Allow me to share with you, dear readers, the result of my research over the years about the authorship of the much-displayed five-point business exhortation:
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.
In my last essay on customer orientation in the series on the management scenario, I attributed it to Mahatma Gandhi. However, it is far from settled issue as to who really wrote it. After some research I discovered that there are several claimants to the above declaration. Among them are, besides M K Gandhi, at least half a dozen other claimants: L. L. Bean, Kenneth B. Elliott, Great Western Fuel Company, Ray Noyes, and Paul T. Babson . And for all you know it might have been an obscure motivational consultant.
Unable to ascertain the authentic authorship, some authorities maintain that we just have no idea who wrote the popular business motto though it was once fairly widely displayed in India. I haven’t in recent years seen it displayed in any north American store which now regard it as plain passé. In India it is still displayed — though rarely followed -- especially in the Khadi Gram Udyog showrooms.
The earliest attributions currently assigned to Mohandas Gandhi appeared in the 1970s. Since the Mahatma died in 1948 these attributions are very late, and they do not provide compelling and convincing 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.
I once wrote to the publishers of Dinanath Gopal Tendulkar, the author of the famous authoritative eight-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi, titled Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to ascertain the source of the disputed text. (Tendulkar, you may recall also compiled all the writings of Gandhi in 100 volumes — now available on the net.) Despite a patient follow-up, I drew a blank.
There are, I also discovered, many versions of this passage, and it has been evolving for decades. The earliest instance known to Quote Investigator appeared in 1941 in “Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers”. The magazine published an interview with Kenneth B. Elliott who was then the Vice President in Charge of Sales for the Studebaker Corporation, an automobile company. Elliot said in the interview:
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.
In June 1943 an advertisement by the Great Western Fuel Company in Spokane,, a Washington newspaper included a version of the principles that overlapped and diverged from the earlier versions. No attribution was given:
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 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.
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:
“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; …
The first attribution to Gandhi was in 1970. The journal Foreign Trade of India printed the following on a page advertising Indian films
“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)
Whether we follow the principles spelled out in the statement, it is an ego-booster for us to think that Gandhi penned it. It is not impossible that he might have said this or something to this effect. Don’t forget he was after all a Gujarati bania.
As a matter of fact, the word Gandhi means a grocer in Gujarati. Many a Zoroastrian settler in the state of Gujarat set up grocery stores. They were also known as Gandhy’s. The difference in the spelling was presumably to distinguish themselves from Hindu Gandhi’s. Feroze Gandhy – the husband of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – was descended from one of them. He, however, very wisely adapted Gandhy to Gandhi. T The rest, as, they say, is history.
I will be grateful if any reader can authoritatively tell who penned the immortal lines: A customer is the most important visitor on our premises….