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`We guarantee it!' And they really do

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 1988


One-hundred-percent satisfaction guaranteed - or your money back. How many times have you read or heard that and thought ``Now what's the catch?'' A lot of people scoff at such promises, many of which are designed merely to make consumers ``feel good'' about a purchase. Yet, a growing number of companies are not only offering unconditional guarantees - they are following through. Try not to be surprised, for instance, if a teller at National Westminster Bank in New York City treats you like a human being instead of a piece of office furniture. That's because the bank guarantees courteous service. If any employee at the bank acts grumpy or fractious, tell a manager about it and collect $5 cash on the spot - no argument, no hassle.

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Then there's Miami-based ``Bugs'' Berger Bug Killers (BBBK). When you hire this company to come to your home, hotel, or restaurant, it guarantees to eliminate the cockroaches, mice, rats, and other pests. Although other companies frequently guarantee only to reduce pests to manageable levels, BBBK will write a letter of apology to any customer who even sees a bug - and will treat the hotel or restaurant customer to a free meal or a stay at the hotel.

`We wouldn't cash their check'

``It makes you different from everybody else,'' says Al Berger, who founded the company in 1961, and in 1986 sold it to S.C. Johnson & Co., which continues the ironclad guarantee. ``We were adamant that if the problem could not be solved within the guidelines of the guarantee, we wouldn't cash their check - we'd tear it up and send it back.''

The old-fashioned idea that the ``customer is always right,'' some business experts say, is staging a comeback. A handful of companies have gone beyond paying lip service to this ideal, and have adopted it as a pragmatic business philosophy, says Christopher Hart, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School.

``I've worked with 14 companies in the last eight months, and not one of them has dropped the ball on this idea of an unconditional guarantee,'' Mr. Hart says. ``The guarantee idea seems to be one that galvanizes top management's thinking and shows them a way to make quality more than a company slogan.''

In a world teeming with options for every service and product, some companies find that an absolute guarantee gives them a competitive edge by building customer trust.

Mr. Berger says the guarantee has paid off with great word-of-mouth referrals. The flip side is that a guarantee like that ``really puts the pressure and fear of loss on you,'' Berger says. ``Man, if you don't perform, you're out of business.''

Detroit auto manufacturers are currently waging a ``war of warranties.'' A few weeks ago, General Motors offered a ``bumper-to-bumper'' warranty for 36 months or 50,000 miles. Ford and Chrysler have matched GM. But even though those guarantees may be the best available in the industry, they are far from being full-fledged efforts to really satisfy customers, Hart believes.

``When you take your car in for a warranty repair, did they really cover your cost of time, expense of driving it there, and aggravation?'' Hart asks. ``Imagine for a minute an auto company that promises, `Anytime you bring your car in for warranty, we're going to pay you $100.' Now that's a guarantee.''

One company that knows how to satisfy customers and build a reputation is L.L. Bean, the outdoor clothing and equipment company based in Freeport, Maine. It all started with the original Mr. Bean, who, when he sold his first 100 pairs of Maine hunting boots, offered customers an unconditional guarantee.

Fully 90 pairs of broken-down boots promptly came flying back in his face. Fortunately, the fiasco didn't deter Bean, who returned his customers' money, but built his boots better the next time.