December 19, 2020

Clients aren’t stupid

My best friend growing up (Mark) lived in a duplex that his dad built after their first house burned down while they were away on vacation.

One side of the duplex was occupied by his immediate family (mother, father, and three sisters), and the other by his paternal grandparents.

I was over his house almost every day for years, but I hardly ever saw his grandparents. They would make an appearance once in a while, but I probably only saw them half a dozen times in ten years.

One day - and this would have been around 1979 or so - Mark and I had to go over to his grandparents side of the house. I can’t remember the reason but it must’ve been something small because we were only there for a minute.

Despite the brevity of the visit, I still think about it more than forty years later.

Here’s why...

The door from Mark’s side of the house opened into the kitchen on the grandparents side. As we entered, I couldn’t help but notice that every flat surface in the entire kitchen was completely covered with paper towels.

Not like stacks of paper towel rolls, but individual paper towels rolled out and laid flat edge to edge.


I was extremely confused by the scene but no one mentioned the paper towel infestation, so I didn’t either.

After we left, I asked Mark, “Why did your nana have paper towels all over everything?”

“Oh, she’s drying them out,” he replied.

This was maybe the funniest/strangest thing I had ever heard (at least at the tender age of 10).

I simply could not fathom a rational adult human looking at a soggy pile of used paper towels and thinking, “These are still good!”

I mean... why go to the trouble of reusing something designed to be disposable?

Why not buy fresh ones and save the time and energy?

Why not use real dish towels instead?

What about other paper products like Kleenex and toilet paper?!

The mind reels.

Here’s the thing...

Towels hung out to dry? Not funny.

Paper towels hung out to dry? Funny.


Because paper towels are explicitly designed, manufactured, packaged, priced, distributed, marketed, and sold to be disposable.

That they are cheap enough to throw away is the key feature of the product.

Which makes reusing them funny. It completely misses the point of paper towels.

Okay, do what does this have to do with your business?

I’m glad you asked!

There are a few really interesting things about this story, but the one that I want to focus on today is this:

Perfectly rational adults will sometimes act in ways that seem irrational from the outside.

But their actions are not irrational. You just don’t know what they are thinking.

I never had the chance to talk to her about it, but I can pretty much guarantee you that had I asked Mark’s nana why she reused paper towels, she would have told me a story that perfectly explained her reasoning.

We all tell ourselves stories that explain our actions. Often, these stories are not evident, which can make our behavior appear irrational to others.

If you have a client (or prospect) who you think is doing or asking for something irrational, don’t complain to your colleagues about “stupid clients.”

Instead, find out what story they’re telling themselves.