How to Align Business and Customer Interests for Long-Term Success

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It may be hard to hear for young entrepreneurs and small businesses with ambitious plans to scale, but not everyone is your customer. Differentiation starts with finding your expertise and your market, and then driving home the value you offer. In this sense, standing out is a matter of bringing more of your authentic self and your company to the table — not less in a bid to be all things to all people.

The danger of the latter approach is getting lost in the crowd. The moment a company’s product or service is benchmarked by the market, it has already become a commodity, which means you can only compete on price.

Even established companies need to know when to pivot if their expertise is no longer aligned with their customers. Adobe shifted from a very successful business model providing its suite of graphic-design apps to a subscription-based model. It was part of a broader strategy to adjust to emerging customer behavior patterns in a cloud-based environment. After a torrent of early criticism, the subsequent numbers are impressive: Adobe posted record revenue of $19.41 billion in the 2023 financial year and now has over 33 million subscribers.

While Adobe’s move may have originally been seen as risky, identifying the right customer for your business or remaining agile enough to move with customer preferences is the best way to build and maintain a sustainable business model.

Related: You Can’t Be Everything for Everybody, So Stop Trying

Know your expertise to deliver value

Fake it til you make it is poor advice to new business leaders. Self-awareness is needed to understand your unique value proposition and align it with what the customer actually needs. This allows you to then focus on maximizing that value. Promising expertise you are yet to possess usually happens when entrepreneurs are chasing the wrong customer — but the right customer need not be elusive.

Remember, it is one thing to invest resources in reaching out to customers who can afford your offering, but another to make sure they will actually pay for it. While that ought to be obvious, the next part is critical. Those same customers must see value in your product or service. The notion of value can be subjective, but that is exactly the point: The right customer is one who values what you can provide because you have differentiated it from the competition and met a tangible need or desire.

Compare that to the temptation to chase big-name accounts in B2B marketing — it can become blinding. Of course, it is still true that we must appeal to customers’ needs, arguably more than ever in a world that expects speed and convenience. But as CEO, when I visit a customer, I try to understand how we are going to align our interests to deliver value to them and gain benefit for ourselves. Aligning interests is a win-win for both parties.

How to invest in sustainability

When there is a natural affinity between what a business provides and what the customer needs, there is no sacrifice — only mutual benefit. Having a clear understanding of your own expertise gives you the confidence to say, “I don’t know,” when asked to go beyond its limits. That can save you a lot of needless persuasion. A simple rule of thumb is if you have to chase or convince customers, they are probably not the customers for you.

Once you have aligned interests, reputation can become a business’s own form of marketing, and staying true to the core values and expertise that got you there is branding. Apple, for instance, is renowned for turning its customers into evangelists. The tech giant avoids aggressively pursuing customers by constantly adapting to their needs and in some cases, becoming self-disruptors. They have built an identity out of challenging the status quo.

So, don’t allow the unique part of your value proposition to get lost the moment potential sales figures are flashed around. Stick to what you do well, and trust it can be iterated or evolved once a solid foundation has been laid. Instead of telling customers what you think they want to hear, stay true to your authentic self and values in order to build credibility over the long haul.

Related: Not All Clients Are Good for Business. Here’s How to Find the Ones Who Are.

Align, refine, and double down

When Amazon launched its first Kindle back in 2007, it sold out within hours. Its genesis was Jeff Bezos identifying books as one of five product categories with the most ecommerce potential. The online retail giant opened its popular bookstore in 1995, so by the time it had developed an e-reader, it had already established an eager market.

The first Kindle was clunky-looking compared to the devices of the time but Amazon has never wavered from its primary purpose: to serve people who love reading. Now, the new-generation Kindles come with the X-ray feature, which allows readers to learn more about a character, topic, event, place or any other term. Other functions like vocabulary-building flashcards show how Amazon has kept innovating to create the best reader experience.

In other words, play to your strengths but don’t overplay your hand. The founder of the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, says the 50-year-old company has thrived for so long because it does not pursue endless growth and is aware of the expectations of its customer base to model corporate responsibility. “Building the best product while causing the least harm is at the heart of what we do,” he says.

Stop chasing, start building

Patagonia’s “conscious capitalism” is a great example of how to keep customer and business interests aligned for sustainability over the long term. It is not enough just to have a unique value proposition — you also have to be aligned with customer needs and expectations.

Instead of seeing this relationship as one of pursuing customers to drive endless growth, businesses need to take a more collaborative approach. When interests are truly aligned, there is both deep satisfaction and profitability in providing an offering that is authentically yours and genuinely needed.

Related: 6 Positive Changes That Come When You Start Showing Authenticity in Your Business

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