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When Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba broke records with its September IPO, CEO Jack Ma joined the ranks of the world’s most-watched business leaders. At the heart of Ma’s success? A deep appreciation for the role of customers in steering a business.

Here are 3 key lessons other companies can learn from Ma’s customers-first philosophy:

1. Think like your customers.

On the day of the mega-IPO, Ma invited 8 customers to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. That’s just one example of how Ma infuses a customer-first attitude into his company.

While many Silicon Valley innovators emphasize technology and product above everything, the same is not true for Ma. “I’m not a tech guy,” he once said. “I’m looking at technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people’s eyes.”

In fact, putting customers first has driven Alibaba’s phenomenal success so far. Over the years, it has developed a deep understanding of the Chinese market, including nuances in tone, approach and product variety. It has made it easy for small businesses to set up on the site and has built an infrastructure to make it easy for buyers to search for and purchase items in its marketplace. The company’s customer-oriented design attracts both sellers and buyers to the Alibaba’s e-commerce sites.

2. Treat your customers like a crystal ball.

Wall Street is usually concerned about the next quarter, but Ma is focused on having a long-term vision for Alibaba. At the SoftBank World 2014 event last July, Ma shared his plans to make sure Alibaba survives for at least 102 years. As TechInAsia noted, doing so requires the company “not be distracted by temporary ups and downs in the economy.”

So how is Ma planning on achieving that? “I’m not listening to investors,” he reveals in his speech. “I’m watching customers.”  

In his talk, Ma shared his prediction about the rise of customer-to-business (C2B) corporate strategies. While business models have traditionally created with the assumption that a business will sell to other businesses (B2B) or to customers (B2C), Ma thinks customers will soon completely dictate to businesses what their needs are. Trends suggest Ma’s prediction is on target: the companies that thrive today are those that accommodate the needs of the empowered customer. Business leaders that want to stay ahead of the game should follow Ma’s lead and get closer to their customers to better predict the future of business.

3. Create value for your customers.

“Your business model, it should create value and be good to society,” Mah has said. “If it hurts the environment, it’s not good for society, so just don’t do it.” He adds that businesses should focus “on their beliefs and hopes—the reasons they got into business and the way they satisfy their customers—rather than focusing on profits and margins.”

Ma recognizes that customers aren’t just customers—they are members of society with a stake in environmental and social outcomes, as well as product prices. Looking at customers through this wider lens isn’t a sacrifice: it’s smart business, because customers now choose brands that exhibit the values that align with theirs. Sharing what you stand for—as Ma has done numerous times—makes Alibaba more appealing to values-driven customers.

Whether Alibaba’s momentum will continue after the initial excitement for its IPO remains to be seen. But with Ma’s customer-centric approach, combined with his entrepreneurship and foresight, it’s a good bet that Alibaba is on its way to greatness. For marketers and business leaders, Alibaba’s story is a source of inspiration on how to survive the customer revolution and how to thrive in the decades ahead.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was the former Content Marketing Manager and was responsible for Vision Critical's blog and social media marketing program. Before joining Vision Critical's global marketing team, Kelvin worked at Dunn PR, a Vancouver-based public relations firm. His experience includes working with lifestyle, real estate, and non-profit clients to develop social media marketing and PR strategies. Kelvin has a Bachelor of Business Administration from SFU's Beedie School of Business.
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