Serving Customers or Making Cars?

There seems to be a subtle shift that takes place in the history of most businesses.  Let’s say Barney was a cave man who made great wagons.  But there are only 20 people who live in his known world so as soon as he makes 20 wagons he’s out of business.  If he can’t imagine using his skills for anything but wagon-making we might then see him sneaking around at night burning the wagons to rekindle demand.  Or the town witch doctor knows he would not be needed if everyone were healthy.  So he “creates” illnesses to keep his patients coming back rather than attempting to help them find ultimate health.

Now fast forward to 2008 in America – same deal.  We have auto manufacturers who can’t risk making a car that really lasts – they need 5-year obsolescence.  Parts that wear out and systems that malfunction are a necessary component of keeping the machine of making cars in place.  It would be self-defeating to make a car that semi-permanently met the customer’s needs.  You have to hope the customer doesn’t stay happy with their purchase for too long. 

Do you really think we aren’t smart enough to make a lightbulb that would last essentially forever?  But what would that do to the sales of lightbulbs?  

What if a counselor or chiropractor really helped every client they saw?  Got them to a point of healthy functioning on their own?  How would he/she pay the mortgage the next month?  Keeping people dependent on their services may become more important than seeing them get better. 

If you realize your “work” is more dependent on keeping a system in place than on meeting the real needs of your customers, you are indeed vulnerable.   Real estate developers, publishing houses, record labels, auto manufacturing and “investment” firms are all suffering in their attempts to keep systems in place rather than responding to the changes in demand of the marketplace.

What we need are new ways to engage our creative skills; not government support to allow us to keep doing what no longer works. 


I happen to be a car enthusiast, but I think it’s a joke that someone “decided” we needed new models every calendar year?  My primary car is a 1991 Mercedes 500SL – it’s 18 years old!  It looks great, has great styling and is fun to drive.  I’d love to see a 5-year car – where nothing changed for at least 5 years, or even 10.  Can you imagine the streamlining of parts and service, and the reduced waste from excessive manufacturing?

Now – what are you doing in your work or business to make sure you are serving your customer’s needs, even if those needs change?

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28 Responses to “Serving Customers or Making Cars?”

  1. John Says:

    Your posts reminds me of Seth Godin’s advice to focus on finding new products for your customers rather than finding new customers for your product.

  2. Says:

    Dan, that’s great thoughts.
    Somehow it reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about the person
    wanting to save his life, shall lose it…

  3. Nancy Grable Says:

    I enjoyed the article as ‘food for thought.’ The only sentence I take exception to is the one about chiropractors. I visit the chiropractor when MY body needs adjusting. Usually about once every 3-4 months. Except I was in an automobile accident in April and the first doctor I went to visit was the chiropractor. Ex-rays revealed nothing broken but I was really banged up! I have made several visits to him becuase MY body is not holding the adjustments as long as it did before the accident. Please don’t give the chiropractors a bad comment. As long as my body holds, I am fine. When it hurts, I visit the doc. Thanks! 🙂 PS The truck hurt in the accident was a 1995 Ford 150. PAID FOR IN FULL! On the initial phone call to insurance, they totaled it without even seeing the damage. Comment made was that it would be cheaper for me to go buy a new one than to fix my truck up. Didn’t want to go in debt, so fixed the truck instead. Cost me some money above what insurance paid. Like my truck!

  4. John Says:

    What a great article. So true. As a former middle manager for a large mortgage lender, we were consistently under pressure to continue finding new customers and closing more home loans. There was no residual, only a fee for the transaction. Loan officers in the industry found themselves in an ugly trap. Either fund new loans or go broke — or get fired for lack of new production. Even underwriters had to lighten up on credit guidelines, allowing less-than worthy or non-traditional borrowers to get loans. As a result of feeding the hungry beast, many bad loans were made which have rocked our entire economy today.

    With that comes new opportunity. I am excited about finishing the 48 Days workshop and starting my new role in a relevant service that truly meets the needs of the customer.

  5. Kim Says:

    I always enjoy getting this newsletter. It gives me so much energy to think outside of my comfort zone and put faith in my God-given talents to get myself to the work I love.
    It was encouragement from your book that helped my husband, a chiropractor, leave a practice that he had been unhappy in for many years. It was very scary for us to leave a wonderful income to start all over on our own. I am pleased to say that we are doing great – not quite where we were when we left the former practice, but growing steadily everyday.
    I was a little disappointed to read the sentence in this newsletter about chiropractors. If there is one thing I know about my husband, it is his committment to helping his patients get better. While there are likely doctors of all types out there that bring patients back repeatedly to benefit their own pocketbook, I can say from firsthand experience that there are many, including my husband who really do the right thing.
    In fact, my husband often jokes that his goal is to be so good at what he does that he puts himself out of business. We know in reality that the more patients he can release because their conditions improved – the more friends and family those patients will tell of their great experience.
    While I will still continue to be a huge fan of the 48 Days newsletter, I do ask that you not use negative examples such as the chiropractor reference. It is comments like these that give hard-working caregivers a bad name.
    Thank you.

  6. Theresa Says:

    Bravissimo, Dan! Excellent thoughts…and may I add….
    How about the “Box” business when it comes to children. IE….If you’re child doesn’t fit into THIS box, they are labeled.
    Every learning difference, every hiccup and personality differences are deemed “dysfunctional” and in need of some type of “therapy” or medication.
    Millions upon millions of dollars are spent trying to get children to conform to The Box instead of allowing them to grow into the unique individuals God created them to be.
    (Of course, I am not talking about children who’s challenges make day to day function nearly impossible.)
    Sadly, I hear from frustrated parents nearly every day about their kids’ labels. (“He’s a bright boy but the teacher says he has ADHD.”)

  7. The Box business « The Mother Lode Says:

    […] Box business My friend Dan Miller wrote a brilliant piece today entitled “Serving Customers or Making Cars?”  In it he talks about how many businesses are more focused on creating demand for their […]

  8. Don Says:

    While it’s true that cars can be made to last longer, it’s much more expensive to make them that way. Not everyone can afford a Mercedes, ya know ! As far as new styles every five years, the Swedish auto companies tend to make small, incremental changes in their models, instead of new ones, every year. Again, they are more expensive to buy, though.

  9. Trish C. Says:

    Yes, on the Swedish cars. My husband and I bought a SAAB 900T way back. It was a stretch for us, it was 6 months old, but it was a great car. Keep oil in it and it ran like a champ and was a blast to drive. We kept it 18 years and only got rid of it because it lacked air conditioning.
    Great article as it is making me reevaluate some of my paradigms.

  10. Jennifer P Says:

    I love the 48 Days Newsletter!! Thanks so much for always providing interesting and motivating articles!!! I especially liked this one…”Serving Customers or Making Cars?” because it really makes you stop and take a look at business. We should always be evaluating a product or service to be sure it’s meeting the needs of current customers and if there are opportunities to grow, change and evolve. Look at where we are with the gas crunch!!!! The auto makers had the ability to build cars years ago that either offered alternative fuels or could get much better gas mileage.
    Any way, thanks so much for articles!! I really enjoy them!!!

  11. Jeannie Blair Says:


    There is already a plan in place for a “permanent car.” The engine, frame, & other working parts stays the same, but there will be a new body that can be attached once the present one becomes obsolete or out of style. Isn’t that a great idea?

  12. Robert Orr Jr Says:


    It used to be called planned obsolescence.

    There is one product that has low price elasticity of demand and no obsolescence. It will sell regardless of price or changing styles. Because it is consumed there is continous demand. So should we envy or pity the makers and sellers of this product? I am referring, of course, to whiskey.

    By the way, my 1999 Jeep just turned 156,000 miles and, with luck and regular maintenence, she should see over 300,000. It’s a V-8 so it’s not very “green”. But it pulls my boat, a 1949 Chris-Craft mahogany runabout.

    Rob Orr

  13. frank Says:

    Dan, tremendous article! I asked this question often; why do folks need a ‘new’ car every 1-3 years? I am driving a car I bought in 01 [170k miles] and plan to drive it until it will not go any more. In 78 when my wife and I were married, we bought a Dodge 4×4 that we kept for almost 20 years. My youngest just bought a 94 700 series BMW that is like new for a few thousand dollars.

  14. Martha Stephenson Says:

    The Mazda sports cars (almost all of them) went 5-6 years with very minor changes — The RX8 came out in 2003, and the new model is due out next year or the year after. These cars handle extremely well (I always feel completely in control and able to handle any traffic situation) — but the mileage is similar to that of a van or SUV.

  15. Ken Griffey Says:

    Serving Customers/Making Cars
    In readintg this article I couldn’t help but remember something I recently read. Last year I was working for an auto parts company. Management had me read several industry-related books, one of which was “The Toyota Way.” It has been around for many years and outlines the concepts Toyota used to get it where it is today. Their business philosopy is to find out or anticipate customer needs then eliminate anything that gets in the way of satisfing those needs.
    This concept is the opposite of Henry Ford’s concept of mass production – make one product well and mass produce it to reduce costs. His method worked well for 15 to 20 years making Model-Ts and he captured nearly 50% of the US auto market. But when GM and others started making more modern products, eroding Ford’s market share, Henry fought his own management for several years before changing his product line. By that time his mass production methods were entrenched in the industry and served it well, especially during World War II. The auto industry was hugely successful and began focusing on increasing profits through building products they thought would sell and engineering in planned obsolescence.
    In looking for a way to break into the world-wide car market, Toyota focused on developing a product people really wanted then making it with the best quality possible. They used mass production but profits were based not on huge numbers of vehicles but on eliminating any and all wastes and inefficiencies they could find. This was not easy because large industrial firms come with entrenched corporate structures and relationships – unions, suppliers, shareholders, etc. – and it took them 20 years to develop their system. But it was worth it. Putting the customers needs first has made Toyota the world’s foremost auto maker.
    For the last 15 to 20 years most auto makers, and many other industries, have adopted (or given lip-service to) Toyota’s methods. Toyota believes that, with some adjustments, the “Toyota Way” can be adapted to nearly any business. If you can plow through it, I think this book can be inspirational to any business owner.

  16. edwincrozier Says:

    Absolutely true. Just a few weeks ago this was highlighted to me in my own work and I had to write about it on my blog.

    No matter what our business, work or industry. We have to learn to keep the main thing people.

    Thanks for this reminder.

  17. connie Says:

    I’m a horse trainer and my goal is always to work myself out of a job. A horse I’ve trained might need an occasional tune up, but my goal is train the owner well enough to do it themselves. Happy to report I’m done with 5 horses this year!

  18. Cindy Says:

    I’m with you. I drive a 1995 Lincoln Continental, white with blue flames, that the Lord provided for us. The flames keep me humble. It has 233,300 miles on it. We were determined not to go into debt for a vehicle and started to pray for a mini-van, within a couple of weeks we got a phone call “out of the blue” about the car. I am a stay at home wife and Mom and also a care-giver to my husband’s Aunt. I absolutely Love my “Job”. That means we don’t have the money to have all the latest and greatest new cars, etc. So What! Thanks for the article.

  19. Jared Matthew Kessler Says:

    Great point Dan. I think all the car manufacturer’s today, really need to read what you said on this. Did you know that in third world countries, they have seeds that only last for one crop which keeps them coming back to us for more. Where does it end?

    However, I am a BIG believe in “what goes around comes around” and the big businesses that are suffering I believe have been getting what has been coming to them. The old way of doing business, “cutting costs and increasing profits” no matter what it takes (at the expense of many employees), I believe is a major downfall in this economy. The more employers that TRULY learn the things you teach, would help us all MUCH more than another $700 Billion dollar “Bailout package.”

  20. Dr. Rick Murphy Says:

    Hi Dan,
    I enjoy your newsletters and refer many people in my practice to them. I have a question about your 1991 mercedes (very nice, by the way). Has it lasted as long as it has without any maintenance? Have you skipped the oil changes? Blown-off checking and topping off fluids? No new tires (or at least balanced or rotated)?
    I asked one of my practice members this morning, a body builder, how often he works out. His answer: “every day”. I then asked him what would happen if he stopped working out for the next 6 months. His answer: “I’d get fat”. REALLY? You mean you can’t just work out once every 6 months and get the kind of results you get? “Come on Doc”, He says.
    How about brusing your teeth. Can you brush your teeth once, and expect them to stay clean and healthy for the rest of your life? Things that are not maintained, tend toward deterioration. (2nd law of thermodynamics).
    Now, lumping Chiropractors in with the medical guys, and witch doctors (redundant?) demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of Chiropractic. Chiropractic has NOTHING to do with back pain, neck pain or any other pain for that matter. We have gotten that reputation for the simple fact that those pains tend to go away as a SIDE EFFECT of what it is that we really do: Remove interference to the nerve system.
    Our bodies perform approximately 600 octillion process every second! All very carefully controlled and coordinated by our brains. The brain communicates with every cell, tissue and organ by way of the spinal cord and nerves. These organs are so important, that they are encased in bone. The brain is protected by the skull, the spinal cord is protected by the 24 moveble bones known as the spine. The nerves go from the spinal cord, through little holes between the bones of the spine and then branch out to control every single function in the body. No exception. None. Unfortunately, each of those 24 spinal bones (vertebrae) has 6 joints on it. That’s a lot of moving parts! There are also a lot of muscles attached to these bones. Postural muscles mostly. Due to stress (physical, emotional, chemical), our vertebrae malfunction. When they do it is called a subluxation (minor dislocation). A subluxation causes swelling, and can pinch, stretch, scratch or otherwise irritate the nerve that passes through it. It is important to note that it only takes about the weight of a quarter to cut off 65% of a nerve’s function. And only 10% of the nerves in our bodies carry pain signals. SO we can have malfunction of 90% of the nerves in our body and we won’t know it-until the organs they control-FAIL! (then they want to drug the organ, or cut it out. Make sense?) Research has proven that a joint that is subluxated for 3 days begins to deteriorate (can you say ARTHRITIS?). BUT if the subluxation is adjusted within one week, then one adjustment is typically enough to restore normal motion. But here is the BIG BUT: when a joint is allowed to remain subluxated for longer than that, your body will try to start stabilizing it with the purpose to minimize the damage to the nerve system. You see, your body would rather lose the motion of the joint, than to lose the function of the nerve. So your body begins to lay down scar tissue within the joint. This scar tissue is layed down like layers of an onion, one layer every 10 days to 2 weeks. On autopsy we have found these layers in the lumbar spine as much as 2 inches thick! Once this scar tissue is present, there is permanent damage. The spine is never the same again. So the goal is to keep it from getting worse. To minimize the damage. Left to it’s own, the spine will continue to deteriorate. So, knowing these facts. How long would you want a subluxation to remain? A day, a week, a month, years? In our office, (and those of most reputable Chiropractors) there is no charge, if there is no subluxation. This takes the pressure off of getting checked regularly. My daughters were checked the day they were born, then at least weekly for their entire lives so far (ages 6 & 8). Neither one has ever had an ear infection, never. If they do get a cold, they have it for hours, instead of days like their friends. The same can be said for the families who get checked regularly at our office. They are just healthier. Healthy people are happy people. Healthy people don’t rob 7-11’s. Healthy people don’t beat their kids. Healthy people=Healthy planet.

    I still love you, Dan. You are a true inspiration to so many, including me.

  21. 48days Says:

    Okay — apparently I should have used something other than chiropractor as a generic example. I could have plugged in plumber, electrician, landscape designer or gynecologist — it was just an example of how all professionals are confronted with the challenge of working for their clients ultimate good as opposed to just building their own bank accounts.

    I’ll write another piece on how a chiropractor can leverage his/her intellectual expertise in ways that create multiple income streams — beyond just seeing individual patients. Apparently they’re a sensitive group!!

  22. Dr. Rick Murphy Says:

    Thanks, Dan that would be great!!

  23. Jared Matthew Kessler Says:

    I had to come back to this about the auto manufacturers and what appears to be going on.

    What is stopping management from asking 53,000 GM employees one simple questions like, “What would you do in our situation?” How about passing around 53,000 pieces of paper to every single employee asking, “How would you save the company? What would you do differently? If this was your company, what would you do to make it more profitable?” Then take the most popular responsese and ask, “How can we apply this to our company?”

    I mean… do we need to give millions more dollars to supposedly “save” a company that is making MORE cars people don’t want? Why are they asking the question, “How are we going to get bailed out” instead of the question, “How can we use what we currently have, to reinvent this company into the powerhouse that it is?”

    One of my favorite quotes is, “The quality of your life, will NEVER exceed the quality of our questions.” Can anyone forward this over to the top executives at GM?

  24. raleyb Says:

    Great point. I think about this concept often when it comes to the economics of certain industries. Doctors could be added to the list along with pharma companies. The only one that is a little off is the chiropractic reference. An ounce of prevention (maintenance adjustments) is worth a pound of cure. Same thing with supplements in my opinion. Great post!

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