If you are looking for ways to reinforce customer loyalty, consider some of the practices that have made L. L. Bean Inc. a household name. Located in Freeport, Maine, the retail and mail-order sporting-goods store runs a customer-service department considered a model in the retailing industry. Bean has about 1,200 employees during the regular season and up to 2,600 during the holidays, and does about $225 million a year in sales. But it treats customers with the individual care you would expect from a small business.

"Our motto is, 'Treat your customers like human beings,' "declares company spokesman D. Kilton Andrews. The cornerstone of that policy is a money-back guarantee or 100% satisfaction. Products can be replaced or returned at any time. "There's no time limit on returns, and we always try to reach an arrangement that the customer finds satisfactory," says Andrews.

To illustrate his point, Andrews relates the time a customer "came tripping into our store, sales slip in hand, demanding a refund. The sales manager asked him for the product, but the customer didn't have it. [The product] was a boomerang that never came back. We gave him a full refund."

Aside from its ironclad guarantee, the store has won fame for staying open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Skeleton staffs are maintained during periods of reduced customer traffic, such as holidays, late evenings, and early mornings. A telephone bank with a special number to receive complaints is also open around the clock. "A phone call in means a phone call out in 24 hours," pledges Andrews.

"And a letter in means a letter, often handwritten, out within 3 days."

One of the company's 50 customer service personnel is assigned to any customer who calls or writes several times. "A pen-pal relationship sometimes develops," Andrews observes. "It's fun."

Other services include mailing out free shoelaces and buttons upon request, or sending free swatches of fabric to prospective buyers who first want to see and feel the material of a garment.

"Our objective is to do almost anything within reason," Andrews says. "The results show themselves in many ways. It builds confidence and trust. People spread the word." Acknowledging the company's almost cult status among patrons, he adds that "the contrast between us and other companies is very sharp in people's minds."