It's Only Common Sense: Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba, Always Puts the Customer First


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Watching the Bloomberg Station last Friday, I caught Charlie Rose interviewing Alibaba's founder and Chairman Jack Ma. What Ma had to say was fascinating, not only for his wisdom, but for his common sense.

Ma stated the reason for the phenomenal success of his company was that the customer is always number one. He listed in order of importance: customers, employees, and shareholders. That's right, in terms of importance, Alibaba considers shareholders last.

When Charlie called him on that, asking if that had hurt him in terms of finding investors, Ma said that he did not care. He told this to his investors and potential investors from the very beginning and if they did not agree with this philosophy they should invest their money elsewhere. Since this company has grown to $550 billion in sales in 20 years, and is headed to a trillion dollars in sales by 2020, maybe Ma has the right idea.

Ma elaborated on his unique company vision by saying that it is always about the customer, that the number one mission of any company should be to make it as easy for the customer to do business with them. He said that his company will always do whatever it takes to make their customers happy by providing them with whatever they need to be successful. Right now, for example, they do not stock any inventory, but when Charlie asked him if they would in the future, Ma answered without hesitation that if his customers wanted inventory stocking, then Alibaba would provide it. And he then went on to say that the company’s job is to make their customers successful, that they are in the customer business and will do whatever they can to help their customers keep their customers happy.

Seems simple, enough doesn’t it? If you keep your customers happy, if you focus on helping your customers and do whatever you must do to make them successful, obviously you will be on the right track to success.

So why don't we do this? In our industry, there have been many key mergers where large companies playing Pacman with each other have created huge, non-customer-focused conglomerates—conglomerates that customers hate dealing with. The reason being that these companies are more focused on Wall Street than their customers. These companies are putting their shareholders first. They are more focused on getting Wall Street excited than their customers. And the employees? Well forget them, they are in last place by a long margin.

The problem with this kind of inorganic growth is that many small companies have been eaten up and their customer-focused visions blurred by the companies that buy them. These small companies lost their original cultures in these mergers. Many of us can name once-great smaller companies who we loved doing business with that have now been buried in the folds of a much larger Wall Street-driven conglomerate and that is a real shame.

I have no problem with large companies. There are many large companies who are customer- focused no matter how much they’ve grown and no matter how big they are. But they do it with culture. Everyone has the same vision and are all on the same mission. Referring once again to Ma, he said repeatedly during the interview with Charlie Rose that his company’s success was all about his company’s culture. From the beginning, when 18 people lived and worked out of one little apartment, to today when Alibaba employs thousands of people, they are all marching to the same drummer when it comes to the way they treat their customers.

And if a company with sales of over half a trillion dollars can do that, there is no reason why a five-million or ten-million or a hundred-million-dollar company can't do it as well.

If your company is not putting your customers first, if you are not bringing your customers to the table, if your employees don't know what your company's vision is when it comes to your customers, then get going and change that today. And by the way, look at your company leaders, your managers and, yes, yourself—if you are not completely customer-focused, you are not doing your job.

Develop your company's customer-focused mission today and make sure that you communicate it the rest of your team, and then communicate it again and again until everyone gets it and can repeat it as well. Do that, and I guarantee that you will have a successful company.

It's only common sense.

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