Hello gentlemen.  I'm pretty new here, so forgive me if this seems an inappropriate topic or has been discussed to death already.

Here's the story: 

Several months ago I had a young lady come into the shop with an old Roy Rogers "toy" guitar (NOT the collectible Martin guitar!) that was falling apart.  She explained that she had borrowed it from her grandmother, and that the guitar technically was her uncles.  It had been stored in a closet for decades (of course).  So, this young lady was in college and was living in a basement apartment (see where this is going?) and was planning on learning to play.  Well, it sat in her closet in the basement and when she took it out...wrecked guitar. 

Without going into a ton of detail, lets just say that the amount of work needed to make the guitar playable would have ran into the hundreds of dollars.  In fact, I questioned whether or not the guitar could ever really be made to play correctly.  I explained this to the customer, and told her that I just didn't feel it was right to put that much money into a guitar with little to no value and then end up with something that may not really be playable anyway. 

The problem was that she felt guilty for letting this happen to a guitar that was not hers and didn't want to have to tell her uncle and grandmother what had happened.  I told her that, if it came down to it, I would be willing to explain the whole scenario to them, but that I would just not do the work.  I could sell her a nice Seagull for what the repairs would cost, and that she would then have a very playable guitar, not an old toy that may have never played that well in the first place.

She didn't want to do that, so I told her the name of another shop in the area where she could get a second opinion.  I asked her if she could contact me when she found out what the other shop would do for her.  She said she would and we parted ways amicably.

Fast forward several months (4,5,6 ?).  I'm in this other area shop checking out some guitars with my daughter and in walks the young lady.  I approach her and say hi, she remembers me and immediately tells me that this shop took her guitar in to repair right after she visited me and that she was there to check up on it.  She was not given a repair tag or an estimate of cost or a time frame for completion.  They found the guitar in the back and she allowed me to take a look at it.

The guitar was far from complete at that point, and some of the work that had been done was not, well, perfect.  There was no paperwork with the guitar and the luthier was not in, so she couldn't talk with him.  I could tell she was somewhat disappointed, but still had hope (this girl had a very positive attitude, to say the least!). 

I thanked her for letting me take a look and she said she would contact me when all was said and done.  I hope she does, just to increase my knowledge of situations such as this...a good 3 months have gone by since we met the second time.

For me, this scenario presented two problems based on one issue: the repairs required far exceeded the value of the instrument.

1. Given the extent of the damage and quality of the instrument, I felt that it was ethically wrong to take on the job.

2.  What if the customer decided the instrument was not worth the money and did not pay after the work was complete?  I'd be out a significant chunk of change with no way of recuperating it.

I was quite surprised that the other shop took the guitar in...and it has made me wonder if maybe I'm just a little too picky, or maybe get a little too personal with customers.

What are your opinions of this scenario?  How often do you turn away work?  Do you ever have customers not pay?

I live and work in a small town and my main job as a luthier is to build folk harps, so I don't get to do a lot of repair work at this point, so these situations don't come up much.

Thanks for your time.


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Good advice, Brad.. every word of it.  Particularly about the value of contracts.

My own "mea cupla" story involves accepting a job brought to one of the music stores I work for. The fellow's mother had just passed and he brought-in a guitar that she had bought him a few years back.

It wasn't a great guitar the day it left the factory (a lower-grade 80's Takamine) and the young man had abused it. Now that he was older.. and in memory of his mom... he wanted it brought back into good condition, "regardless of the cost". That should've been my first clue.

I advised him the repairs would far exceed the value of the guitar but it didn't matter to him at the time. To make a long story short, he apparently recovered from his guilt and grief. Today, the guitar sits in my shop... with a $550 bill for repairs due.  Neither the music store nor I have heard from this guy in over a year. His phone's been disconnected, the whole bit.

Expensive lesson learned...and I pray it'll "stay learned". Thanks again for the advice, Brad... 

I guess I'm collecting data for a draft contract for you folks.  Clause #1:  Value of luthier's time per hour in the event of dispute over cost; Clause #2: Any instruments left after 90 days will be broken up for kindling ...

Brad I too appreciated your perspective and experience when it comes to applying American law to disputes between folks.

However.... It's been my experience that when the star ship Enterprise approaches an unknown world with shields up.... it's the old adage be careful what one wishes for... you just may get it....

As such my default position is that everyone deserves to have great music and decent playing and sounding instruments and when it comes to my perception of their character, or lack of same, I again default to the idea that people are inherently good and well intentioned...

Most of my life was spent working on teams with attorneys at what once was the largest company in the world with at times over 375,000 employees.  Job one for us, so-to-speak, was NOT making money...  Instead job one was shielding the company from liability.  With the market cap that we had and still for the most part have every slip and fall artist was targeting us on a daily basis.  Potential clients frequently used the ruse of faking interest in our wares, jet engines, software, power plants, plastics, CAT scan systems and of course the proverbial stinkin light bulb which these days also includes those "fat arse" Al Gore CFL bulbs too..... ;)

So as you can see my days were filled with one whack job after another that one had to weed through looking for the honest brokers who actually wanted to do business with us for the products and services that we were offering.

Regardless though we stayed upbeat and those of us who could not make the cut and continue to view the world as rosy and sunny became mired in negativity and rarely met their goals or more importantly the organizations "hard" goals for each and every one of us. 

We had to weed through the non-opportunities that would not get us where we wished to go and the only way to do this I learned in time was to again not approach those distant and foreign worlds with shields up.... 

In my Lutherie business it's been my experience that at least 9 out of 10 potential clients are on the level, understand that value has a price, and essentially need my help AND desire a solution to their instrument problems.  Although there are opportunities to get mired in a non-opportunity as mentioned earlier most of us were not born yesterday and most of us have been students of human behavior far before we became luthiers.

If I approached my business from a contractual point of view looking for indemnification, choice of venues, and pre-determined limits to liability I would hang up my chisels and radius sanding beams and find another pursuit such as bowling.... or home brewing.... or watching my lawn grow....

I once told a client - "perhaps you would be happier taking your guitar somewhere else and if you don't see that this is the case I'm very close to being happier just thinking about you taking your gutiar elsewhere...."  The client stopped attempting to micro manage me, I did the work, he paid the bill, and all was well.  He stops by from time to time these days to jam with me on my front porch...

Or, in other words I think that some common sense is all that most of us need to shield us from those potential clients who might be a nightmare to deal with.  If my invoice or repair work order had legalease printed on it in my opinion I would also be setting the stage for a dispute to happen AND sending the message to new clients that I have prepared myself for this eventuality because when dealing with me..... it's likely that a dispute will result.  Not the message I wish to send at all....

So with all due respect - no thank you for any free terms and conditions, schedule of rates, etc.  I'm happy watching how people react to me, how they describe what it is that they wish in a perfect world, and how they may or may not find a reason to smile when I endeavor to honestly and fairly to both of us set their expectation correctly in terms of what I will do for how much it will cost and in what time frame and what they can expect when their instrument is returned to them.

After all this is not a divorce or an infringement on a patent or a failure to pay etc.  This is a human being with a broken musical instrument who needs our help, our expertise, our passion to be applied to their problems with the potential for an outcome that once again has their instrument, and.... hopefully the client singing out loud.

I still see this as one opoortunity after another to simply make people happy using our knowledge and skill to help them make beautiful music.  Who could ask for anything more?

No offense Brad but I hung up my exec. hat some years back to get away from contracts, legalease, and those who default to the position that one has to always be prepared for the worse....

Now - how's that mando coming along and congrats on your first instrument!

I don't believe a contract or set of agreed-upon stipulations needs to be intimidating or daunting in the slightest.  Quite the contrary... it would clearly spell out who is responsible for what.

Everyone has set rates for their work, do they not? Be forthright and lay it all out upfront. The good, the bad and the ugly... and In print. If common sense was common, a handshake could replace all contracts, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.

I agree that our customers are human beings with broken musical instruments that need what we have to offer. But my utility company, mortgage lender and bank need a little more reassurance than a compassionate. benevolent attitude. 

I, for one,would like to see what Brad has to offer, and it sounds like he's on the right track.

By all means Mike please pursue what you see as an improvement over the status quo but for me and I'm going to rely more on my own senses AND my belief that my clients are not mostly or even partly.... adversarial folks who I need to lawyer up in order to deal with.

At least for me it's much harder dressing those frets while wearing a full body condom.... ;)  Please not smiley face.... the last remark was in jest....

No objection to being clear on contractual terms, rates, instruments left and never paid for, deposits, etc however personally if I feel that I need to invoke these things I would also feel as if a conversation and explanation were warranted as well.  Instead it's been my experience that the vast majority of at least my clients are pretty happy to have my help.  Those who may feel differently again I see it as my responsibility to head them off at the pass as previously mentioned and perhaps not be their provider suggesting that they go elsewhere.  In the second example here, those who need to go elsewhere do you think that any amount of terms and conditions, disclaimers, etc, printed on small print somewhere on the work order that we pass out and is never read (or kept...) will ensure client/luthier nirvana?

Don't get me wrong, being clear is always desirable in business unless one is Goldman Sachs.... and selling bundled derivatives to one group of clients and selling a hedge or bet against the success of the bundled derivatives to another group of clients.... however from the dry cleaner to the UPS man/woman our entire lives are disclaimed away by those who provide services to us.  When was the last time that you read any of the "adhesion contracts..." or terms and conditions printed on the back of the invoice or deposit ticket from say your bank?  My point is that although in the event of a dispute terms and conditions printed on your official documents can be referenced but would it not be better entirely to avoid any dispute in the first place including, and this is what this thread is kind of sort of all about... not doing business with those who may be problematic from the get-go?  Although one can't ever really know how a client relationship may evolve or devolve.... again most of us were not born yesterday and even though getting an instrument repaired may not be a weekly thing for our clients on the other hand we do this every day and at some point should have some sense of many of the potential pit falls that we may encounter.

Lastly, for now, I can think of about a million examples too where terms and conditions already exist for all to see on a businesses documents but the proprietor sees fit to cave to offer an accommodation to their clients.  This may be done to avoid being trashed on an Internet forum or to avoid having one's good-will damaged or perceived to be damaged.

Which again brings me to the idea that no amount of terms and conditions even clearly printed OR stated in advance even with a possible signature of acknowledgment will ensure a dispute free transaction.  Instead our best bet in my humble opinion is to learn to communicate very clearly with our clients and above all LISTEN to what they have to say and consider what we hear up against what we offer, time frame, prices, desired outcome, potential pitfalls, and set the expectation correctly via discussion up front - not relying on disclaimers on a work order to settle any dispute that arises.

Well Hesh  I will have to tell you  are my kind of Man I have read your other post and I happen to be of the same sort of person. It is not always about money .to me its how you feal about your self.  BUT then I am not doing this for a living ether. Bill........

Two responses, then back to legalese, non-opportunity and pessimism (i.e., work):  


1.  Most of my early clients were craftsmen: small contractors in wood or concrete or whathaveyou--people who took great pride in the work of their hands and didn't give a damn about the business end.  They were principally people who had your approach.  They didn't become my clients because I went out there and dragooned them into my tiny little office.  They became my clients because while they were busy doing their best work, there were people out there spending their time figuring out how to screw them.  I believe it's most people; You can believe it's only a few people.  But it doesn't matter.  The fact is, and I think that everyone who does skilled work knows this, that 1 nut case (never mind one crook) uses up the time you'd like to be spending with 2 or 3 or 10 or 100 good clients. 


2.  Your comments about contacts just kind of blew me away.  You're either referring to very complicated commercial contracts, or you've run into some really bad lawyers.  The purpose of a contract is to enhance understanding: to make sure that everyone understands the other's intentions.  Yes, there can be legalese inserted by blowhard lawyers, just as their can be overwrought inlay designs, overfinished instrument finishes, overthought acoustics &c.  But a good contract makes sure the customer knows just what you're going to do and what it's going to cost, and assures you that you will be paid the agreed amount.  And it can be one page. 


As for the statement that "people are inherently good"--well, as a scientist/luthier pointed out to me on another site, you can believe what you want, but the facts are the facts.  I'm not sure that any reasonable reading of history (never mind your favorite news outlet) supports that position.  But it is a matter of belief, and you are welcome to yours.  I try to treat nearly everyone at the beginning as though they are inherently good.  But I don't leave my doors and windows unlocked. 

Thanks for the response Brad and a very thoughtful response it is as well.

As you suggested we are very different people and I will stand by my comments that I believe in people in general and that most folks are decent enough sorts.  Sure history has many examples of otherwise...  Fortunately for me though none of these sorts seem to be my customers.

Interestingly enough I consider myself like some of the clients that you described as your own clients.  I'm also busy trying to do my best work but unlike some of these folks I don't believe that the masses are out there, or, anyone for that matter staying up late at night figuring out how to screw me....  Personally I would consider that to be a rather exaggerated sense of self importance if that was on my own mind.... 

You are or have been, don't know if you are retired or not, in the business of helping people with legal matters and often disputes and/or the avoidance of same.  Hopefully I have restated this to your satisfaction which I assure you my friend is my intention.  I am in the business of fixing and building guitars and other musical instruments.  I see what I do as helping people and that is perhaps the thing that I love the very most about what I do.

If I had to go to work every day with the idea in my head that someone is going to try to screw me today or even this week I would hang up my tools and do something else... 

Today I asked this question to others as well who do what we do... this Luthier thing and their response was also that although there is a time to lawyer up it's not something that they would ever preemptively do either.  Although this was or is your life it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and makes me nervous even thinking about attempting to shield myself against every possible misunderstanding that we can think of.

I'm not trying to be adversarial with you Brad, far from it and I even asked you how your own instrument and building was coming along.  But I have to respectfully disagree with you my friend that your services are not something that I would be looking to benefit from and again if I did find myself in that position maybe I am in the wrong line of work.

Instead it's all about providing honest value and setting proper expectations up front and when these things are the core of my own transactions with the good people who I am fortunate enough to have as clients everyone seems to be happy at the end of the day.

And lets not forget the instruments as well even if I do have a romanticized view of many instruments even attributing positive human charteristics, and negitive too... to some of them.

I may be a very naive former contracts guy for a Fortune 1 company but in my own retirement I got into this business, Lutherie, because I did not want to have to spend another minute over processing every possible lousy thing that someone could attempt to do over money....  I became a Luthier because I love music, guitars, mandos, etc. and in doing so I found great commonality with others, many of the fine folks on this forum and others.  Music seems to me to be bringing folks together so at the end of the day I will admittedly be the very last one to attempt to introduce anything that even smacks of the things that drive us all apart.  There is far too much of that in our world already.

I do think too that there is a time for what you are suggesting however please forgive me in advance if I do all that I can to belay the onset of those circumstances and that most unfortunate time...  At least for now I will keep attempting to communicate clearly and honestly with my clients and set their expectations up front as realistically as I can.

Lastly we all have had misfortune in our lives at times and I too am no stranger to this either but it does trouble me that that some who you describe default to the idea that people basically.... well..... suck.  If the day ever comes when I feel this way I won't be posting on Internet forums anymore...  I too lock my doors as well but prefer to view my own doorways as where light, friends, and opportunities pass through into my life.

Well said Hesh. I've been fixing guitars for a living for almost 30yrs, and I still love coming into work every day, it's not about the money.(there are easier ways) In my days of working live shows as a guitar tech, we (guitar techs) were treated like gold, it was easy to work hard for the "rock stars" . The lesson was treat your customers well and most of them will treat you well. I can settle for most.

Hesh, John, et al: 

We disagree, but no, I don't take offense by your arguments.  Hey, as Rumpole said, I argue with strangers for a living! 

I understand your perspectives, both about the inherent goodness of people and about not wanting to start a relationship with what you view as an adversarial contract.  I don't share them.  But I have to say that the thing I love about artists and artisans is their singleminded focus on the quality of their work.  I, too, am uncompromising in my art and wish that I could just do what I do and leave the business to someone else.  Unfortunately, when artists do that--  . . . Well, never mind.  We've been over that ground.

I have a different view of things, but I won't say you're wrong.  Your message, Hesh, is that people create their own reality by their own conduct.  It's absolutely true.  It is also certainly true that dealing, as I do, with people who are already invested in conflict (both opposing lawyers and clients) warps my view of humankind.  It's probably the same thing that happens to cops, intelligence operatives and proctologists.  I love the phrase, and aspire to someday be at a point where, "my own doorways [are] where light, friends, and opportunities pass through into my life"--it's a very nice approach to life.  And though I know that in this awful e-medium this is likely to sound like condescending BS, I mean it sincerely: I aspire to get to that point. 

Meditation hasn't gotten me there yet.  Maybe meditation + lutherie will. 

  You had to bring up the proctologists.....Many a luthier has started out with a good attitude until the grumpy customer wrecked 'um.

Brian, my opinion is that you did the right thing. Work like this fun if you have free time for a friend. I have had a small percentage of non-paying customers, and other weird, awkward, and bizarre situations. Each one was a journey that I tried to shorten, end, or just accept as karma ~ or whatever.  Saying "No" politely was the best thing I've learned about the personal service business in general.


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