March 1, 2021

You’re the Boss: Further Thoughts on the Very Picky Customer

This table turned out flawless.Courtesy of Paul DownsThis table turned out flawless.

Staying Alive

The struggles of a business trying to survive.

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to write a response to my post “The Very Picky Customer.” The points raised by commenters were interesting, and I’d like to add a little more information and some further thoughts.

First, we delivered the table referred to in the previous post to the client without further modification, and the client was very happy with it. We were paid in full and on time. As I said earlier, the very slight misalignment in the top pieces didn’t rise to the level of a fixable flaw. The overall effect of the table was as we intended: impressive. I’m not losing sleep over this episode — if I had felt that the table was defective, I would have fixed it.

Second, I want to put the pickiness of the Very Picky Customer in context. She’s neither the first V.P.C. I have encountered nor the pickiest. I have had several thousand clients in my 25 years in business, and the vast majority are interested in getting a quality product at a fair price, and the rest are interested in getting a quality product fast and at a commensurate cost. As should be clear from our Web site, I never assume that a potential client is indifferent to quality. We are doing our best to do a great job.

What made the V.P.C. stand out was not her attention to detail but rather the semihostile vibe she gave off in the initial phone conversation. It was noticeable, and jarring. She was more pleasant face-to-face, but subsequent e-mails with her had the same whiff about them. This is in contrast with almost every other person I have dealt with in all these years. I’m a fairly genial person, and the nature of the business is such that transactions can be completed without any conflict or drama between me and my clients. There was a time a few years ago when I was doing a lot of work with local attorneys, and I would always be astonished to hear from their subordinates that some of them were difficult, demanding people. Not with me.

If I were going to score the V.P.C., I’d put her in the top 2 percent for desire to find a flaw, and bottom 1 percent for congeniality. I have no idea why she presents herself this way, but, and this is a big but, she did one thing perfectly: she let her standards be known from the beginning. She was entirely honest about her expectations and crystal clear about where she thought we had fallen down. I respect that, and I can work with her, if she chooses to pursue the transaction.  As I said in the first post, we will present designs that don’t stretch our abilities and we will make double sure she gets what she asks for. And we will charge her a fair price for this.

Most of the comments to this post fell into two categories. The first group concluded: she’s trouble, some people are like that, don’t do business with her. The second group concluded: you’re selling quality, she found a flaw, her expectations are entirely reasonable, and you made a mistake trying to pass it off to her. Both of these are reasonable points of view. Note that they are not mutually exclusive. Difficult people often deliver information that you would rather not receive, but it doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. It was a bit galling to have my work criticized, particularly because it just so happened that the only complete table we had to show her was one that was very difficult to build. If she had come the week before she would have seen this table, which was also technically demanding but turned out flawless. Most of the tables we make are considerably simpler than either of these and are built far better than the price would suggest.

My overall impression, after reading all of the comments, is that many people don’t realize how difficult it is to build physical objects. Making stuff used to be far more familiar. Almost everything a Colonial farmer owned was either homemade or made by someone close by. These kinds of objects have a simplicity that we enjoy, and the processes that produce them are easy to understand, and, with some effort, duplicate ourselves. But there is another class of objects that are ubiquitous in our lives that cannot be made at home. These products require sophisticated systems of machines and highly refined materials, and draw on global supply chains that no one person could master. Obvious examples are our cars, airplanes, and everything electronic: computers, phones, cameras — even mundane objects like the plastic bottle that holds your soda or water.

So many of the things we hold and use are designed and built to standards that are unachievable by human hands. And their existence alters our perception of the things that are still hand made. Commonplace variations now look like defects. If you go to a museum and take a careful look at the furniture there, you will see that what you take for straight lines and flat surfaces are actually not straight or flat at all. The tools, materials, and techniques that gave birth to those things don’t allow for perfect geometry. Now go to your local store and look at a stack of plastic deck chairs, the cheap ones that nest on each other. You will see complex curves and near-perfect geometric shapes, with no evidence whatsoever that humans made them.

My own business, making huge conference tables, spans this divide. In the last century I was making things that a good craftsman could make in a home workshop. Our furniture was made entirely of solid wood and used traditional joinery throughout. When we started making big tables, we had to change the way we made things because the market demanded a different product than those techniques and materials could provide. Today, in a business environment, the tables need to look polished and refined in order to fit in with tech-heavy interiors. This meant more machine work, less hand work. Aspects of the project that used to be irrelevant, like fabrication speed and ease of shipment, became paramount.

Now, the things we make require a combination of extremely sophisticated design and manufacturing along with highly skilled hand work. I have had to design a work flow, from initial phone call to delivery, that solves a long list of problems aside from how to get the top to sit perfectly flat. Some of these solutions are mutually exclusive, and the need to deliver our products at a competitive price means that over-solving one can shortchange another. A lot of the value we deliver to our clients is in the space between the edge of the table and the wall. Getting that distance right is as important as making the top perfectly flat.

The challenge, of course, is to complete the list before you run out of money. Clients have budgets and expectations, and it is the job of the manufacturer to balance the two. Sometimes that means educating clients as to why their expectations are unrealistic. Getting back to The Very Picky Customer, I had a moment when, confronted with the need to explain one of those trade-offs, I found myself tongue-tied. Could I have handled that better? By telling this story, I hope I just did.

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

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