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.

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


  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)