LL Bean: Urban Myth or Rural Superstition?

Over at The Consumerist, there’s a snappy bunch of stories about the legend of LL Bean, the Maine-based outfitter who just wants to make you happy. As one reader tells the story, they insisted on taking back monogrammed shirts that his wife had bought in entirely the wrong size.

He tried to insist it was his fault, not LL Bean’s, but Bean wouldn’t take no for an answer. They just had to make sure that his monogrammed shirts would fit him by accepting the old ones for return. (The comments alone are worth reading for a thorough exploration of the pros and cons of having such a liberal policy. Plus they’re fun.)

But let’s talk about the larger issue. LL Bean is not the only firm behaving this way. Every time I teach an exercise on customer satisfaction, someone has a Nordstrom’s tale to tell. There’s a lunch counter in Lincoln Nebraska that uses an honor box to sell sandwiches on the sidewalk for a buck each in the summertime. And so on.

In discussing the dynamics of such policies, I’m bemused to find how many people insist, “it won’t work.” If you point out that it has worked for over a hundred years for LL Bean, they repeat, “it won’t work.” Endless loop.

Sure, it can be abused, and sometimes it is. What’s interesting is, why isn’t it abused more often? In Lincoln, reportedly the homeless people monitor each other to be sure no one takes undue advantage. (I know, I know, it’d never happen in New York. Except I bet it does).

There is an innate sense among people that will keep anthropologists, bio-ethicists, animal intelligence students and other social researchers busy for years to come trying to “explain” it. Meanwhile, it clearly “is.”

And you can make book on it. This is the principle that underlies trust-based selling: if people trust you, they will strongly prefer to give you the business. There’s no better way to get people to trust you than to trust them, by putting yourself at risk.

David Maister always put an explicit guarantee on his work: 100% satisfaction or just pay him what you thought it was worth, including nothing.

Takers? None.

The act of the offer ensures it will rarely be taken up–as long as the offer is genuine.

This is reciprocity in the sense that academic Robert Cialdini writes about as the number one source of influence. If you treat me right, I’ll treat you right. If you listen to me, I’ll listen to you. If you trust me, I’ll trust you.

The wonder is not how often our trust gets abused; it’s how few Bernie Madoffs there are.

I remember hearing of a pizza chain that offered a satisfaction guarantee—if you didn’t like the pizza, you’d get one free. One nasty customer kept saying he wasn’t satisfied, and demanding another new one each time he ordered.

Finally the owner went to the customer and said, “I’m really sorry, but it appears we have failed consistently to meet your high standards. It frustrates me no end, but I have to confess, we just don’t seem to be able to make a good enough pizza. I wish we could, but we have no choice but to reluctantly stop selling you our inferior pizza. Please accept our apologies.”

3 replies
  1. Phil McGee
    Phil McGee says:

    This piece reminded me of a story. 

    I belong to a group where people come together to discuss situations in their lives.  There are no rules but there is a requirement that members be willing to share openly and leave what they hear in the meeting room. 

    Over the years some have tried to introduce rules; most of which are referred back to the requirement of willingness to share openly and then abandoned.  There is, however, one attempted rule which has gained traction and is actually mentioned at the roll call.  That rule is that profanity is not allowed.

    So I, naturally, make it a point to use “fuck” almost every time I share my thoughts.

    A week or two ago another thoughtful member ruined it for me by suggesting that instead of saying that profanity is not allowed we begin to request that members refrain from using it. 

    I haven’t used it since and the reason is that I am now asked to control my behavior rather than allowing others to control it.  I was now being trusted with the decision over my choice of words.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I love it.  We live up–or down–to others’ expectations.  And others respond similarly to our expectations of them.  Until we’re all cosmically evolved–and may be even then–that’s how we humans work.


  3. Cary King
    Cary King says:

    One must be careful not to attribute this personal behavior to corporations.

    What makes L.L. Bean and some others so extraordinary is their corporate behavior.  There are lots of examples of individuals, or individuals in small firms behaving in this way.  There are few examples of large corporations behaving this way.

    We’re a small firm, just a handful.  Quite specialized.  Our clients are really huge corporations.  The kinds of companies for which you see television ads almost every day.

    We travel to them, do work that saves them $ millions in documented costs.  Yet, most consistently pay bills three or more months late.  For one client, recently, we had over $100k in travel expenses, saved them, by their reckoning, more than four times our fees, we still haven’t been paid.



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