No One Wants a Drill. What They Want Is the Hole

Clayton M. Christensen? Theodore Levitt? L. E. ‘Doc’ Hobbs? Percy H. Whiting? Leo McGivena? Robert G. Seymour? Zig Ziglar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Companies sell products to solve the problems that their customers encounter. An emphasis on existing products and incremental changes causes an organization to ignore or misunderstand customer motivations. Here is one version of a popular business adage:

People don’t want quarter-inch drill bits. They want quarter-inch holes.

The message is cautionary. If a company obsessively focuses on selling drill bits and their customers start to cut holes with waterjets or lasers, then the company is in deep trouble.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen has employed this adage; however, he credited Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A thematic precursor that did not mention drills appeared in a Reno, Nevada newspaper in 1923 within an advertisement for plumbing. Several products were mentioned together with the implicit goals of customers: 1

When you buy a razor, you buy a smooth chin—but you could wear a beard. When you buy a new suit, you buy an improved appearance—but you could make the old one do. When you buy an automobile, you buy speedy transportation—but you could walk. But when you buy plumbing, you buy cleanliness—for which there is no substitute!

The earliest strong match for the adage located by QI occurred in an insurance advertisement in a Manhattan, Kansas newspaper in 1946: 2

We don’t want to sell you Life Insurance . . we want you to know and have what life insurance will do. A 1/4 million drills were sold last year, no one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.

Your Own Local Life Insurance Company has only the sincere desire to furnish food, clothing and shelter to your loved ones if you die too soon . . .

The advertisement was run by L. E. ‘Doc’ Hobbs who was the District Sales Manager of The Manhattan Mutual Life company. Yet, QI conjectures that the drill adage was already in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1947 Percy H. Whiting published “The Five Great Rules of Selling”. He worked for the Dale Carnegie Institute which provided training for public speakers, and he helped to popularize the adage, yet he credited Leo McGivena who was the publicity manager of “The Daily News”, a large New York newspaper: 3

Leo McGivena wrote: “Last year over one million quarter-inch drills were sold—not because people wanted quarter-inch drills but because they wanted quarter-inch holes. When you buy an automobile you buy transportation. When you buy a mattress you are buying comfortable sleep. When you buy carbon paper you are buying copies.”

In 1950 “The Christian Science Monitor” published a series of twelve articles about salesmanship by Robert G. Seymour. While discussing the needs of customers, Seymour mentioned the adage and reprinted a passage from Whiting’s book: 4

But it is wise to remember constantly that he rarely wants your product for itself, but for what it will do for him. Percy H. Whiting illustrates this well in his fine book. “The 5 Great Rules of Selling” (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1947), when he quotes Leo McGivena: “Last year one million quarter-inch drills were sold, not because people wanted quarter-inch drills, but because they wanted quarter-inch holes. . .”

In 1954 Cloyd S. Steinmetz, President of the American Society of Training Directors, used the adage while addressing attendees of a conference in Louisville, Kentucky: 5

He told the grocers to “quit selling your product and sell the benefits of the product.”

“They sell a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of drill bits a week,” said Steinmetz. “Nobody wants a drill bit, they want a hole,” he said.

In 1955 another figure in the insurance industry employed the saying: 6

Many people purchase quarter inch drills, who do not really want them. They want the holes the drills make. This statement was made by Clayton Fields, speaking before the Fall Creek Township Farm Bureau meeting, Thursday, Mar. 10, at Bethlehem School House. Mr. Fields is the county representative for the Co-op Insurance Company for Hamilton County.

In 1958 a newspaper in Jackson, Tennessee printed the saying: 7

Paul Talbot of Boston, Mass., writing in a recent United Business Service editorial, singles out one of the fundamentals of salesmanship. He quotes: “Last year, over a million quarter-inch drills were sold – not because people wanted quarter-inch drills, but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.”

That quotation holds the secret of good salesmanship – the ability to see the real need for the object on sale.

In 1969 Theodore Levitt published “The Marketing Mode: Pathways To Corporate Growth”, and he attributed the saying to Leo McGivena: 8

“Last year 1 million quarter-inch drills were sold,” Leo McGivena once said, “not because people wanted quarter-inch drills but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.”

People don’t buy products; they buy the expectation of benefits.

In 1985 “Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale” included the saying: 9

You don’t sell what the product is—you always sell what the product does. Example: Each year over 5 million quarter-inch drills are sold, yet it’s safe to say that nobody wants a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.

In 2005 Clayton M. Christensen credited Theodore Levitt within an article in the “Harvard Business Review”: 10

The great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Every marketer we know agrees with Levitt’s insight. Yet these same people segment their markets by type of drill and by price point; they measure market share of drills, not holes; and they benchmark the features and functions of their drill, not their hole, against those of rivals.

In conclusion, the earliest match in 1946 occurred in an advertisement by insurance man L. E. ‘Doc’ Hobbs; however, the adage may have already been in circulation. A 1947 book by Percy H. Whiting attributed the remark to Leo McGivena. Both of these men may be credited with popularizing the expression. Clayton M. Christensen ascribed the saying to Theodore Levitt, but Levitt ascribed the remark to McGivena. This presents only a current snapshot, and future research may shift the ascription.

Image Notes: Picture of drills and drill bits by blickpixel at Pixabay. Image has been resized, cropped, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Doug Garnett whose comments and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Garnett noted that the general public today would use the term “drill bit” instead of “drill” in phrases such as “quarter-inch drills”. Thanks to Barry Popik who explored this topic and found citations beginning in 1974 with a book by Theodore Levitt crediting Leo McGivena. Many thanks to Stephen Goranson for help verifying the 1947 citation. Also, thanks to the volunteer Wikiquote editors who found a 2016 work by Clayton M. Christensen crediting Theodore Levitt.)

Notes:

  1. 1923 August 18, Reno Evening Gazette, (Advertisement title: There is no Substitute! Advertisement for: Reno Master Plumbers Association), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Reno, Nevada. (“razor” was misspelled “rozar” in the original text) (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1946 November 10, Manhattan Mercury-Chronicle, (Advertisement title: Who Sells Life Insurance?, Advertisement for: L. E. “Doc” Hobbs, District Sales Manager of The Manhattan Mutual Life in Manhattan, Kansas), Quote Page 10, Column 6, Manhattan, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1947, The Five Great Rules of Selling by Percy H. Whiting, Quote Page 39 and 40, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York (Verified with scans; thanks to the Rubenstein Rare Book Library at Duke University)
  4. 1950 March 17, The Christian Science Monitor, The HOW of Successful Selling: 3–What Causes People to Buy? by Robert G. Seymour, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  5. 1954 October 15, The Courier-Journal, Small Grocers Told Law Will Help Them, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1955 March 16, Noblesville Daily Ledger, Fields Addresses Fall Creek Bureau, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Noblesville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1958 February 14, The Jackson Sun, Salesmanship, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Jackson, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1969, The Marketing Mode: Pathways To Corporate Growth by Theodore Levitt (Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University), Chapter 1: The Augmented-product Concept, Quote Page 1, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1985 (Copyright 1984), Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale by Zig Ziglar, Chapter 22: Using Word Pictures To Sell, Quote Page 253 and 254, Berkley Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2005 December, Harvard Business Review (online), Article: Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure, Authors: Clayton M. Christensen, Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Accessed via hbr.org) link