Carl Sewell's Not-So-Secret Business Philosophy: Customers for Life

By Ted Ings, Executive Director

“Treat the customer how you would like to be treated.” - Carl Sewell

When we say someone wrote the book on something, we are generally talking figuratively but in the case of legendary US auto dealer, Carl Sewell, he quite literally wrote the book on customer service.

In 1988, Carl Sewell, then the owner of the second-largest Cadillac dealership in America, published his book “Customers for Life: How to turn that one-time buyer into a lifetime customer” and since then he has sold over 1 million copies. In 2002 Sewell released a completely revised and updated edition of his seminal work with five new chapters.

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In this edition, he enhanced his book with new ideas and examples that explained how his “Ten Commandments of Customer Service” could still be applied more than a decade later. And what was relevant in 1988 was still relevant in 2002, and most importantly, it is still relevant today.

Carl Sewell’s success is based on personal insight

The reason why Carl Sewell’s advice has stood the test of time and remained relevant for over three decades is that it works. Just because times change, does not mean that the fundamental principles of customer service have to change as well. Whether you are using cash to buy a car from a dealership or bitcoin to buy in-game currency in a virtual world, you expect a certain level of customer service.

Carl Sewell has based his success not on the product he sells, although he sells a very good product, but on a sales and service concept that is based on building relationships rather than selling vehicles.

Service is the cornerstone of Sewell’s business success

Carl Sewell’s entire vision is encapsulated in the title of his book “Customers for Life”. More than thirty years ago, Sewell recognized that the key to building a successful chain of dealerships is not about the one car that you sell today, it is about the relationships that you build with your customers so that they come back again and again.

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The ultimate aim for Carl Sewell is to ensure that every customer, and their family, comes back and buys every car they’ll ever own from a Sewell Dealership for generations. And success like that you can’t achieve solely on the back of an excellent product. If you want to build true relationships with customers, you need to go the extra mile for them.

Based on the “Customers for Life” principles laid down by Carl Sewell in 1988, Sewell’s has remained a family-owned business for decades and they now have 16 dealerships in Dallas, Fort Worth, Grapevine, Houston and San Antonio.

And it is not just the automotive industry that can learn from “Customer for Life”, the principles that Carl Sewell espouses in his book can be applied to any industry. This has made the book an international bestseller that has been translated into 19 different languages and remained relevant for thirty years.

Sewell’s Ten Commandments of Customer Service

Carl Sewell didn’t just pick his “Ten Commandments of Customer Service” out of thin air and he didn’t make them up because he wanted to see his name in print. Sewell based these principles on personal experience. He is passionate about customer service and sharing his knowledge with others in order to improve the customer experience for everyone.

“Customers for Life” focuses on getting customers to return again and again and is a down-to-earth read devoid of highbrow managerial jargon and confusing sales speak. Sewell demonstrates how businesses can remain committed to quality service by sticking to his tried and tested approach: Figure out what customers want and make sure they get it.

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You will be able to improve your service by reading “Customers for Life”, yet there is no improving on what Carl Sewell has to say.

Here are his “Ten Commandments of Customer Service” as written by the legend himself:

1. Bring ’em back alive. Ask customers what they want and give it to them again and again.

2. Systems, not smiles. Saying please and thank you doesn’t ensure you’ll do the job right the first time. Only systems guarantee you that.

3. Under promise, over-deliver. Customers expect you to keep your word. Exceed it

4. When the customer asks the answer is always “yes.”

5. Fire your inspectors and consumer relations department. Every employee who deals with clients must have the authority to handle complaints.

6. No complaints? Something’s wrong. Encourage your customers to tell you what you’re doing wrong.

7. MEASURE EVERYTHING. Professional sports teams do it. You should too.

8. Salaries are unfair. Pay people like partners.

9. Your mother was right. Show people respect. Be polite. It works.

10. "Japanese" them. Learn how the best do it: make their systems your own. Then improve them.

Keeping it in the family

The 108-year-old company, started by Carl Sewell Sr in 1911, is now led by the fourth generation of the Sewell family; Carl and his wife Peggy’s two children, Jacquelin Sewell and Carl Sewell III. When he was 14 years old Carl Sr., who worked in his father’s hardware store in Arlington, Texas, gave every farmer who purchased a Model T Ford kit from the hardware store a driving lesson. And that was the start of the famous Sewell service philosophy.


Carl Jr. was introduced to the family business at an early age and is grateful for being born into a dealership family. He remembers his father taking him to their Lincoln-Mercury dealership when he was 5 years old. In 1957, Carl Sr. bought a Dallas Cadillac dealership for his son and in 1972, after Carl Sr died, Sewell took over the family business. When he had his own children, Sewell made sure that they too were introduced to the automotive industry at a young age.

Carl’s children both worked in the dealership during their summer holidays as teenagers, learning the business from the ground up. And it’s not just the Sewell family that is committed to this company, they also have customers who are third and fourth generation.

There are many lessons to be learned from Carl Sewell yet if you only take away one thing from this legend in the automotive industry let it be his passion for customer service.

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