What Is a Customer? Did Gandhi Really Say?

October 25, 2012
What Is a Customer? Did Gandhi Really Say? Understanding the importance of customer service.

Many quotes about the importance of customer service can be found online. In fact, 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, is that there seems to be no real evidence Gandhi ever said this.

What Is a Customer? Another View

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.

The Importance of Customer Service Is the Point

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 who 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?

16 thoughts on “What Is a Customer? Did Gandhi Really Say?”

  1. I cannot see Gandhi saying something like that, Adam; I’m glad you endeavored to clear it up!

    What’s a customer? The customer is the one who KEEPS you in business, so treat him or her accordingly! I think Sam Walton said it best: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

    1. I always loved that Sam Walton quote Michelle! I think businesses can easily get in the habit of taking customers for granted. These quotes are good reminders!

  2. When I would design little one off apps at GEICO, I always assumed that any problem the user had, was my fault. If they didn’t understand how it was to be used, then I hadn’t thought of something that would make it easier.

    It is the same with books, now. If my readers don’t like what I’ve written, then I must try harder to improve the next novel. Of course, every novel can only appeal to a fraction of the reading public, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to improve.

    1. It’s a delicate dance Brian. The fastest way to failure is to try to be everything to everybody; yet, we whether writing a book, designing an app, or creating a product, we want to appeal to as many people as possible.

  3. Hey Adam

    Everyone is a potential customer and the reason I keep moving forward with my blog.

    They are someone who I can potentially help and who can potentially help me.

  4. Pingback: The problem with white space (And what you need to know about design)

  5. A customer is a person who comes into contact with your business. A person can either be an internal or external customer. It is important to treat both as equally important.

  6. Customer Service is important not only from the point of view of profits & business. It is one of the most noble service. One can sell only those products and services which the customer needs. So businessman has to understand the needs of the customer to design & present the products & services. This generates empathy in him. So merely doing business with customer orientation generates such a spiritual quotient

  7. A customer is anyone who is affected, impacted or influenced by our efforts, anywhere, (internal or external,) whether they pay us or not, and who can influence our future in a very positive or negative way.

  8. Kanhayalal Sharma

    I have seen this quotation in name of Gandhi ji since a child mostly in nationalised banks. Thus was much before computers and internet saw the light of the day. I think ots Gandhi jis statement.

  9. Thank you. That was a good clarification on a doubt I had for long on the popular quote attributed to Gandhi.

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