Extra-mile reputations

In the 1970s a little, relatively unknown company in Freeport, Maine broke into the national consciousness when its signature product — a half-rubber/half-leather boot with a chain-link tread became a  preppy-driven status symbol. Invented by Leon L. Bean, the boots weren’t especially high-tech, were a bear to walk over ice with, but they looked weird and before long everyone had to have a pair. One thing was said of L.L. Bean: they would replace a product, no questions asked. I never had a chance to put this to the test, but the legend went that if you walked into the Freeport store with a broken something, the clerk would get a new one and hand it over.

Sears Roebuck is legendary among mechanics and carpenters because of a similar policy with their Craftsman line of tools. Walk into any Sears with a broken Craftsman tool and walk out with a new one. No questions asked. (I have never tested this guarantee either.) According to the Oracle of Wikipedia:

“Craftsman® is ranked by men as the No. 1 brand in America for overall quality, according to a recent brand survey. Consumers in general ranked Craftsman No. 2 in terms of quality – preceded only by Waterford crystal. (Source: Nov. 2002 EquiTrend(SM) survey by Harris Interactive).”

I did not know that. Doubtlessly some of that reputation comes from the lifetime guarantee.

Guy Kawasaki used to tell the story of Nordstrom’s during his days as Apple’s evangelist in the 80s, extolling the legendary customer service that would see Nordstrom employees making good on products the department store didn’t even sell. Again, No questions asked.

I’m sure there are other examples of brand that don’t argue, don’t quibble, don’t point at the fine print, but who simply suck it up and hand over a new one of whatever. Of such stuff are marketing legends — perhaps myths made. I bet it feels great to work for such a company.
I started thinking about this yesterday afternoon as I boarded a JetBlue flight from Boston to West Palm Beach. The plane was packed. We left on time. We arrived on time. I was happy. Was I offered a second bag of Terra Blue Potato Chips because the attendants were told to? An act of junk food contrition?

Once I was in line at a Best Buy and the guy in front of me was given the usual upsell for an extended warranty on a disposal piece of electronics. His answer was a classic: “Why? Will it break? What’s wrong with the warranty that comes with it?”

We’re entering a new age of consumer empowerment. The Better Business Bureau can move over. Bills of rights, class action law suits, hate blogs … the megaphone is in the customers’ hands and I suspect only a very select few brands are ready to handle the revolution.  Mark Hopkins has a  about the coconut cake — I suggest anyone in marketing or customer service read it. It’s about the extra mile, something only a select few can do, or afford to do.

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