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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Do You Trust Your Customers?

Last year, I had the privilege of spending some time on some beautiful islands off the coast of the state of Washington. As I passed a local farm, I noticed a fruit and vegetable stand that by the side of the road. No one appeared to be there but a customer.  A few months later, I “googled” the islands and read a story about the farm stand and how payment has been made on the honor system for generations. At the end of the day, the farmer goes to the stand, collects the money and any unsold produce. I had to smile as I read it, wondering how many locales in the United States one could take such an approach and succeed. The farmer showed complete trust in his island neighbors and visitors.

Reading the article sent my mind racing. How many businesses are built on complete trust and do they succeed? As a New England native, it did not take me long to think of a great example.

Sometime before the beginning of World War I, Leon Leonwood Bean , a passionate Maine hunter, had an idea. He wanted to develop a hunting shoe that would keep his feet warm as he trekked across the frigid Maine woods. A shoe store manager, he approached the town cobbler to help him develop the perfect shoe for hunting. Jointly, they came up with a new shoe with strong leather uppers and waterproof rubber bottoms. By 1912, he tried to market it via a direct mail campaign to out of state hunters.
The prominent line in the direct mail effort was “We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way.”

Shortly after the mailing, things looked rosy. Over 100 pairs of The Maine Hunting Shoe were sold. Not long after, disaster struck. The new shoes fell apart after very little use and 90 of the original pairs were returned. At this point, most people would have quietly closed up shop. Not Leon, who soon was to become known as L.L. Bean. He borrowed money and promptly returned payment for the shoes to each customer.

Undaunted, Mr. Bean did perfect the shoe, branched out in to other areas, and today L.L. Bean of Freeport, Maine is a household name. And, importantly, the company still maintains its 100 percent guarantee. Virtually every year in my adult life, I have purchased either a pair of top-siders or moccasins from Bean. As they age, I change their use and the oldest pair is used when I am (rarely) doing yard work. I know that despite their age I could return any worn pair for a full refund, but I never do. Why? L.L. Bean has trusted me to behave honestly and I plan to do so.

Is this unique? Well, several retail players have aped the Bean approach but others have not. It has been rumored that Home Depot, Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart have sophisticated software that tracks consumers who make frequent returns. Some stores allow managers to refuse returns to these customers using their own judgement.

Bean does get ripped off now and then. But, I would bet that the number who return worn out items if very small. Somewhere in the cobwebs of my memory is a quote from a Roosevelt cabinet officer who said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

As online retailing has grown, marketers have to make many quick decisions around the holidays. People call and say that their order has not arrived yet. Do you send another knowing that, at some point, the customer will have two orders?

 When you insist on credit card or certified check or money order and granny sends you a personal check do you ship the order before her check clears because that is the only way she will get the item before Christmas Day? Most retailers seem to say it depends on the size of the order.

Each year a few research outfits track who gives the best customer service in the U.S. Recent leaders have been Zappos, Overstock.com, Amazon, and Land’s End. But as far back as I can track it, the gold medal often goes to, you guessed it, L.L. Bean.

It appears that trusting customers and communicating that fact well is a big brand builder. Do you truly trust your customers? Think about it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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