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Guaranteed to Please

FedEx has one. So do L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, Amazon.com, and just about every other big company you can name. The question is, what about little old you? Do you have a service guarantee? Have you got the guts (not to mention the largesse) to promise your customers absolute satisfaction, and then hand them their money if you let them down? Does an ironclad service guarantee make any kind of economic sense for an IP, or does it simply prove that you're a few peas short of a casserole?

After all, when you work alone, there's only so much time (and money) to go around. And everybody knows that some clients will always be impossible to satisfy, no matter how often you feast on crow. It's almost a game with them, seeing how far they can push you. So why would any right-minded IP dream of instituting a fool thing like a performance guarantee -- practically a gilded invitation to the squeakiest wheels to become even squeakier?

Because it's a damned good idea.

The case for guarantees in any business shapes up like this. Since nobody "owns" customers anymore, a good guarantee helps with a company's main long-term worry, and that's its shaky détente with customers' loyalties. It builds marketing muscle by kindling good word of mouth, encouraging repeat business, and, not incidentally, making you think about how to deliver superb quality all the time. (The potential expense of the guarantee should be balanced against the very real expense of marketing yourself -- and guarantees are a form of marketing.) A guarantee works like a charm when yours is the kind of business that depends on holding onto the customers you've got, either because long-term relationships matter a lot or because your market is too small to keep you supplied with a glut of new clients. A guarantee also hoists you above the crowd if your business is profoundly affected by word of mouth (good and bad), or if your industry has a lousy reputation for quality. Of course, if you're now and forever the market leader, or you never make mistakes, or you offer something so mind-blowing and unique that nobody can hope to match it, then you can stop right here, because guaranteeing your work won't do much for you. Everybody else, read on.

A guaranteed service pledge can also fortify an IP's own solo competitive territory, and help you stand out and get work even in crowded and cutthroat industries. For example, if you're in the market for presentation design -- slides and PowerPoint imaging, multimedia presentations, that kind of thing -- there are plenty of mega service bureaus you can go to. Or you can work with Chris Hoffman, a computer consultant and multimedia designer. Hoffman started Seminar Graphics in April of 1993. He soon discovered that his competition -- monster firms, mostly -- promised clients the world and "delivered Siberia," as he says. His policy is simple: "If you're unhappy with the quality of our work, you will not be charged."

Like all good guarantees, Hoffman's works because it's not vaporware; it's part of a rock-solid business philosophy. "Most of my business -- 88 percent -- comes from repeat customers," he says. "Nobody's ever taken me up on the guarantee," Hoffman says, "but once I had a customer who was happy with the quality of the job. But I wasn't, so I just gave it to him. I do things that aren't expected of me, to keep people happy." A less-than-stellar job incurs costs, too, like peeved customers who badmouth you, something Hoffman can't stand and can't afford.

But service guarantees aren't just for densely populated fields like multimedia design.

In Bowdoinham, Maine, Mike Haskell designs and runs offsite executive retreats. His business, Adventure Quest, specializes in offsite meetings that have three components: adventure (sailing, sea kayaking, hiking), facilitation (discussion of the critical business issues), and post-adventure (where changes are implemented). Haskell's promise is short and sweet: "Your Adventure Quest Executive Retreat will be the most dynamic and productive retreat ever. You have my promise. If your Retreat does not produce the measurable results you want, I'll give you your money back -- period."

Haskell says he can't think of any client who picked Adventure Quest specifically because of the guarantee, "but everybody mentions it. And no, I've never had anyone ask for their money back." No matter what, Haskell's prepared to do whatever it takes to satisfy a customer, an attitude he picked up from his stint with L. L. Bean, where customers can return a product any time for any reason and get a refund, a credit, or a replacement. "I guess it's my Yankee heritage," he muses.

As a way to conduct and explain business philosophy, Haskell believes a guarantee is matchless. "Do I think other independent professionals should take the same approach? Absolutely! Of course, it requires that they determine exactly what the client wants, and how success will be measured," he says. "If they're not willing to do that, they're selling snake oil."

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