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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Extra-mile reputations”

  1. Good points. True about LLBean. A few years ago, I walked into the Freeport Main St location with an old barn jacket… Personally I liked the aged feel… but the next thing I knew I had one clerk peeling it off my back, and another clerk giving me a new one…

    Needless to say, I buy LL Bean stuff, and have mad respect for the ethics of their Brand.

    Search for LLBean blog and you get this: http://www.thebagblog.com/bags/2005/09/ll_bean_bags.php

    Can’t buy UGC like this: “You know, if you call LL Bean and ask nicely, they might work a miracle or suggest something very similar.”


  2. I too have availed myself of the generous LL Bean return policy. It got me through prep school and one pair of purchased bluchers….

    They have a lifelong customer in me. Forever. My children will wear bean, my dogs, my lice…

    Now, what do we do about this broken keyboard light on my X60 and the bent plug that serves as the power doohikie? Someone is going to ask me if I dropped it — I certainly did NOT…

    My wife tripped over the power cord….ahhh, Mac’s magic magenito connection where art thou?

  3. Fester — no problem. We’ll take care of you. What do you need? A new adapter and …. I’ll see about the keyboard light.

    clumsy clumsy

  4. Ah, the old L.L. Bean muckaluks! I bought a pair for my first summer at sleep-over camp in Maine over ten years ago, and I still have them. As a matter of fact, I recently resurrected them from the basement and was out shoveling in the snow last week. And you’re right, they are completely useless on the ice, and my tail bone can attest to that!

    Even better, i just bought a wide brim outdoorsman hat there and am excited for years of sun protective, hat-wearing delight.

    You’re also right about the blog as a tool for consumer empowerment. My wife recently got hosed trying to buy Sting tickets through the evil Ticketmaster and the Police fan club. Thirty minutes before tickets went on sale, they changed the policy on the home page of their web sites to release themselves from responsibility when more people bought fan club memberships than they had tickets available. The way both parties handled it was completely bogus. My first reaction was to blog about it, but she was so disgusted, she just wanted to forget about it.

  5. I remember going to the LL Bean shop as a small boy with my dad. It didn’t matter what time, day or night, it was always open. That was to accommodate hunters, trappers, etc. Those Bean boots were designed so when you wore out the bottoms you could then return them for replacement. Leon, being a true Yankee New Englander, didn’t want to waste the leather uppers. He invented them because leather boots suffered from water damage and leakage in the New England woods where (especially in the winter) you could take a step and find your foot in a bog hole full of water.

    As a mechanic Craftsman tools are the top recommendation for the non-professional or even semi-pro. Their design is very good, the quality is the very best, and their price is reasonable. I have NEVER had any problem returning any Craftsman tool – EVER.

  6. David,
    A neighbor/cousin of yours once had a party where someone left a pair of well used LL Bean boots behind. On his next trip to Maine he stopped into the store and explained that the boots were leaking and could he get a new pair. He did, in a different size, color and model. I think he still has them.

    When LL Bean sold his boots for the first time in the 20’s every boot that was made developed a problem where the uppers pulled apart from the rubber bottoms. He took back every pair and had to track down some of the buyers so that he could return their money as well. His company’s reputation for custumor service was born with those leaky old boots.

  7. Let’s talk Craftsman: years ago I owned a Lotus Cartoilet (Cortina). I wrenched it so much I began to know part numbers. During the first rebuild of this car i found myself using a 13mm wrench to unbolt the fly wheel. As someone who grew up on Volkswagon upright engines, I immediately pulled out my 5 foot piece of galvi pipe, stuck it over the wrench which was onthe bolt, and started jumping up and down on the pipe. Of course the wrench broke. Sooo….I march in to Sears at 9 p.m on Fiday night all filled with righteous indignation. the clerk takes the filthy wrench from my hands, walks over to the counter , gives me a new wrench and out i went.
    What i didn’t tell the clerk was thhe wrenches were bought by my dad in the 30’s and that I had been using it stuck in the end of a piece of galvi pipe to increase leverage.
    tey didn’t care, they just replaced the wrench. I love Craftsman tools.

    jim Forbes

  8. I want to know what LL Bean puts into its employees coffee. I once witnessed a couple boldly return an entire week’s worth of brand-new camping gear — obviously used for the week — and the salesperson batted nary an eye nor raised an eyebrow. They were treated with utter courtesy. What’s THAT all about?

  9. I’ve exploded my share of Craftsman tools as well. My tool box has two varieties of tools – some high line tools – Matco, S&K, Craftsman, and some Tawain no names bought under flea market tents and at those big tool import stores. The former, especially the Craftsmans are a joy to use, and return after you’ve used a 1/2 impact gun to complete explode a universal socket joint trying to get a rusted, off angle manifold bolt out. I take a ziplock bag of busted tool parts in, and the clerk picks the closest replacements they stock (sometimes upgraded models) and hands them out. I keep the no-name cheapos in my tool box to cut down to fit in unique situations, or sometimes in last ditch efforts to get a bolt out, I put a cheap box end wrench over the bolt head and mig weld the wrench to the bolt. The heat cycle of the weld usually breaks the bolt loose, and then you can just use a hammer to beat on the wrench end until the bolt comes loose. Throw it away without a guilty thought when done.

    Now with tools, especially sockets & the like, they are pennies in production, so I can understand how Sears can swap them without worry. How does LL manage to underwrite such flagrant customer ‘usage’? Do they pass the burden on to their suppliers? If so, how do the suppliers stomach it? Or are LL margins high enough to support the policy?

    Thus far, we have all marveled at these policies, now we just have to figure out how they are affordable and applicable in other industries.

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