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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Should Quality Have Time Limits?

Where’s my coffee and a hot shower!

Published: Monday, February 9, 2009 - 17:25

Anyone who has ever purchased merchandise from L.L. Bean is no doubt aware of this rock solid guarantee:

“Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L. Bean that is not completely satisfactory.... Of course, we want you to be the fair judge of quality. If you’re not satisfied with your purchase, we’ll replace it or give you your money back. It’s that simple”.

In my mind, this is the gold standard for how customers should be treated. I’m an L.L. Bean fan and have jackets, coats, fanny packs, and other outerwear that has never worn out. It should come as no surprise that L.L. Bean was just honored as being No. 1 in customer service by the National Retail Federation’s American Express Customers’ Choice survey. What is remarkable about L.L. Bean is that only rarely does one have to activate this guarantee, because merchandise from the company is first-class. If only other companies would adhere to this strong quality ethic. Let me give you an example of how some companies administer their own guarantees.

Several years ago, we received a Cuisinart Grind and Brew Coffeemaker from our children as a Christmas gift. It retails for around $200. It grinds coffee beans automatically whenever you want it to and brews a hot cup of java. The aroma permeates our home as an early morning welcome.

After about a year of use, the coffeemaker developed a defect. A call to Cuisinart and a verification of the three-year warranty provided us with a new brewer. Several years later, another defect surfaced and we made another call to the manufacturer. Inexplicably, at least to me, the customer service representative informed me that the warranty had expired. I was told that the warranty in effect was for the original purchase and the warranty for subsequent coffeemakers reverts back to the date of first purchase. Perplexed by this explanation, I waited a day, called back again, and talked to a different representative who agreed to forward us another coffeemaker. Obviously, he either misinterpreted the warranty or perhaps my calm but firm exhortations convinced him to relent. Whatever the case, we ended our call on a convivial note.

Due to a series of mishaps (i.e., receiving the wrong product, receiving a coffee maker destined for a different customer), we received three new brewers. We returned two of the unopened brewers that were mailed in error, but were told that we were responsible for postage on the defective product. I objected to that and said I was awaiting a postage-paid envelope. The new brewer works perfectly, but is not under warranty.

Shouldn’t each new product have its own warranty? If the merchandise had been sent to another customer it would have the normal three-year warranty—so why not the one I have? It’s ridiculous.

The other example is a water heater that came with our new home—a 40-gallon AO Smith heater. We have lived in our home for 20 years and just last week we had to replace the water heater for the fifth time. The warranty is for six years and, you guessed it, the warranty only covers the first water heater. As long as each water heater gives up the ghost within the first six years, the company provides a replacement.

Each time the water heater failed, it sprung a leak with water cascading all over the basement floor. Our last purchase of a water heater was in 2005, but we were told that the warranty wasn’t valid because the warranty covered a product that was purchased outside of the six-year time period. I have written to AO Smith to compensate me for the cost of a new heater, but I haven’t received a response to date. In the meantime, we purchased a different brand and did so from a different company.

Both of these companies evidently have no confidence in their products. If they did, their warranty would cover each new purchase. If L.L. Bean can guarantee their merchandise forever, why can’t others?

Thanks for listening. After a good venting and a five-mile run I feel much better. So let me move on to some other topics.

Each time I call a company for information or to discuss a problem, I always ask the representative about their location. For instance, when calling a Michigan company I’m always interested to determine if the representatives are headquartered in our state or if the phone bank has been outsourced. I often end up talking to a person in another country. Many of the representatives enjoy discussing their location, because we sometimes talk about the weather or perhaps an upcoming sporting event where their team may be pitted against one of our Detroit teams.

Keep in mind that, as we all know, “calls are being monitored for quality.” Well, just the other day I made a call to Verizon and asked the rep for his location. His response was: “For security reasons I am not able to reveal my location.” I laughed out loud and asked again but was given the same answer. Suggesting that even the President of the United States reveals his location when traveling, the rep saw no humor in that, perhaps taking solace in the fact that former vice president Dick Cheney used to relocate to “an undisclosed location” from time to time. Or just maybe my rep was in a witness protection program and thought I was Tony Soprano. So why does this bother me? I want to think that customer service representatives are there to serve me. I would like to think that along with quality service, their location, and some repartee is part of the contract. But hey, that’s just me!

Now here’s my own special quality message to all of you who use aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Have you noticed that when you attempt to pull out a strip of tin foil, invariably the whole roll comes out of the container? Well, guess what? For quality purposes some companies have located tabs at the two ends of the container with the words “Press in tab to secure roll in box.” Now that’s quality, and something that has escaped me for years until a friend pointed it out. So take a break from reading the remainder of my column and examine the aluminum foil and plastic wrap in your home. Pretty neat, eh?

And what would one of my columns be without my usual reference to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel? The Dearborn property, like all Ritz-Carlton’s, has a bevy of exceptional employees, or ladies and gentlemen as they are called. One in particular is doorman Marty Premtaj who, several years ago, was voted the best doorman in the United States by readers of Condé Nast magazine. Just recently, the Dearborn property celebrated its 20th anniversary and part of the ceremony included an auction for dinner for 10 prepared by the hotel’s executive chef with Premtaj greeting guests at the door. Once Premtaj paraded back and forth on the stage while wearing his top hat, the bidding reached $20,000. The hotel then quickly added another offering and that also went for $20,000 with the money going to charity. It’s obvious to me that quality and great customer service are still a driving force when it comes to purchases, and the attendees at this event certainly solidified that. Way to go Marty!

Career Builder recently published a list of the most ridiculous excuses for missing work. Among the ones that caught my eye were:

  • Employee’s dog was stressed out after a family reunion
  • Employee contracted mono after kissing a mailroom employee at the company holiday party
  • Employee’s psychic told her to stay home

In fact, my psychic just sent me a message through mental telepathy that it was time to end this column, so I will do so. Besides, I have to prepare my coffee brewer for tomorrow’s java and check on my hot water tank to make sure it’s operating properly. By the way, this column has no warranty so if you find it defective or objectionable, contact my psychic. He’ll be expecting you.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.


Guaranteeing merchandise forever?

If L.L. Bean can guarantee their merchandise forever, why can’t others? Some do. Cutco, for instance, has a lifetime guarantee on their knives. We've had ours for 25 years, and they're still going strong. But Cutco and L.L. Bean charge premium prices for their high-quality merchandise. Not everyone can afford them. And even among those who can, many are reluctant to pay their prices, even if in the long run, they would save money by not replacing the cheap stuff over and over.

And that's our fault. We want our stuff cheap. So much stuff is easier to throw away and replace rather than repair. Not to mention the rapid onset of obsolescence with so many things electrical. I don't think HP would stay in business very long if people could return their laptops after three years with no questions asked.

On the other hand, Harley-Davidson just unleashed a new ad campaign - buy a new certain model, and get your money back when you trade up later. That's faith in the long-term value of their bikes.

Anyone want my Ginsus?