Apr 22, 2020 11:04:44 AM
Now more than ever, we might need to reconsider how we want to live together - more specifically, what the end-goals (1) of our methods of cooperation ought to be. Let’s take business as one example of a way people can cooperate. Is the end-goal of business still to make a profit?
In my opinion, over the past decade, we have begun to see a shift in thinking about what the end goal of a business ought to be. I have noticed this pattern in interviews with thought leaders in business and the most successful CEOs of our time. When asked “What is a business?” Elon Musk for example answered in an interview:
"I don't know what a business is. All a company is is a bunch of people together to create a product or service. There’s no such thing as a business, just pursuit of a goal — a group of people pursuing a goal.”
This sounds very different from dictionary entries, like for example the Longman Dictionary definition of a business:
“the activity of making money by producing or buying and selling goods, or providing services”
I would add a couple points to Elon Musk’s definition to make it less mysterious. Firstly, it is also about offering a product or service of course (otherwise what’s the point of creating it?). And also, if I were to put some words in Elon Musk's mouth, I would add to this definition that it must be a product that solves a relevant problem.
In Elon Musk’s case, the relevant problem is, of course, achieving sustainable transport by bringing electric cars into the mass market. Solving this problem is so vital for Musk that he even stated in an interview that he would not mind if Tesla goes bankrupt if the problem was solved by a competitor. He goes so far as to offer all Tesla patents to the public. The philosophy behind such actions is that achieving the end-goal is more important than the company itself. Therefore, Tesla embraces competition in its pursuit of solving a relevant problem: the current absence of sustainable transport.
Musk’s definition (modified): A company is a group of people who create and offer a product or service. These people pursue a common goal that solves a relevant problem.
You can see by his definition of what a business is and by his actions that making a profit is not the end goal in Elon Musk’s world. And if the end-goal of business is solving a relevant problem, by definition you will be helping people. In the end, it's about being of service to others (2).
Another example would be Jeff Bezos. He discussed in an interview how he founded Amazon with an end goal in mind. In his opinion, this end goal is what enabled him to gather people around him that bought into the same vision and passionately pursued it. Moreover, he emphasised that for him this end-goal was and is much more important than anything else. So what was this end goal that inspired such passion, and enabled at the same time to create the most profitable company of our time?
Amazon’s mission statement is to be the most customer centric company in the world (3). In the interview he emphasized his end goal is to raise the standard of what it means to be customer centric. He did not say it directly in the interview, but he must have identified poor customer service to be a common problem 20 years ago (4). His passion came from wanting to solve this problem. I think that being customer centric and being of service to your customers are roughly the same thing. So Amazon’s end goal is also in that sense being of service.
Both examples follow the same pattern:
In short, the primary end goal both these businesses set out to achieve was to serve other people - not to make a profit.
If service is the end goal of business, how good are we at serving and prioritising service in our daily lives? When salespeople talk to prospects, is the goal to listen to and find out if they can help, or to hit sales numbers? When a marketing team designs a campaign, is the goal to guide people to purchase the right product for them, or to simply sell more products? When a manager designs a project plan, is the goal to help colleagues develop their skills, or just to “get the project done”?
I’d say it’s easy to get caught up in your own goals, but serving others is more beneficial for everyone - including yourself. Looking at the greatest sales people, they are often the best listeners and have a passion for solving the prospect’s problem. Looking at the best marketing campaigns, they offer the right information so the potential client can make the right decision. Looking at the most inspiring managers, they build a followership of people they’ve helped develop.
So, as you can see, expanding your goals beyond your short-term business needs is not only the more empathetic and selfless choice, but also a recipe for long-term success.
Let’s zoom in on a specific business example; if service is the end goal, how good are we at prioritising our service departments and giving them the attention they deserve? In my experience, the typical position of a service department in a company’s hierarchy is at the bottom of the food chain. They get the lowest budget, fewest developer resources, and oldest, most out-of-date tools.
For example, I work in sales, offering a tool to help make the service department’s life a bit easier. But when I am in conversation with service department leads, they often tell me that C-level approval for even the smallest tool upgrade is very difficult to get. Is this fair in contrast to the Marketing and Sales budgets?
I’ve recently sat in with a service agent from one of our customers and was allowed to shadow her daily work. The speed with which the agent had to act - answering one call after another, answering emails in between, entering information into the CRM and ticketing system - was impressive. In addition, she always stayed calm and friendly with the customers - even though many times the customers had made a mistake themselves. To be honest, I highly doubt that workers of other departments handle so much workload that quickly and with that level of attention. And let’s not even get into a discussion of whether the typical business person stays calm and friendly when confronted with such conflict.
In short, customer service teams deserve praise within companies - and they certainly don’t deserve being anywhere near the bottom of the food chain.
We are experiencing a shift in our understanding of what a business is, and of what its end goal ought to be. My argument is that successful companies have a mindset with the purpose of serving other people, and that more and more companies will pick up on this. But we don’t have to wait for companies to make the first move - as we’ve seen above, the same applies to individual people. I encourage each person to do their part - think about your prospects, customers, and colleagues. Give recognition to your customer service department. And, above all, have a mentality where service comes first.
(1) “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” This is the beginning of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (translation by W. D. Ross). Since I studied it I think regularly about the relation between goals and the end goal.
The Nicomachean Ethics in general is about the questions what does it mean to be good? What is the good? (Interestingly, it’s not only meant in a moral sense according to Aristotle.) What is the end goal of everything?
(2) I differentiated between “solving a relevant problem” and “being of service to others” as I think “solving a relevant problem” is the language Elon Musk would use. I have not heard him say “being of service” is the end goal of business. My argument is that “solving a relevant problem” automatically aims at “being of service to others”.
(3) We all know that, along the way, he might have forgotten to be employee-centric as there have unfortunately been countless reports about working conditions for Amazon’s employees.
(4) I don’t have data supporting this point, but my feeling is that companies were way less customer centric 20 years ago. You can like Amazon or not, but the experience of receiving Amazon’s service is pretty effortless in my experience.
Jonas is the SDR team lead at Solvemate. He enjoys working in sales because he loves a good challenge. He also loves working with the smart people of a tech-startup like Solvemate. Overcoming his problems with learning during his childhood, and later excelling at university, Jonas believes anything is possible with the right mindset and strategy.