The Customer is Not an Interruption in Our Work; He Is the Purpose of It

Mohandas Gandhi? L. L. Bean? Kenneth B. Elliott? Great Western Fuel Company? Ray Noyes? Paul T. Babson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular business motto that is used by corporate departments of Customer Relations and Human Resources:

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 in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

I have seen these words attributed to the New England businessman Leon Leonwood Bean (L. L. Bean) and Mahatma Gandhi. Did Gandhi have a secret life as a business/motivational consultant? Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest attributions currently known to Mohandas Gandhi appeared in the 1970s. Since Gandhi died in 1948 these attributions are very late, and they do not provide compelling evidence. Top quotation expert Ralph Keyes writing in “The Quote Verifier” grouped the saying together with other items that have been ascribed to Gandhi with inadequate supporting evidence [QVGN].

There are many versions of this passage, and it has been evolving for decades. The earliest instance known to QI appeared in 1941 in “Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers”. The magazine published an interview with Kenneth B. Elliott who was the Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation, an automobile company. Elliott ended the interview by stating the following set of five principles which he may have formulated. Alternatively, he may have been repeating pre-existing principles [KEPI]:

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.

A variety of companies reprinted and embraced the principles, e.g., the Morris Plan Bank of Virginia in April 1943 and the Great Western Fuel Company in June 1943. In 1944 a version was attributed to Ray Noyes. In 1946 a version was credited to Paul T. Babson of Standard & Poor’s Corporation. In 1955 a version was ascribed to Leon Leonwood Bean of L. L. Bean. By 1970 a version was being attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1943 a version of the principles was published in The Bankers Magazine. The introduction is given immediately below. The text of the principles was largely similar to the 1941 version and is omitted [BVBM]:

A brief message entitled “The Customer,” which recently appeared in several advertising journals, so impressed the Morris Plan Bank of Virginia that G. M. Underhill, assistant vice-president, had it reproduced on plaques and placed one at every teller’s window and on every public contact desk in all five of the bank’s offices.

In June 1943 an advertisement by the Great Western Fuel Company in a Spokane, Washington newspaper included a version of the principles that overlapped and diverged from the earlier versions. No attribution was given [GWSC]:

War or No War

The CUSTOMER Is Still the Most Important Person in Our Office!

(And Second Only to the Needs of Our Armed Forces)

THE CUSTOMER is not dependent on us—we are dependent upon him.

THE CUSTOMER is not an interruption of our work—he is the purpose of it.

THE CUSTOMER is not an outsider to our business—he is a part of it.

WE are not doing him a favor by serving him—he is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

THE CUSTOMER is the person who brings us his wants—we will continue to serve him to the best of our ability.

To These Principles We Dedicate Our Entire Organization, Limited Only by the Restrictions and Necessities of War—Now—as in the Past—and into the Future with Confidence!

In June 1944 a version was printed in the Chicago Tribune in a column called “White Collar Girl”. The words were attributed to “Ray Noyes in Business Letter Digest”. This version was similar to the 1941 instance and is omitted [WCRN].

In 1946 a short article titled “What Is a Customer?” in Forbes magazine ascribed the principles to “Paul T. Babson, Chairman of the Board, Standard & Poor’s Corp.” The text was similar to earlier instances with minor alterations [PBFR]

A Customer is the most important person ever in this office—in person or by mail.

A Customer is not dependent on us—we are dependent on him.

A Customer is not an interruption of our work—he is the purpose of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him—he is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

A Customer is not an outsider to our business—he is part of it.

A Customer is not a cold statistic—he is a flesh-and-blood human being with feelings and emotions like your own, and with biases and prejudices.

A Customer is not someone to argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a customer.

A Customer is a person who brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them profitably to him and to ourselves.

In 1950 an interesting variant was published in the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut newspaper. The word “customer” was replaced by ‘taxpayer” in the principles. Here is the beginning of the article [HCTP]:

“A taxpayer is the most important person to enter City Hall in person, by mail or by telephone,” according to a green card sent to all municipal department heads Monday by City Manager Sharpe.

The card contains six other definitions of what a taxpayer is, and was recommended to the attention of all employees. In his letter accompanying the card, the city manager said: “May I suggest that each department display this placard in a prominent place at locations where the public is served.” …

The card states that “A taxpayer is not dependent on us, we are dependent on him; he is not an interruption of our work, he is the purpose of it; …

In 1955 “The Great Merchants: The Stories of Twenty Famous Retail Operations and the People Who Made Them Great” was published, and it included a section about L. L. Bean Inc. The book contained a version of the principles and noted that Bean had placed them in his catalog. The abbreviated excerpt below stops after listing just two of the principles [LBTM]:

The philosophical cement which binds Bean to his customers is expressed by Bean himself on a page in his catalog. Entitled “What Is a Customer?” the often-quoted definition reads:

A Customer is the most important person ever in this office . . . in person or by mail.

A Customer is not dependent on us . . . we are dependent on him.

By 1970 the principles were attached to Mohandas Gandhi. The journal “Foreign Trade of India” printed the following on a page advertising Indian films [GFTI]:

“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 on our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider on our business. He is a part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.”

(MAHATMA GANDHI)

In conclusion, the earliest evidence currently points to Kenneth B. Elliott as the crafter of these principles. But this suggestion is tentative because a cluster of different attributions is present in the 1940s. The ascription to Leon Leonwood Bean in 1955 is rather late, and based on current evidence it is unlikely that he formulated the principles. The attributions to Gandhi in the 1970s are unconvincing.

(Thanks to Mark Mandel whose request at the Freakonomics website led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)

[KEPI] 1941 May 2, Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers, Complaints as an asset: [Based on an Interview by P. H. Erbes, Jr., with Kenneth B. Elliott, Vice-president in Charge of Sales, The Studebaker Corporation], Start Page 17, Quote Page 83, Printers’ Ink Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

[BVBM] 1943 April, The Bankers Magazine [Bankers' Magazine], Volume 146, Issue 4, Advertising and Public Relations, “The Customer”, Start Page 357, Quote Page 360, Column 2, Bankers Publishing Co., New York. (ProQuest Periodicals Series II)

[GWSC] 1943 June 28, Spokane Daily Chronicle, [Advertisement for Great Western Fuel Co.], Page 9, Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive)

[WCRN] 1944 June 16, Chicago Tribune, White Collar Girl by Ruth MacKay, Page 15, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[PBFR] 1946 January 15, Forbes, What Is a Customer? [Credited to Paul T. Babson, Chairman of the Board, Standard & Poor's Corp.], Quote Page 33, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)

[HCTP] 1950 April 18, The Hartford Courant, “Taxpayer Is Most Important Person, Sharpe Informs City Departments”, Page 23, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[LBTM] 1955, The Great Merchants: The Stories of Twenty Famous Retail Operations and the People Who Made Them Great by Tom Mahoney, Section: “XIX. L. L. Bean Inc.”, Start Page 294, Quote Page 301, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)

[GFTI] 1970, Foreign Trade of India, Issue Number: 75, Issue Title: Accent on Indian Cinema, [Quote appears freestanding on a page with advertisements for films by IMPEC (The Indian Motion Pictures Exports Corporation Ltd.)], [Unnumbered Page, Extrapolated Page Number 94], Publisher: Directorate of Commercial Publicity, New Delhi, India. (Verified on paper; Great thanks to Stephen Goranson of Duke University for accessing this publication)