By Steve Cuno

By the time I finished college, I had worked for three major department store chains. Each claimed to have originated the policy “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.” They also alleged that naysayers shook their heads at the then-new policy, predicting that widespread public abuse was sure to bankrupt the store in no time. But — cue orchestra and choir — these courageous retail pioneers damned the torpedoes and moved ahead at full speed.

If the folklore is true, history vindicated the fearless pioneers. Today, a satisfaction guarantee is standard for nearly all mail-order marketers and most retail chains. Abuses happen, but resultant increased sales more than compensate. It seems that when stores trust customers, customers trust stores, become loyal and show it by purchasing more.

If the guarantee’s positive outcome surprised naysayers, one thing is clear: Naysayers in those days didn’t spend much time with vampire bats. If they had, they would have learned some valuable lessons about loyalty.

Nature’s rewards programs

As many animal lovers know, vampire bats often feed upon sleeping cattle or other blissfully unaware snoozers. (Incidentally, they don’t drain their victims Dracula-style; they make tiny puncture wounds and lap what seeps out.) They then regroup at headquarters, regurgitate their spoils and share equally. But even bats are subject to greed. Should a successful hunter hoard instead of share, the others notice. Next time that bat experiences a bad hunt, it is excluded from the sharing.

You and I might call the bat behavior a primitive version of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; if you don’t scratch my back, I’ll be damned if I’ll scratch yours.” Evolutionary psychologists call it reciprocal altruism, which is shorter and sounds way more intellectual. The trait shows up in most creatures that live in social groups, from wolves to dolphins to chimpanzees. In all of these species, compliance to the “rules” leads to rewards, whereas flouting them can incur penalties. (Vampire bats go easy on miscreants. Chimp punishment sometimes entails biting off parts most creatures prefer to keep.)

Are consumers hard-wired for fairness?

Whatever you want to call this inborn code, it has important implications for marketers hoping to win loyalty from another social animal: humans. If a sense of fairness is innate in so-called lower creatures, then what about people? Is it possible that our own sense of justice runs deeper than what society instills?

Scientific studies of primitive and modern societies indicate that the answer is a strong “Yes!” An inner, tacit understanding of how we should relate to and treat one another appears to come as naturally to humans as talking with our hands.

If that’s true, then a positive response to a marketer who is willing to go out on a limb for customers may not be so surprising after all. Maybe it’s simply natural.

No wonder “satisfaction guaranteed” has become a must for successful direct mail marketing. When you scratch a shopper’s back, it’s natural for the shopper to scratch in return. When a high-end direct mail clothier gives you a no-hassle refund because your outfit “just didn’t look right” — even after you wore it — you’re more inclined to reward them with increased loyalty and purchases. When publishers let you examine the first volume of a continuity series with no obligation, include a gift to keep even if you decide not to purchase, and let you return any book you receive thereafter, you’re more likely to trust them with your credit card number. And when a catalog marketer rewards frequent buyers with free shipping, gifts and privileges, buyers are more likely to repeat behaviors that earn rewards.

Fostering mutual affection

Direct marketers who want to be around for the long haul do well to practice reciprocal altruism. Treating customers morally and ethically, giving them the benefit of the doubt and rewarding them is good business precisely because it resonates with evolved humanity.

The first marketers who placed trust in customers admittedly took a risk. After all, there are greedy people, just as there are greedy bats. What was to keep people from returning perfectly good products and simply claiming dissatisfaction? Or from claiming not to have received a product after the USPS indeed delivered it?

Happily, experience has shown trustworthiness to be an inherent trait in the majority of humans, most of the time.

It bodes well for direct marketing. And for humanity.

Steve Cuno heads the RESPONSE Agency in Salt Lake City. He is the author of the book Prove It Before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing and is a popular convention speaker for the Direct Marketing Association, the American Marketing Association, the James Randi Educational Foundation and others. He can be reached at

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