Rethinking the Value of Warranties

I have had a problem with the media for a long time.   My issue is not their coverage of politics but the attention the media give to service and support.  I am talking about the mainstream business media like Forbes, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal, not industry specific publications like Field Service Digital, Field Service News, and Field Technologies.  I think these latter publications do a great job.

My problem with the mainstream business media is that while they like to make it appear as if they understand the service economy, they really don’t.  It’s all lip service.  They blow any and every chance they get to promote the value of service and support to their readers.   It seems that in their minds the service economy is not important, or worse yet, doesn’t matter.  Come on now! This is how many of us earn a living.

A good example of how the mainstream business media miss the point is a recent blog and video post in Forbes titled, Warranties Are Not Part Of The Modern Customer Experience.  The article was by Blake Morgan, a writer, speaker, and adviser on Customer Experience.  The premise of Ms. Morgan’s blog is that warranties are no longer relevant in today’s business environment. After all, she claims, people can use their social media accounts as insurance. If they have a bad experience with a product, they can complain about it through social media. The brand owner of the product will of course see it and send a replacement product free of charge to satisfy the person with the complaint.

Given this business practice, Ms. Morgan questions whether warranties and extended warranties are good for business.  She postulates that it is better to be nice than right.  By enforcing warranty terms, the warranty provider is taking the we’d-rather-be-right approach.  The nice thing to do is to take care of the customer and replace the product.  Wouldn’t it create more long-term value to just take care of the customer, rather than rely on the money that could be made or saved from the warranty? After all, companies like Zappos and Nordstrom provide a replacement product if a customer is unhappy.

In my opinion, warranties and extended warranties are more important than ever. While I agree that you should always take care of your customer, you must also understand who your customer really is and what they bought.   For example, a large secondary market exists within consumer electronics markets like smart phones.  This means consumers can purchase a smart phone from someone other than the retailer, carrier, or manufacturer, such as through a company that re-markets or liquidates distressed inventory.   Does this mean the original equipment manufacturer must replace the phone if it is broken?  They may go out of business if they did!

Another issue is that both economists and our court system agree that service is a separate and distinct market from product.  Just because someone purchases a product it doesn’t guarantee service is part of the sale.  Lastly, the provision of extended warranties can generate significant amounts of profits for manufacturers and retailers. These profits may in fact subsidize the business and enable it to continue serving customers. Without this income stream, the company may no longer exist.  Where would the customer turn for support if that were to happen?

While I disagree with the basic premise that warranties are no longer relevant, the trend toward “servitization” may in fact support the argument for taking care of the customer regardless of the costs.  Under the servitization model, the customer pays for the output or outcome created by the product.  In other words, they pay for the right to use the product but not to own it.  This means the product must work properly.  If it doesn’t, the customer doesn’t pay.    In such cases, it may be in the manufacturer’s best interest to replace the product.  However, this is a different scenario than what Ms. Morgan seems to have in mind.

The real question manufacturers should be asking is not whether warranties are relevant but whether customers understand the value of a warranty.   It really comes down to a marketing issue.  Customers are more likely to purchase warranties once they understand the features and benefits of the specific warranty program and how it will help them if they have a problem.  Sure, there will always be complainers who use their social media accounts as a form of product insurance.  I think these are the exception rather than the rule.

Now it’s your turn to share.  Are warranties relevant? Do they create market value for manufacturers and retailers?  Let me know your thoughts.

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