Knowing Your Customers

In the 1930s, when I first knew the automotive industry, Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors, would disappear from Detroit once every six weeks. Next morning he would walk into a dealership in Cincinnati or Kansas City and say, “I am Mr. Sloan from Detroit. Would you allow me to work for two days as your assistant service manager?” When he left, customers always said, “Who was that incompetent clunk?,” but that wasn’t the point of the exercise.

Or he would appear in Albany, New York. I know about this from the Albany dealer, who complained about it very volubly. The old man had been there and said, “Mr. Yeager, do you mind if I work for you as a salesman for three days? I don’t want any commission.” And Mr. Yeager said, “Alfred Sloan cost me more sales than I can possibly tell you.” The point is that when Alfred Sloan went back to Detroit from these forays, he knew customers. Since World War II, nobody in Detroit has done that.

I have not been able to get this idea across to people, even people who have been my friends for 40 years. They don’t get it because not one of them has gone to work as an assistant service manager for two days. They look at statistics; they look at “information.”

Source: Viewpoint What Executives Need to Learn by Peter Drucker | Prism, Issue 4, 1990

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