The essentials of business: it’s not about the numbers

What are the essential ingredients of a business? No doubt a dozen of us would have a dozen different lists, but I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest four:

  • The product or service;
  • The customers, whether corporate or individual;
  • The staff who help connect the two, whether it’s the owner alone or a whole army; whether it’s done face to face, or via a computer;
  • The ‘place’ where customers and product are connected, whether virtually on the Internet, or physically in a shop, office, factory, trade fair or roadside stall.

Of course businesses are complex and varied, and our lists may differ. But two of the fundamentals on any list will comprise people: those who work inside the organisation and the customers for whom the organisation exists. And, since our product, either in its finished form or as raw materials, is likely to come from a supplier, there is a third group of people to consider.

While cash flow and capital may be the source of constant worry, it is people who create the greatest chaos in any business — which is why it is so important to take them seriously.

We often take refuge in numbers because they are much more predictable than people; they can also be manipulated more easily (and they don’t talk back). People are anything from annoying to infuriating. You think you have them pinned down, and suddenly, they change their minds. You almost have an agreement, and then, on a whim, they are off. But we make a terrible mistake if we think we can reduce a business to numbers alone, or that we can afford to spend less time understanding people than we do understanding the numbers.

The problem with people is that we are not driven by logic; we are driven by emotions. We read up all the specs, of course (especially us men), but then we buy what appeals to us (yes, men included). Henry Ford could say, ‘Any colour, as long as it’s black.’ But his customers hadn’t yet discovered their voice or the world of choice we take for granted today. If you want your customers to get enthusiastic about your product or service today, treat them with the same enthusiasm.

And employees? Surely they can leave their emotions behind and get on with the job? No they can’t; not if you want them to bring their enthusiasm, energy and creativity to work. If you want them to go beyond their job descriptions, you have to engage their emotions, not just their brains. If you want them to treat your customers with care and enthusiasm, treat them the same way. Be as enthusiastic about their achievements (on and off the job) as you want them to be about your product and your business.

The most successful of business leaders tell us again and again that if you focus on the people and their needs (both staff and customers) the numbers will take care of themselves. Why is it, then, that so many business leaders, the higher they climb, seem to think less about people and more about mere numbers? Are we lazy, or is the chaos people bring with them just too much for us?

[I discovered today (30 Feb 2016) that the nane of the lady in the picture is Doris. I stopped there today when I saw a woman in the same spot. I showed her the picture on my phone. I ask if it was her. She laughed and said, ‘No, that’s Doris.’]

Any thoughts?

Picture © Ian Webster 2011
The lady in the picture walks for nearly two hours each day from her home in the valley behind her up to her spot on the Drummond road, route of the famous Comrades Marathon

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.


  1. Justine de Winnaar on 30 January 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Truer words have never been spoken, if only all companies would realise this!! Ian for president 😉

Have your say; join the discussion ....