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Why Not Guarantee Professional Services?

by Mike McLaughlin  |  
August 2, 2005

In the 1830s, Cyrus Hall McCormick invented the world's first mechanical reaper, a machine with the potential to improve farmers' productivity tenfold. Astonishingly, farmers remained uninterested—or at least unconvinced. For nine years, sales were virtually zero as McCormick's brilliant invention languished in the barn.

McCormick changed all that when he decided to offer a written, money-back guarantee on the reaper. Sales skyrocketed, and McCormick went on to become one of the wealthiest men in America.

Since that time, guarantees, especially on products, have become commonplace. But guarantees have only inched their way into professional services.

In fact, professional service providers often have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea. A consultant once asked me what factors most influence a client to buy services. "Have you ever considered offering clients an unconditional guarantee?" I asked.

The response: "Uh, do we look like we're selling appliances here?" I took that as a no.

Those who shy away from guarantees rationalize their aversion. After all, the reasoning goes, clients expect the highest-quality service from us, so a guarantee isn't needed. And given that clients work right alongside us on projects, why should we be accountable if the project runs into the ditch?

The resistance to offering guarantees runs deep. Some suggest that guarantees reek of the cheesy practices of used-car salespeople and late-night infomercial hosts. The purists proclaim that the dignity of the professions, and respect for the client, are diminished if you hype a guarantee during the sales process.

The anti-guarantee argument also suggests that a guarantee is a sign of weakness. Why plant the seed of thought in the client's mind that service failure is even a possibility? And to wrap the argument up in a nice, tidy package, many worry that a firm could lose its collective shirt if a client were to demand that the firm make good on a guarantee.

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Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the editor of Management Consulting News ( and the Guerrilla Consultant. For more information, visit

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