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MMD > Archives > November 2001 > 2001.11.20 > 10Prev  Next

Player Piano Repair Rates - Techs & Customers
By Craig Brougher

Robbie asked, "How might a customer learn beforehand about qualified
technicians and about how fast they can work?"

It's like anything else you want to buy -- you get a reference or two
from someone (other than the technician) whom you can trust.  Sometimes
you don't know anyone, so you have to take your chances the first time.
When you call the tech up, you ask him how he charges, and of course,
if you don't know him, maybe you should ask him about his experience.
Be sure to have at hand the brand name of your piano, and be sure to be
able to tell him succinctly what is wrong.

"Well, it don't roll them rollers no more."  (Now, exactly what does
that mean?)

I recently went out on a call in which I was expecting to see a burned
out electric motor driving a pump in an original coin piano. I even
asked the customer if this was an old, original instrument or a new
one, or a build-up, and was told it was an old one. The brand name was
certainly one that hadn't been made in years.

When I got there, it was a buildup with a suction box and a badly
slipping "O" ring for a spoolframe drive, and since the instrument
didn't have a spill valve in it to keep the motor cool, it burned up
badly, stunk, and smoked up the entire house.  The owner had to call
the fire department.  But before I would fix it, I had to ascertain
that the owner was willing to have me redesign this "system" (joke) so
that she would not own another firetrap, or I might find myself liable
next time.  So remember too, the agreement goes two ways.

I charge two different ways, depending on what would be the best for
the customer.  For instance, If I pretty much know what it will take to
do a job, I often charge by the job, which has a price.  Then if I run
into unforeseen problems, I have to eat it.  Otherwise, I charge by the
hour, especially on an instrument I haven't seen before.  Always, I
charge a "trip charge," because I have to pack my car and hope I have
everything I'll need.

My hourly rates are $35, and a full round trip charge within 20 miles
is $35.  To go out of town it is 30 cents per mile $20 per hour driving
time (round trip).  I recently had to go about 70 miles, round trip;
that cost my customer $64.50.

As far as which tech to choose, I have found that the best one is the
honest one, and the one that will keep at it until he's gotten it
right, and then will guarantee that job (if it's possible under the
circumstances).  For instance, if he just made a repair to someone
else's work, then he can't guarantee that.  But if he has completed a
facet of a rebuild, like "rebuilt the sustaining pedal operator," then
he can and should guarantee that!  That means, if anything in the line
between the trackerbar and the pedal operator stops working, he is

I might also warn any owner about this, too.  The cost of doing
business, the price a technician or piano shop charges, and the
capabilities of that shop have absolutely _nothing_ in common with
their ability and the quality of work done.  That's why, if you pick a
can-do attitude over the usual "credentials," you will win every time.
Learn to ask the right questions in thoughtful way, and don't be stuffy
about it.  Any 12-year-old could pick out the best credentials, but it
takes a little insight to get both.

And to techs, I would advise you to pick your customers just a little
bit, too.  Some people are users.  They spot the guy just starting out
and know how to manipulate them.  They already know the guy has a love
for and a talent for this thing, and will he work night and day if
necessary, for peanuts.

That kind of softie tech is just another meal for customers like this.
Avoid them.  If you feel that they are going to "use" you when they say
"I only trust you to do it and no one else," and you don't even know
them, tell them how you charge and be up front about what to expect.
Don't let them tell you, "You didn't tell me that at first, so I don't
feel that I should pay it."  It's the tech's job to inform his customer
how he charges.

There are slick techs, and there are slick customers, too.  I have
always been direct and above board with everyone, telling them what
I charge whether they ask or not.  They all seem to appreciate that,
even though I get turned down a lot because "That's a lot more than
I thought it was going to be (typical of locals).  I'll have to ask my
better half first, and thank you very much."

If a customer seems not to trust me very much, then frankly, I don't
trust him -- twice as much.  That's a red flag to me.  I get done with
my work there, I don't make any further suggestions, I get paid and
leave, and after that, I put a mark on his card that means to me to
"keep your eyes open here."  It washes both ways.

So don't worry, techs, if you ask the going rate for your area and lose
lots of bids.  If they are like they are around here, "Well, $600 for
a full restoration seems like a _lot_ of money but, if we have to,
I guess we'll have to pay it.  We just paid a thousand to get the whole
thing done only 3 years ago, and I can't see how we'd ever have to do
that all over again."

My suggestion to you is this: Let that guy get it fixed again -- like
he's used to getting it fixed.  He will eventually find somebody with
enough mineral oil, rubber cement, and "personality" to satisfy him,
and that will hold him for another year or two.  Meanwhile, he's
chuckling to himself again about how clever he is.  After that, it all
has to be done over again after the damage caused has been eliminated,
but that guy will probably never learn any better, and will always do
things the expensive way.  It's guaranteed: those guys will never use
a good technician.  They want a bargain, never knowing what that means.

There is no quick and dirty way to fix a player piano, but there are
dozens of ways to make it tight again and get a few more dozen plays
out of it momentarily.  For instance, this has been said to a few
owners, "What you need is a more powerful suction box.  This old one
is tired and needs to be replaced." (They get "tired?"  That's
understandable -- I get tired, so do suction boxes, I guess.)

Don't choose a price -- choose a quality guaranteed job, and make that
known, if that is what you want.  There is also a time and place for
patching and temporary repairs, too.  Nothing wrong with that, but it
should be made clear that's what is being done.  Too often, it is not.
Write it on the bill and be specific.  Not, "For work done."  They can
get out of that claim.  And if they want to write it like that, don't
pay them for it.  That will get you a decently written, honest bill,
at least.

If that customer or tech doesn't expect or intend to do any thorough
repair when warranted, just tell them, "Sorry, but that's all I will
agree to."  Don't temporarily repair something that you know isn't
going to hold up, just to make an appearance at it.

And owners, if you wouldn't hang a picture on your wall with chewing
gum, then why would you hire someone who would?  The cheapest tech
is the one who expects to do it right the first time, and intends to
guarantee it to you.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Tue 20 Nov 2001, 17:27:23 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Customers, Piano, Player, Rates, Repair, Techs

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