person in the company.

  6. Well said. This is true. There is somethings called principle which one should stand for. I am seeing that loosing now a days even in organizations. Eveyone thinks of their current job & their company share value for short term. In long term it will hit hardly.

  7. Sorry, but I think this article is daft. Google IS focusing on what makes their customers happy – the author simply fails to understand who their customers are. They are not you and I. They are, and always have been, advertisers. More information about you makes advertisers MUCH happier – they deliver more targeted ads meaning better click-through rates, better exposure to people who will actually buy your products, etc. Google’s only interest in you is in giving you just enough to keep you coming back – and entering your search terms and your “+1″s and your checkout and browsing habits. Get with the program.

    • Steve

      Having watched the company for the longest time, I can say that the shift from their original customer – aka the seeker – to the advertiser is the primary reason we have seen the slow degradation in Google’s approach.

      For the longest time they figured out a way to balance those two needs in a way that both parties were satisfied. However, lately the balance of power has tilted completely in favor of corporate needs of being social and being advertising centric.

      So when you say, “Google’s only interest in you is in giving you just enough to keep you coming back – and entering your search terms and your “+1″s” it is clear, who it is intended for.

      Eventually that kind of behavior is what prompts people to look elsewhere. Not today, but soon enough.

  8. Matt Eagar

    Actually, I think this misses the point: Google’s *real* customer (the one that pays them money) is not the person entering search queries. It is the business placing search ads. From that perspective, they are even further away from taking care of their customers. Witness the large numbers of consultancies and online marketing firms that exist solely to help businesses figure out how to get the most out of paid search and SEO. If Google were taking care of these folks, I don’t think they’d have to worry so much about Facebook.

    Part of the problem is that Google has *two* customers. The consumer – who usually pays them nothing – and the businesses that use them to serve ads to those consumers. Just as it is hard to run a business when there are two CEOs, it’s hard to run a business when there are two separate customers with different needs and desires.

    • Agreed in part – but Google’s big customers aren’t the ones that need help with SEO – they are the ones who buy data in bulk from Google about consumer trends, and have multi-million-dollar marketing and advertisement budgets.

      You say they “wouldn’t have to worry as much about Facebook”… But maybe you’re missing the point of Facebook – its a system people voluntarily enter boat-loads of information into about their personal preferences and such. This is where Google’s real money is. They want control over that information – and Facebook was taking so much of the valuable information that Google had to try and step up to compete.

  9. Graham Neray

    Decent points, but I feel like you guys should stop quoting yourselves so much, no? You guys usually write great stuff, but I’ve been seeing an awful lot of that recently.

  10. I believe there is another thing one has to consider, in the past we had the concept of good enough software:

    Don’t worry, be crappy. Revolutionary means you ship and then test… Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap – but it was a revolutionary piece of crap.
    Guy Kawasaki

    Google seems to follow that concept, Android ICS on Verizon Galaxy Nexus:
    Camera hangs phone
    Draft emails maybe lost after a “few” edits, no not moved to trash, lost.
    Google Docs hangs on splash screen after update with disappearing keyboard, after correct logon
    Navigation reboots the phone when screen turned off to just get voice
    My Music crashes on deletion of playlist

    and so on. The problem is today we have a different Information density, something Google should know a thing or two about, means word gets around and can not be controlled like MS did with a few publications at its high time.

    • Good points thought I think we are focusing on two different problems. You are focusing on their “agile” development and roll out strategy, while I am saying they are just focusing on the wrong market without a serious thought about their end customers – folks like you, me and mom.

      • (Google’s) End customers are different from customers. Customers pay, end customers don’t pay directly. End customers are mere data points – sheep grazing in the Google empire. Google sure sings the tune of their (paying) customers, and nothing morally wrong with that. Perhaps it is not a good strategy, but arguably, they are still in their right to do so.

        Goldman Sachs is a completely different story altogether.