Joho the Blog » Holes, not drills

Holes, not drills

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

This gets quoted a lot by marketers. Usually it gets attributed to Theodore Levitt, an economist at Harvard Business School, but he quite explicitly [pdf] attributed it to Leo McGinneva, about whom I can find out nothing other than that he was a “businessman.”

This quote has the salutary effect of focusing marketers away from what they’re selling and on what customers are buying. So, I find it useful. But also irksome.

I’m irked first of all for the small reason that people don’t actually buy quarter-inch drills to drill quarter-inch holes. The buy a quarter-inch drill bit to drill a quarter-inch hole. A quarter-inch drill is a drill that accepts drill bits with a maximum of a quarter-inch shank. And, yes I know I’m being annoying.

The more important reason this formulation bothers me becomes clear if you use something other than a tool as your example. “People don’t want to buy a towel hook. They want a _____.” How do you fill in that blank without it being simply redundant: “They want a hook to hang a towel on.” It’s not just that it loses its rhetorical punch. Rather, it becomes clear that you have to go further into the customer’s value system to make sense of it. Why do they want a towel hook? Because they like dry towels? Because they want to impress their new in-laws? Because they repainted and the old towel hook is now the wrong color? Because they want a place to hang a dress so that the shower will naturally steam it? Because their shower rod is coming loose? Because their pet ferret is getting old — poor Ratface! He can barely see! — and is soiling towels left on the floor?

So, people don’t buy holes. They buy something that helps achieve a goal that is particular to them and is part of the larger set of interests and values that make them who they are. The hole example helps but doesn’t go far enough.

We all know this. So why does the “drill/holes” example keep coming up, and keep feeling like an insight? To me, this is evidence of just how much we take for granted the misalignment of the interests of businesses and customers — the great business tragedy of the Age of Massness.

But that’s a different story.

4 Responses to “Holes, not drills”

  1. […] “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill.They want a quarter-inch hole.” […]

  2. Why some people buy towel racks:

  3. This epigram has come up over and over for me in a software development (rather than sales) context. In these discussions it helps to focus the conversation on usability aspects of the project (there’s no business value in owning a _____ system, only in being able to do things with it). It doesn’t matter how amazingly sophisticated the drill is if it is too hard to hold or requires a college degree to use.

    This is certainly not the original meaning of this intent but it is an effective way to communicate this idea, and so I’m not overly bothered. After all, no-one quotes an epigram just to hear an epigram. They want to change the listener’s thoughts. :)

  4. […] Service-dominant logic is based on the fundamental premise that value is subjective and created in use. This is reasonably well illustrated by the famous quote: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” (It’s not a perfect example though, here’s a good short post on it) […]

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