October 2014 was not the best day to be a shareholder of two of the world’s retail giants. Tesco continued their unfortunate journey from world domination to public implosion. The company who convinced the UK and beyond that ‘every little helps’ are going to need all the help they can get to fight through their greatest ever crisis. Whilst the plight of Tesco was very visibly reported in the UK, the performance of an even bigger retail juggernaut was less so. On the day that the BBC reported Tesco shares ‘plunging’ by more than 8%, Amazon shares ‘plunged’ by 10%. All is not rosy in the supersize retail world it seems.
As someone who spends every working day influencing organisations to focus on people (customers and employees), I am always intrigued that the reporting of business performance seems to spend more time empathising with shareholders than it does with customers and employees. Do not get me wrong – I obviously recognise that the financial performance of any business will determine its very existence – declining financial performance is big news, especially if the decline is significant. However I think it is important to focus less on the effect on shareholders and more on what is behind the decline in the first place.
Too many businesses worry about Shareholders first, automatically placing concerns for customers and employees lower down the list of priorities. Businesses cannot operate without shareholders and investors – that is true – yet I believe that it is vital for companies to focus on getting things right for customers and employees first so that in turn, shareholders will benefit from the improving financial performance of the business. This is a subtle but very significant reversal of what we see reported in the business pages on a regular basis.
Although both Tesco and Amazon saw their declining financial performance very clearly displayed in the car headlights yesterday, the reasons behind the declines are very very different – in my opinion, the reasons highlight brilliant why their business models/cultures have been so very very different over the last few years.
I wrote about the ‘Bursting of the Tesco bubble’ in July 2014. In my blog post I argued that whilst they publicly claimed that ‘no-one tries harder for their customers’, the reality is that they were trying too hard to please their shareholders. Their obsession with growth led them to taking their eye off the ball of why they really exist and what their customers want. They are now in a situation where the behaviour has led to an almost complete erosion of trust with the very consumer that they believed they were working so hard to please. Perhaps the greatest challenge now facing the new CEO, Dave Lewis, is to be able to stand up to shareholders and allow them to understand why the needs of customers and colleagues must be put back ahead of their own.
Let us look at the contrast with Amazon. A company that has famously been focussed more on growth than profit, there are many similarities with the trajectory that Tesco have taken over the last few years. Still led by their founder, Jeff Bezos, unlike Tesco their entire business model is based on meeting and exceeding customer expectations. Shareholders need to be in it for the long term. Yesterday the BBC reported the following:
Investors have long been wondering when Amazon will turn its significant revenues into profits for shareholders. Amazon has been spending heavily in various new initiatives, including its Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service in the US, and its $1bn acquisition of video game streaming site Twitch.That has hurt profits at the firm, with operating expenses growing to $21.1bn, compared with the $17.1bn last year. Investors have been tolerant of Amazon’s policy of reinvesting profits back into the firm. But patience has been wearing thin in recent months. Shares in the firm have fallen nearly 20% since the beginning of this year.
Unhappy, restless shareholders whose patience is wearing thin. The response of many large corporations would be to immediately address their concerns and do whatever it takes to deliver them a return in the short term. That may be the response from many, but not from Amazon and Mr Bezos. Rather than pandering to shareholders, Jeff Bezos’s public statement when talking about their financial performance was as follows:
“As we get ready for this upcoming holiday season, we are focused on making the customer experience easier and more stress-free than ever,”
This is why Customer Experience Professionals love Jeff Bezos!! Amazon is about long term relationships – with customers, employees and shareholders. The returns will come in time. In order to sustain and grow a business, Mr Bezos understands that it MUST be done so by delivering a stress free experience that just keeps getting better and better. It is not difficult to understand. Of course the investors and shareholders deserve to receive a healthy return on their investment – I am completely confident that will come (as I am sure Mr Bezos is) – they just need to be patient and recognise that continually focussing on improving the customer experience will secure both the returns and the sustainability of the business for a very long time.
As the dust settles, I am sure that Jeff Bezos is a far more relaxed business leader than Dave Lewis. Businesses need shareholders, but they need customers more. If both organisations can influence their investors to recognise that greater returns come from consistently getting better at giving customers what they want and need, the media will very soon be reporting a very different story.