Shep Hyken\'s Customer Service Blog

Big Mistake… Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

There’s an old proverb that says, “Outward appearances are not a reliable indication of true character.” In other words, you can’t – and shouldn’t – judge a book by its cover.

One of my favorite examples of this is from the movie Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. This classic movie from back in the 1990’s was about a wealthy man, Edward Lewis, on a business trip in Beverly Hills who falls in love with a prostitute, Vivian Ward. Edward wants Vivian to attend some of his business functions throughout the week, so he gives her some money (as in thousands of dollars) to buy some conservative, less revealing, clothes. In her “working clothes” Vivian walks into an upscale store where the employees won’t sell her anything and asks her to leave. Dejected, she returns to the hotel. The next day, the hotel manager takes her to a different store and gets her outfitted in some beautiful clothes. As she is walking back to the hotel, dressed in one of her new outfits and carrying several bags with different Beverly Hills store logos on them, she stops back into the store that asked her to leave. She asked the salesperson if she remembers her from yesterday. She reminds her, and then comes the famous line from the movie: “Big mistake. Big. Huge! I have to go shopping now.”

I experienced something similar years ago when I was looking to buy a new car. I was just 22 years old and driving an older car that had 170,000 miles on it. I’m not exaggerating! I walked into the dealership and none of the sales people would talk to me. I knew it was the car. They saw me drive up in an old car and decided I didn’t have the money to buy a new car.

The next day I went back, but this time in my father’s car, which was quite nice. This time I was approached by numerous salespeople. I had no trouble finding a sales person who wanted to sell me a car. I shared the story with the manager of the dealership, who was quite embarrassed. As a way of apologizing, he sold me a car at a fantastic price.

In business, it can be economically dangerous to make a snap judgement based on someone’s looks, what they are wearing, the car they drive and more. The founder of Walmart, Sam Walton, used to drive a pick-up truck. He didn’t look like a man who was worth billions of dollars. How many times did he “fool” people with his unassuming looks. It wasn’t intentional. It was just who he was.

Unless they prove otherwise, customers should be treated like… customers. Don’t make the mistake of judging a book by its cover. As Vivian Ward said in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Big. Huge!”

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact or For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to Follow on Twitter: @Hyken

(Copyright © MMXVII, Shep Hyken)

    • This is a BIG oops! Thank you for pointing this out. We saw it earlier today and fixed it on the website. Unfortunately, it went out with an error to 20,000 subscribers. Proof that spell check doesn’t do a grammar check! I always joke that Mark Twain once said, “I feel bad for the man that can’t spell a word more than one way.” Yes, it is funny, but at the same time is serious.Thanks again for letting us know.

  1. Glad the typo was caught! Shows that everyone there is human…not robots! By the way, Shep – great post! In my line of work (retail and customer/Guest service), I have learned over the years that you NEVER judge by appearance! Age, clothing, etc. are the least of the indicators of a person! Many people prefer not to show their net worth on the outside – think of all the Hollywood types who go incognito – when they are out and about! I know when I am on the sales floor, I treat every Guest as an individual who has individual likes and dislikes and help them accordingly. Each person is a Guest in my view unless they prove themselves differently!

    • Like I’ve said before, you get it! Interesting point about how celebrities go incognito. Thanks for stopping by with your comment.

  2. Excellent advice, Shep! We’re all sometimes guilty of making unconscious judgments about other people. It’s an instinctive reaction, making it hard to control. What we *can* do is recognize the instinct and consciously treat every customer the right way. Your story is a good example that appearances can be deceiving!

    • Thank you Jeff! As always, you stop by and share some very insightful comments. Someone commented that wealthy celebrities often go incognito, so they won’t be recognized – often dressing down. Like the title of the article, that is a “Big Mistake!”

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