It’s not true that everyone who lives in Maine has worked for L.L. Bean, but it sometimes feels that way.

That’s because the outdoor retailer hires thousands of people every fall during the holiday rush, and, at least for a few months, it tries to make them all feel like they are part of the Bean family.

When the rosters shrink in the new year, the seasonal workers fan out across the state and won’t shut up about the incredible bargains they got at the employee store.

Count me as a family member, a distant one – like a fourth cousin, maybe. In the winter of 1990-91 I was a member of Bean’s famous customer service team, and for the past 27 years I have basked in reflected glory every time I hear somebody gush about how well they were treated.

So I got a little defensive last week when my old employer was getting hammered – unfairly, I felt.

“No more lifetime returns,” read a typical headline. “L.L. Bean gives legendary policy the boot.”


The problem is that word “lifetime.” It showed up in nearly every story. But that was never what the company really promised.

No one ever guaranteed that a pair of shoes would last forever – that’s madness.

Bean’s real promise, one that’s still valid with a few caveats, is that the buyer will be “100 percent satisfied,” a much more subtle and complicated concept. Satisfaction means different things to different people and can’t be achieved the same way in every case. It’s more of a philosophical concept than a business plan.

Which is why, before I ever got on the phone with a single customer, Bean’s put me through 80 hours of paid training. It was, by far, more training than I have ever had for any job, including the one I have now.

The “100 percent satisfaction” guarantee was at the heart of it. People were calling us with problems, and they wanted to hear someone on our end take responsibility. Once I finished training I was empowered to do that, and I began repeating the words “I’m sorry” for eight hours a night. After work I couldn’t stop and went around apologizing for everything – the weather (“I’m sorry”), the S&L crisis (“I’m sorry”), the popularity of gangsta rap (“I’m sorry”) – even if it wasn’t my fault. It was good practice, and probably why I’m still married after almost 30 years.

Not all of the calls were complaints. We would get questions about products, too. I liked helping people decide what size shoes to buy.


Me: “Are you wearing shoes now?”

Caller: “Yes.”

Me: “OK. What size are they?”

Caller: “They’re a 10.”

Me: “And how do they feel?”

Caller: “Pretty good.”


Me: “Hmm. I think I’d go with the 10 then.”

Caller: “Thanks, I’ll do that!”

The shoes might not fit, but at least he didn’t have to make the decision alone.

Most of the complaints were from people who had been sent the wrong item, and early on those were easy to resolve because we could ship out replacements, by overnight mail if necessary. As we got deeper into the season, items might be out of stock and we couldn’t correct the order in time.

At that point, my job was to listen, apologize and see if there wasn’t some way we could make it right. Sometimes there was not.

A great lesson from this job was to see that there was very little relationship between how mad people got and how badly we had screwed up their order. The lady whose whole family would be opening envelopes with pictures cut from the catalog on Dec. 25 because her order had been shipped to Alaska instead of Arkansas could be perfectly understanding. But it would be the one who got a small wreath instead of a large one who would hiss, “I want you to know that you ruined my Christmas!” as she slammed down the phone.


I heard some incredible return stories – like the guy who bought a $5 replacement watchband that had fallen apart during a mountain climbing trip. He had no receipt and no watchband, but the company not only replaced his purchase, it gave him a brand-new watch.

Even in those days, however, there were times when we were instructed to say “no.”

A man called to say he had lost a lot of weight and wanted to know how to trade in his old clothes for smaller ones. I had to check with my manager and come back to tell him that we were very sorry. No company could guarantee that you’ll always be fat.

I think people need to lighten up about Bean’s new policy and be thankful for the valuable lessons it imparts: Nothing lasts forever, and satisfaction is a state of mind.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: gregkesich

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