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Where is the value?

Back in the early days of computers, or so the legend goes, when an entire room housed less computing power than in today’s iPhone, a large government agency had a serious problem: their computer system stopped working. Though it was only three weeks since the system had been certified, the startup sequence refused to complete, leaving the agency lacking critical operational capabilities. Work on the project ground to a halt while every engineer on staff checked and rechecked wiring, tubes, and relays to find the issue. But two weeks of troubleshooting amounted to nothing, and the Director of the agency was beside himself with frustration. He decided to hire the worldwide expert on such computer systems, a retired professor who was known for his sense of humor.

The professor arrived on site in a white lab coat, was briefed by the Director, and immediately asked to be given access to the computer room. Once there, he proceeded to walk around the room from cabinet to cabinet. The Director and his staff watched with increasing curiosity as the professor paused before each cabinet for a moment, scratched his beard, muttered under his breath, and moved on to the next cabinet. Finally, after forty five long minutes of this, the professor stood up more erect, smiled at the Director and his staff, withdrew a piece of chalk from his coat pocket, walked over to one machine cabinet and marked a large “X” on the side of the cabinet. “Your problem is in here,” he said confidently. And, sure enough, as the technicians opened up the marked cabinet, they discovered a subtle wiring issue that had been missed by all previous inspections. Gratefully, they fixed the problem and were able to resume operation. “Please, send me your bill – whatever it is, I’ll see that it is paid promptly,” said the Director.

The professor sent a bill to the agency, a one-line invoice for “troubleshooting: $1000”. Unfortunately, as government policy dictated, the Director needed a detailed itemized invoice, and he was forced to delay payment and request the proper details from the professor. The professor’s corrected invoice arrived, and it read as follows:

One piece of chalk, with which to mark the problem: $0.01
Knowing where to place the mark: $999.99

The real value to your customers is in knowing how to fulfill their needs. All the rest is a commodity.

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