The iconic TV show The Office has long attracted a cult-like fandom who first fell in love with the diverse, witty, and memorable personalities of the characters. But hidden within each episode is always something more — whether it’s subtle social commentary or even business advice. 

And I found the key to growing any online business while watching (for an undisclosed number of times) Episode 13 Season Five, titled “Prince Family Paper.”

 The episode sees Michael and Dwight going undercover for the key to overthrowing a nearby family-owned business competitor: “the list.”    

So what is this list? 

It’s a list of customers, or stakeholders — the heart of any business. 

A seller’s customer list is how they continue to grow their business because they are able to market to their community that they’ve built for them. Oftentimes, companies buy other companies not for technology or branding, but for their list – as what happened when Microsoft bought Skype.

In the episode, the Dunder Mifflin paper company has long struggled to sell to and acquire clients in this area, due to the competing family business and their loyalty, strong customer service and friendliness to their customers. Instead, Dunder Mifflin sends Michael and Dwight to take advantage of the business’s kindness and scam away the key to the family business — a long list of customers, to which the business unknowingly gives away (thinking the duo were potential customers themselves). With that customer list, Dunder Mifflin successfully gains control of the clients and ruins the family business.

Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the cruel practices used by large corporations to put smaller, local companies out of business.

After all, it’s not too unlike the practices used by Amazon, where no seller on the platform actually own their own customer list — rather, they are prohibited from contacting customers at all, leaving Amazon to benefit instead. 

But equally so, it’s an attest to the importance of having the customer list in the first place. As the cost of acquiring new customers drastically increases, oftentimes with no guarantee of success, the importance of an existing customer base becomes evident.

American software company RJMetrics reports that repeat customers spend almost 300% more money than new customers.

Making the time for gathering the necessary information (email, phone, or even just name) for creating and keeping a customer list represents a huge opportunity to grow and expand a business’ potential reach.

As we see in The Office, once Dunder Mifflin acquires that list, they immediately use it to their advantage and seek out the new sales leads to promote their own (and cheaper) products. Alongside their existing customer list, the Dunder Mifflin sales team uses the list to expand even further and test out new items prior to their new product launch, and to track customer satisfaction. And if Dunder Mifflin is so set on getting this customer list, and even go to such lengths as using subterfuge techniques, the message is quite clear: 

Entrepreneurs need to focus all their efforts into the audience – building them, engaging, them, and nurturing them. It’s all about serving your customers.

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