A fairly popular quote about the nature of what a customer is has been making the rounds in the customer service world for years. The quote, in it’s more common form, reads like this:
“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so.”
This quote has been popularly attributed to Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi in blog posts, posters and pictures.
Of course, the general nature of the quote seems to fit Gandhi’s inclusive philosophy that emphasized duty to others.
The catch, however, there seems to be no real evidence that Gandhi ever said this.
According to Quote Investigator, the earliest version of the concept in the quote above they could find was from 1941 in “Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers”. The magazine published an interview with Kenneth B. Elliott, Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation (a now-defunct automobile company). His quote was as follows:
“It is, of course, not possible to state with any practical exactitude what the customer is. But there are several common denominators to be found when we consider the customer in terms of what he is not. These things, I think, are fundamental to intelligent customer relationship and, it may be added, most of them apply pretty well to the vast majority of prospects as well.
1. The customer is not dependent upon us—we are dependent upon him.
2. The customer is not an interruption of our work—he is the purpose of it.
3. The customer is not a rank outsider to our business—he is a part of it.
4. The customer is not a statistic—he is a flesh-and-blood human being completely equipped with biases, prejudices, emotions, pulse, blood chemistry and possibly a deficiency of certain vitamins.
5. The customer is not someone to argue with or match wits against—he is a person who brings us his wants. If we have sufficient imagination we will endeavor to handle them profitably to him and to ourselves.”
Alternatively, others have been given credit for various forms of the quote as well — including L.L. Bean.
While I believe it is important to attribute quotes correctly (and it is no easy task in today’s rapid reproduction Internet), it is also important not to lose site of the wisdom of the quote itself. Elliott’s quote above contains great principles that answer the question what is a customer, and help guide our teams to greater levels of service.
So, now you have the correct quote, use it well.
What is a customer to you?
By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.