February 20, 2021

My Very First Business Management Lesson

Understand Your Customers’ Actual Wants and Not What You Think They Might Be

By:  John K. Lane, CEO/Managing Director, Inglewood Associates LLC


Having spent my early years growing up on the south side of Chicago, I had the opportunity to spend portions of those summers in a small and, at that time, worn down village on the southeast shores of Lake Michigan.  It was there at the age of ten where I learned my very first business management lesson. 

Yes, back then I was perhaps more focused on “who cut the cheese” than “who moved the cheese” (1), but I learned something back then that remains fresh in my mind over 55 years later. 

It was a sunny day on the beach and the owner of a frozen fruit pie company was talking with a number of ladies.  I was nearby and was likely either digging the greatest hole ever in the sand or attempting to put all of the rocks on the beach back into the lake.   

The owner was expounding on how hard that his company had worked on producing frozen pies that, when baked, came out clean and neat, without any overflow of the fruit contents.  He went on at length about his team’s efforts to produce this “neat” pie and clearly was quite proud of his company’s accomplishments. 

He then paused in his discourse and waited, clearly expecting to be rained upon by the ladies accolades.  For a moment, there was an awkward silence and then one lady said, uncomfortably, “But, that is not what we want.”  Visibly stunned, he responded, “Okay, but how could it be that you do not want a neat, freshly baked pie?” 

At this point, several ladies responded in rapid succession, almost in unison, that they did not want to serve a “neat” pie to their family or their guests.  Those “neat” pies looked like they had been bought in a store.  What they wanted was a “messy” pie that was perhaps a little ragged and had overflowed a bit.  It was that kind of pie that looked homemade and that is what they wanted to serve. 

I remember to this day the expressions on his face, ranging from confusion to frustration and then he let out a bemused chuckle stating, “Well, I guess that I need to get back to my team and discuss reversing our direction.” 

Here is a situation where a business owner presumed what his customers wanted and invested a great deal of effort and cost to fill those wants, but those presumed wants were exactly the opposite of the customers’ actual wants.   

The obvious lesson learned here was that a business owner needs to communicate with, and better yet, stay close to their customers so that he/she could obtain a full appreciation of what those customers were looking for Only then can the business accurately respond to those wants.  This is how a company remains relevant and, who knows, perhaps even becomes successful.  As the saying goes, “Know your customer!” 

So, I am no longer ten years old, any hole that I dug in the sand is long gone and somehow there are still rocks on that beach, but the lesson that I learned way back then remains pertinent to this day. 


(1) A nod to Spencer Johnson, author of the bestselling 1998 business management book, “Who Moved My Cheese, An Amazing Way to Deal With Change In Your Work and In Your Life”.