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Was Marshall Field really all that wrong?


I have learned something today. According to a debate on another social networking platform, apparently, if a customer wants something that is beyond their full understanding, then if they fail to learn enough to be able to explain to the person who is going to supply that thing what it is they want, then it is the customer’s fault if they don’t get what they want.

Let’s put that in different terms….

Let’s suupose that Fred wants a website for his business, but Fred isn’t a website developer.

Fred asks around and discovers that there’s a website developer called Wilbur. So Fred contacts Wilbur and asks him for a quote.

Wilbur is not a consultative salesman, so he listens to Fred’s ill-informed ramblings, and gives him what Wilbur thinks Fred ought to want.

Fred isn’t all that happy, but figures that this is a draft, so he tries to explain what he wants in different terms. Wilbur nods sagely, and disappears for a few days. Fred figures he’d better try writing it out, so he sends Wilbur a more detailed email explaining what he’s after. Eventually, Wilbur comes back with something else – still not really what Fred thought he’d described.

By now, Fred is pretty fed up but when he says as much to Wilbur, he is told; “I’m not telepathic you know! You don’t understand what is involved. You didn’t give me the right information, You kept changing your mind, even before the previous changes were completed!”

Now, apparently, so I have learned today, “it is the responsibility of the business owner to communicate their requirements, their goals, their current situation and future plans.” Regardless of the business owner’s trading position, it seems that “the pressure of trying to keep a small web development business running (let alone in profit) in this ever increasingly competitive industry means that there is no time or other resources to be teaching the business owner how to write a web design brief, even though it would create a better outcome for everyone.” [My emphasis.]

Now, I realise that the world has moved on a bit, and so obviously has normal business practice. Incidentally, there was a conference the other month all about trying to restore confidence and trust in the City of London. It followed a year long project sponsored by the Lord Mayor.

However, (and I’ll call myself the traditionalist before anyone else can) there was an extremely successful businessman back in the early 1900s, who coined a phrase. Well, actually, it isn’t entirely clear whether it was him that coined it, or one of his employees who went on to run his own extremely successful business. Just to clarify, by ‘successful’, I mean that they were very profitable AND they lasted a LONG time. Over a hundred years to be precise.

The American businessman was Marshall Field, and he was the man who grew the definitive business known as “Marshall Field and Co”, based in Chicago. So successful was he that he not only established that iconic store, but he also founded the University of Chicago (jointly with John D Rockefeller) and the Museum of Natural History in Chicago too, which further benefitted from a legacy of $8M when he died in 1906.

His employee, left the US to establish an equally impressive retail empire in London. In 1909,he built a magnificent property in Oxford Street, and apparently even persuaded the GPO to let him have the London telephone number “1″. He promoted the idea that shopping should be an enjoyable entertainment, rather than something one did out of necessity. Sadly, his wife died in 1918, and he suffered huge personal problems thereafter.

However, a measure of the man, is that he wrote a book which was published in 1918, entitled “The Romance of Commerce” In it, he had chapters on ancient commerce, China, Greece, Venice, Lorenzo de Medici, the Fuggers, the Hanseatic League, fairs, Guilds, early British commerce, trade and the Tudors, the East India Company, Northern England’s merchants, the growth of trade, trade and the aristocracy, Hudson’s Bay Company, Japan, and representative businesses of the 20th century.

His leadership style is captured well in some of the phrases that he often used:

  • The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.
  • The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.
  • The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
  • The boss says “I”; the leader, “we.”
  • The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
  • The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
  • The boss says “Go”; the leader says “Let’s go!”

His name? Well, it was Harry Gordon Selfridge.

So what was that phrase that no-one knows which of these two significant successful businessmen coined, but was their trademark – indeed their bond – in all their endeavours?


The customer is always right.

I can only guess that for the likes of Wilbur, the web developer, such a phrase is an anathema. It will interesting to see whether his name is iconic, in the UK or the US, in over a hundred years time.

Best wishes
Graham.
Graham Wilson – 07785 222380
PS My free ebook, “The Senior Executive’s Emergency Job Hunt“, is available to download now.

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