Good service is as much about perception as it is about actually correcting issues.

A significant contributor to the world’s problems is disposable hard goods. The culture of creating solid, dependable products that have viable repair options has declined, leaving us with a surplus of short-term junk. Good products cost more up front and the total cost of ownership (TCO) is well lower.

Take this example: I buy a pair of cheap shoes for $65. They last 6 months, after which the shoemaker informs me that they’ll cost $120 to repair. I will not repair them — it doesn’t make sense to repair them at that price — so I buy a new pair and discard the old ones. My TCO is $130 per year.

I could have bought a good pair of shoes for $120. I’d spend $10 to have them shined and protected twice a year. After a year, I take them to the shoemaker for new soles and heels, $65. A year later, the shoemaker’s good worksmanship holds and I do a quick repair job with $1 worth of Crazy Glue. One more year goes by and I need new soles and heels again, $70 this time, due to inflation. By the end of the fourth year, I’ve spent $336, a $84-per-year TCO.

The better shoes cost me 65% less, even though I spent about twice as much up front. The long term costs are generally the same, regardless of up-front cost. To match the TCO of the $65 shoe, I’d have to spend $300 on the initial purchase. In this case, I’d also be walking around in $300 shoes, not $65 shoes.

You may argue that this works well for cars and shoes but less expensive goods aren’t the same. I would counter that I still have 2 Zippo lighters, $15 up front with $3 per year in lighter fluid, that have lasted me more years than I can remember.

How about computers? I’m writing this on a computer that cost me $3,000, seven years ago. I’ve put about $500 into it, mostly due to a $300 Viewsonic to replace the disposable Dell monitors that it came with. That’s about $500 a year and my friends are all jealous that my 7-year-old computer runs circles around the thing they bought last year. I run virtual machines with Windows 7 and Mac OS X simultaneously, in the background without degrading my ability to use the computer, each alone with more horsepower than a $700 laptop running the same OS.

So what happens when it breaks?

Zippo has a long-standing tradition of repairing their products for free. Their service model runs similar to this: “we made it, so we’re going to make sure it keeps running.” They don’t ask you why your lighter no longer produces flame before they fix it; they just fix it. They don’t ask you when you bought it then refer you to the Out Of Warranty Service Department for an estimate; they just fix it.

Similarly, my shoemaker’s eyes light up when I bring him expensive shoes to fix. He doesn’t charge me more. Often, the more expensive shoes cost less to fix because they were built to be fixed. I can see the disappointment in his eyes when I bring him the cheap shoes. He wants to help me, he wants to fix them for me; he knows that these shoes aren’t worth fixing. A small piece of my soul is lost, knowing that I’ve contributed to global decline brought about by ruthless consumerism. He gives me the perception of strong, qualified service: I know that he knows what he’s doing and I simply trust his opinion. I’m not afraid to let someone else drop off my shoes at the shoemaker: he’ll do what he needs to and charge me the correct amount when I pick them up. I trust his service.


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