“Business needs vs. Customer needs” is a False Dichotomy

“We have to balance the customer’s needs with the business needs”.

How many times have you heard this while working in a software development team?

I’ve worked as a mobile developer at a number of large companies. In enterprise environments like these, typically the mobile app is “the storefront of the business”, and brings together a number of features paid for by other departments.

Often the initial requirements from the other department will come with a suggestion to make their feature more prominent in the app. For example, “add it to the top of the dashboard”, “just add a new tab for it” or “send a push notification to our users about it”.

This is understandable. The job of the people from the other department is firstly to improve the area of the business they are responsible for. Their job is not to work out how to nicely integrate their feature into the app so it plays nicely with every other feature. That’s the app team’s job.

When members of the app team point out that adding a new top-level tab or push-notification for every new feature requested by every department isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy, and will lead to a poor user experience, the protest that often comes back is something like:

Well, we have to remember to balance the customer’s needs with the business needs.

I was never comfortable with this statement. It’s taken me a while to think through exactly why this is. What I eventually concluded is that while it seems reasonable on the surface, buried in it is a wrong assumption.

It’s not that you should always prioritize the customer’s needs over business needs, or vice versa. Rather, the assumption underlying the statement – that these two things are at odds – is wrong. It’s a false dichotomy.

To believe that “balancing the user’s needs with business needs” makes sense, you need to be engaged in short-term thinking of one kind or another.

If you want your business to survive in the long term, there can be no distinction between the interests of your customer and those of your business.

Your business exists to serve a customer, in a sustainable way. In the final analysis (assuming a free market where your customers can leave), business needs and customer needs must be aligned. Promoting one at the expense of the other actually harms both.

In the long term, building a system that helps the business at the expense of your customers is actually harming both the business and your customers. (Spamming them with notifications in an attempt to boost engagement, for example).

Likewise, building a system that helps your customers at the expense of the business is actually harming both your customers and the business.

How does this second point make sense? I.e. how is that helping your customers at the expense of the business actually harms them?

Here’s how: presumably, your customers would rather your business continues to exist than not. For example, bribing customers with giveaways and subsidized prices isn’t sustainable. If you “spend 1 dollar to make 80 cents”, you will eventually go out of business.

When this happens, you will (at the very least) inconvenience your customers, leaving them bereft or forced against their wishes to switch to a competitor. Or if you offer something unique, you deprive them of that unique offering altogether.

Is it idealistic or wishful thinking to see the success of your customer and business as inextricably linked? Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, doesn’t seem to think so. The top 3 of his 4 pillars of Amazon’s success are:

  1. Customer Obsession
  2. Eagerness to Invent to Please the Customer
  3. Long-term Orientation

So next time you hear that the “needs of customer need to be balanced with the needs of the business” remember that to successful businesses, there is really no distinction.

Thanks to Xiao and Arun for their feedback and suggestions. Liked this article? Please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues with one of the buttons below.

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