Well, it's been a awkward time, and I'd like to have your opinions as pro luthiers. A new customer brought his old 100$ (maybe less) classical guitar with terrible plastic nut and saddle. He asks for a improvement so he can tune with no headache. I make him a new bone nut and bone saddle without changing strings because he doesn't want to spend much money on it. Here come the troubles.
He tries it and find an annoying noise on the strings, while tuning ability is good now. Well listening carefully and plucking in a particular way, there's a tiny little noise. Not a fret buzz, nor rattling or sitar like sound. A bit like a free winding on a string or something similar. Changing strings does not improve situation, shimming the saddle or double checking my nut slots' shape neither. I spent an hour on it trying a lot of things, checking for loose braces, etc.. with no success.
When he comes back, he tries it, tell me that the guitar is not working at all because of these little noises, and that it did not have this problem when he walked in my shop the first time (unfortunatly I can't confirm this, and it's part of the lesson I guess). So to his eyes I'm not good enough and guilty for these noises.
I told him I spent a lot of time on it, and did all I can, but that I did not find the problem's origin. So I charge him half the price of a new nut and saddle and give him the address of another luthier in town who is only building classical guitars for maybe 30 years (I only do this for 7 years as a full time job).
Customer's not happy but what else could I do? It's the first time I have a dissatisfied customer of this kind, and it really is a pain. What would have you done in my place?
This is a frustrating problem on many levels:
First you lost money not only because you discounted the job but also because you spent several hours investigating to no avail. I bet it also meant that some of your other work got backed up also.
Second, you have a customer relation problem. A dissatisfied customer is the bain of luthiers because so much of our business depends on word of mouth and our reputations.
Third, (and probably most significant) you are frustrated at yourself for not being able to locate the source of the problem
I bet you are still going over the project in your mind trying to figure out what you missed.
I had a similar problem recently on a very nice classical guitar. My customer is a professional so he requires perfection.
His problem was that when he played the open 1st string, the sound was clear, but when he plucked that same string when holding down the sixth string at the seventh fret, there was an irritating "squink". He was very patient with me and after three trips to my shop, I finally was able to fix the problem. Since I did a number of things to try to fix the problem while the strings were off, I can't say what it was that finally did it, but I suspect the sixth string was coming in contact with a fret between the seventh fret and the nut; why the squink didn't appear when simply noteing the sixth string on the seventh fret, I can't say.
I think you did all the right things in dealing with your customer. As you say what else could you do? I have been following your contributions to this site, and while I don't know you personally, I can tell you are an adept and intelligent person who loves his craft, who does his best, and is routinely met with success in your endeavors. I hope you take some comfort in that knowledge and as my father would say "continue to continue".
Best regards, Robert
Crazy customers are part of the whole gig. I have a Luthier here in town that I will send my trouble customers too ( with his permission of course) I have done this twice now. Once with a customer who found something wrong with her guitar after a year, but had not answered emails or phonecalls about the guitar (I was a little worried about it) for the first 6 months she had it. I was pissed, and told her that for all future repiars, to go to Gerry. The other was a SUPER persnickity customer, who, If I had known anything about him, I would have run for the hills. He needed a refret on his Collings 'A' and the mando was totally dried out. The ebony fretboard turned into a minefield of notched out slots, and I ended up taking almost three times as long as it should have, with me doing the entire refret under a magnifying lamp, with tweezers and a half bottle of Crazy glue. After he brought it back three times for details so small as to be almost unseeable, he refused to pay me the full amount as he was still not happy. He disappeared for several months. I saw his axe go up for sale on the Cafe, and called him for a jam session ( no other players really in this town) only to be told that he had found a bent tang on one single fret, and could not sell his mando because of it. I refused to look at it ( I was feeling nauseous) and sent him to my buddy Luthier with the agreement with the customer that I would split any cost in half with him. Gerry looked at it, looked at the customer and just started laughing at him. The bottom corner of the tang had the slightest curve. He told the guy to get out of his shop, then called me and said I should start screening my customers to ween out the abusive idiots. Gerry tells abusive customers that he will not work on their instruments and that there are a few luthiers living about 600 clicks away that should be able to help them. Now, I live, and learn....
When dealing with the public, you'll never really know what kind of "load" a given individual is carrying. Unrealistic expectations, unreasonable behavior - yes they are part of the deal we signed up for when we hung out the guitar repair shingle.
One thing I've found for certain is the truth of the old adage, "the customer is always right."
I've added a bit to it, so in our shop it goes like this:
The customer is always right, ESPECIALLY when he's wrong!
It's important to understand the meaning of that phrase. People do not like to be told they are wrong, and many, if not most people will dig in their heels and prepare for a fight if you start out a discussion with that bit of info.
OK, I just wanted to get that bit out of the way before addressing your particular situation.
You may have set expectations a bit too high when you offered to improve the sound of the guitar in the first place. IF it's a cheap instrument, probably the owner doesn't know that much about tone, and may not even understand what most of us believe is superior tone and response. I hardly ever agree to do a procedure to "improve" tone because of that potential disagreement.
Now, If I had done the work you described and had the customer respond that way, I would have immediately offered a full refund of all the money he spent right then and there. You can't win the game if you don't know the rules, and chances are the rules are changing on the fly. So, it's usually better to cut your losses immediately before you loose any more blood. The single most important thing is that the customer go away with the feeling that you did the best you could. THAT is what will gain you recommendations in the future. And, as little sense as it may make, the weirdest, nastiest customer has good friends who may want your services. I've had lots of good referrals from customers who were the cheapest biggest pains in the butt !
Sometimes, it appears obvious that the customer is "playing" us and deliberately trying to get away with something. We just let them do that. There's no point in putting up a fight because YOU will lose in the long run EVERY time.
One of my early mentors in this business was Jon Lundberg in Berkeley. But for some reason, he just couldn't learn that lesson. Guy came into his shop and asked to have a fifth string cap screwed into the side of his banjo neck. When he came back the next day to pick it up, the following ensued:
"Hey, you DID the job! I specifically called in a told your staff to cancel it, but you did it anyway and now there are screw holes in my banjo neck!"
Christine, the shop manager said, "Ooh, jeez I'm sorry, Jon - I took the message and forgot to tell you yesterday," clearly establishing the shop's responsibility for the error.
Customer said, "Well, a mistake is a mistake, so if you don't charge me, I'll be OK with it."
Jon - "NOTHING DOING! Pay the ten bucks if you want your banjo back."
Customer paid the ten, and then filed a small claims action against Jon for ten dollars. Not willing to concede even then, Jon went to court, "to teach that kid a lesson," and promptly lost the case. So for his own stubbornness, he managed to give the refund, piss off a customer for life, and lose most of a day's work waiting around in the county courthouse.
I think may be the only one who learned a lesson in all that. . .
Any time a costomer comes to me with a repair, I first get to know exactly what the costomer wants and how much they want to spend and go from there. Then I write down every thing thats to be done and the costomer signs it and then when the repair is done there isnt any -- he said-she said when its time to get paid--
Donno if this is a good practice or not but it seems to work for me... just my 2 cents worth-- Peace, Donald
Thank you for your kind words Robert, they realy help. And you're right, I'm still going over the project! Kerry and Franck, thank you too. I guess Franck nailed it : the best option would have been to refund the customer at the beginning, before I spent hours on it.
We have talked from time to time on the forum and I certainly agree with your feelings of disappointment in this case - I take things a little personal some times and in the early days had to learn to do as Frank says and simply stop anything before it started or turned nasty.
Very few customers are disagreeable - the ones who are, generally have external issues anyway so you are best to unload or disengage with them as fast as possible. The ability to shut yourself down, lose a couple of bucks and not inherit these customer's personal baggage is well worth the effort. You don't have to agree, you only have to get the problem customer out of the shop happy.
That's the English expression for it : taking things a little personal. Yes I'm used to take things this way. A bit too much... and sometimes a little lesson like this helps to take things a little more "professionally" (is that the correct word?).
Deciding whether or not to "get the problem customer out of the shop" is sometime not easy, but I can feel when a customer is troublesome... though most of the time I don't listen to the little voice in my head shouting advices. I guess I should listen to it more often!
For starters, never do any setup work (like making a new nut and saddle) without a change of strings. Never promise that a guitar with cheap tuners will tune well. Never promise perfect intonation, to anyone, on any guitar. Always make clear that an estimate is not an upper limit on the repair price. Always make clear that the guitar may have additional issues.
Try to move to working on good quality instruments that are worth fixing right. When you are getting enough of these, find someone to send the work on cheap guitars with owners who don't want to spend any money to.