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.

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