Prepare for defects and fix them quickly

16_greg_williamsIf you produce a finished wood product with the intention of making a profit, you've had to deal with a defective or damaged product at the delivery site.

But what is a defect? You may know what it is when you see it and your customer certainly knows, but can you describe it in such a way that your installers know what it is? Can you put it in writing? And will everyone agree with you?

Here’s a fairly simple set of instructions for handling a common finishing problem discovered in a customer’s home.

Problem

Visually perceptible variation in sheen of rubbed top.

Remedial action

1. Visually inspect it from all sides and at various viewing angles. Determine if the perception of sheen variation is consistent or if it may be the effect of available lighting.

2. Inspect closely for variation in scratch pattern. If so, determine if it is concurrent with sheen variation.

3. Determine if variation may be due to burnishing of the surface by packing material or furniture pads during shipping.

Field remedies

1. If sheen perception is due to lighting, explain and show the customer. Rotating the piece relative to the light source or altering available light may help with this education. If the item has not already been polished at the point of delivery, do this.

2. If there is a variation in the scratch pattern, contact the office for instruction.

3. If abrasion or burnishing has caused the variation in sheen, contact the office for instruction.

Office remedies

1. If delivery or installation personnel are properly equipped to perform a rub-out of the affected item and the customer is willing to have the procedure performed on-site, perform a rub-out to even the sheen. Otherwise, arrange for an exchange, a return to the shop for remediation or a service call by another technician.

Note to installers

All tools and materials necessary to perform authorized service should be on board and in good order. Do not share tools with other installation crews. Required tools include spare parts, touch-up and spot-finishing materials, shims, wedges, felt pads, dots and strips, cleaning and polishing materials, fasteners and shelf clips.

If you can't do these things, how can you train an employee to spot and report defects in a piece of furniture or cabinetry? We have elaborate procedures to provide incentives for employees to prep and deliver a piece in acceptable condition to the customer, but what constitutes acceptable condition?

Your installers and delivery drivers are often the last contact with the customer, as well as the last contact with the piece, if all goes well with this transaction. They represent your last opportunity to identify and, in many cases, correct any deficiencies in the piece before it moves from your possession to that of your customer. Not only do they have to execute the delivery without causing any damage, they have to be able to detect damage or defects before the customer does and to do what is necessary to mitigate that deficiency in whatever way is possible, according to standard operating procedures set forth by the company.

In order to make this all work, they have to be knowledgeable about what the standards are and how the customer will view, not only the piece, but also the presentation of the piece. The installers are more than just movers; they're technicians, troubleshooters, and, in many cases, salespeople. They need to know what to do or say (and especially what not to do or say) when dealing with a customer's dissatisfaction with a product.

Establishing standards

If you are the owner, manager or individual craftsman in a one-man shop, you've established, whether you are aware of it or not, standards for your work. Adherence to those standards can vary according to your mood, what is being paid for the job, or for a number of other reasons. If those standards are not compatible with the customer's expectations, you may suffer one or more of several injuries. You may not get paid. Your reputation may suffer. You could be sued and lose not only all your profit, but more, if sufficient damage is established and proven in court. You might only lose a little time correcting the defect or damage, but with the correction the damage to your business could be long lasting and far-reaching.

The most important consideration in establishing your standards is to make sure they meet the expectations of your customers. Sometimes these expectations can be altered by education. For example, sharing step panels of the approved finish ensures you are on the same page. Being specific about the number of coats or the thickness of the finish, type of stain, glaze, sealer, topcoat or other coating material and showing the effect of each of these products and the steps of application goes a long way toward establishing agreement and mutual acceptance of these standards.

The Architectural Woodwork Institute and the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, among others, have established standards that are widely accepted for different quality levels of finish. Each finish level has to meet certain performance standards, such as resistance to common household chemicals, scratch or mar resistance, film thickness or number of coats and other requirements depending on the intended use of the finished item.

While you might not need to be so formal, it is important to establish standards for your finishes, make sure all employees understand the need for those standards and ensure they know why they benefit from adhering to those standards.

Involving employees

Your standards should be well thought-out, clearly expressed and available to all involved. You should develop a standard operating procedure for internal operations (construction, prep for finish and all aspects of the finishing operation) and put it in writing. It is generally best to involve the employees who will be expected to conform to the standards in their formulation. Your language may not be their language, but they need to be able to clearly understand and communicate your standards.

You will need to train the employees to follow procedure. It is not enough to have them read and sign a piece of paper that says they have done so. Be observant, be patient, and reward movement in the direction you want them to go.

It is best if you can have one or more of your employees trained to do touch-up on-site. Many times, the judicious application of a coat of wipe-on finish to a rub or mar discovered while the piece is on the delivery truck can prevent a refused delivery or a subsequent service call to repair or even replace the defective piece.

The installer or deliverer needs sufficient training and practice to know when a repair is within the scope of his skills and materials and when other action is required. He needs to know how to talk to the customer about the situation so as not to make the situation worse by either offending or challenging the customer. Again, it is not sufficient to write this up in the standard operating procedures. You need to provide ongoing training and provide incentives for the employees to fully support your program. If they cannot do so, you may be better off starting over with another employee. If they can work with the program, make sure they have incentive to stay with you.

If all of this sounds time-consuming and expensive, well, it is. But consider the hidden cost of lost business because of failed deliveries or installations. Consider how time-consuming it is to "do it over," especially when you know the customer may be more vigilant and suspicious the next time.

Greg Williams, formerly senior touch-up and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing Products, is now a freelance instructor and consultant for finishing and touch-up. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.