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Back stories can make restorations well worth the time

In conversations with some of my professional colleagues (refinishers, restorers and furniture-repair technicians), the subject of pricing practices often leads into how to best handle jobs that would cost more than the replacement of the object. And there’s usually a story relating to the item that helps seal the deal.

For example, I had a client referred to me in 2015 for a quote on restoring two teak deck chairs. The chaise lounge-like chairs were finished with house paint, had broken and cracked slats, seat and back frames, and some missing parts. Before giving a quote, I asked the owner about the history of the chairs and about his expectations and hopes for the outcome of the repair or restoration. I took pictures, made notes and I told him I’d like to do some research before giving him a quote.

Hidden under the paint and almost unnoticeable were brass plaques with the name “S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam.” A little time on the Internet revealed that the Amsterdam was an ocean liner built in 1937 and that she was the Netherlands’ ship of state. After the Netherlands fell to Hitler’s army, she was requisitioned by Britain and spent the remainder of the war as a troop transport.

My client, a retired U.S. Naval officer, was given the chairs when he retired by an old friend who had purchased them as salvage after they were removed from the ship and stored for some years. I shared with him the results of my research and he became quite excited by the history of the ship and chairs. He revised his expectations. Even before I had picked up the chairs to begin work, he envisioned guests admiring the gleaming polished brass plaques with the iconic name of the famous vessel, while he regaled them with his new stories.

He authorized a detailed restoration, which pleased me for several reasons. For starters, I was going to make more money and that certainly boosted my enthusiasm for the job. But my contributions would also make me part of the story, while the client gained a more expansive relationship with the chairs and their history.

The story was a product of the experience that this officer had with the chairs and his old friend and the history of the famous ship itself as brought to light by the research I shared with him. The value of the whole experience exceeded the price of the repair he paid for and the cost of the labor and materials on my part.

Who knew?

Sometimes the stories emerge after a completed restoration. One piano restorer couldn’t understand why his client was crying on the delivery date. Was she dissatisfied with the work? No, they were tears of joy. The piano had been a wedding present from her father to her mother, who died giving birth to her only child.

Another piano restorer was asked to restore a Hardman 5 Grand, a family heirloom that the grandfather used to play a bit. The customer was the granddaughter, who wanted a player mechanism installed since she didn’t play.

“I had to take it to Washington, D.C., and deliver it to a second-floor condo,” the restorer says. “The daughter was quite something. She worked for the CIA, had been in combat and could fly a plane and helicopter. She was a tough one. After I did a final tuning check, I started the player and selected one of a short list of tunes in the digital memory. It was the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She was quickly in tears. It turned out that that was one of the only tunes her grandfather played. What are the odds of that? She was thrilled and I hear that she uses it all the time now to remember her grandfather.”

In these two examples, the restorer did not know much of the story until the item was complete and delivered. I’m sure that they were doubly glad that they had done an excellent job on the piece when they saw how important the journey of that piece was to the recipient and that telling their part of the story, expressing how and why they valued the piece, was important to the person receiving the piece.

Clinching the deal

As craftsmen — whether restorers, finishers, repairmen, upholsterers or fabricators — we must act as salesmen. Often, listening closely to the story that the client has to tell will make the sale less difficult. When the client feels that you are involving yourself in that story, he or she will be more willing to trust you to offer and deliver your best work and advice.

A restorer said to me, “I find most of our work exceeds the monetary value of the object, but we sell the job when we acknowledge how the client has valued the object. Listen to the story. Add to the story with your knowledge of wood, of antiques, of history. In working on the piece, we often find more information about it that clients love to hear. This can be documented in a condition report or treatment report or any detailed description. This can be added value to your work.

“Spending an extra half hour to put together this information is well worth it, especially in getting repeat business. It demonstrates our passion for the work we do and it is infectious.”

So talk to your customers and get the backstory on their projects. It might take a while longer to clinch the deal that way, but I guarantee the customer will be happier. And you might get more enjoyment from the work as well.

Greg Williams, formerly senior touchup and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing Products, is now a freelance instructor and consultant.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.

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