Repeat after me: business is always about the customer

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.