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How Do Luthiers Protect Their Paying Customers?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Jay Terrien, Feb 26, 2004.

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  1. I've posted this before and many people have been very interested in hearing VERBATIM, how luthiers service the wishes of their paying clients, within reason.

    I am currently doing some research regarding the ways in which expert luthiers (that build expensive custom instruments) like yourselves, protect your paying customers from being exposed to unsatisfactory, sloppy craftsmanship and poor customer service-level agreements.

    I have spoken to many well-known high-end luthiers, distributors, and bassists and the consensus is as follows:

    Granted, most high-end luthiers that charge thousands of dollars for their instruments, have a very detail-oriented quality assurance-based production process in place. With respect to doing "good faith business", I am sure that no one wants to sell a malfunctioning and sloppy instrument to a paying customer.

    But, there is an alarming trend amongst US-based luthiers and European-based luthiers in regards to the methodologies of applying a good faith refund to an honest, paying client if an egregious dispute does indeed arise.

    Time and time again, players enter into odd agreements with luthiers on the basis of good faith or word of mouth and they get stung!! And in such a fragmented bass market, anyone can enter the space and claim to be an EXPERT LUTHIER.

    Hypothetically-speaking, if a paying customer waits 2 years for a bass, and it shows up on their doorstep in horrific condition, due to a troubling amount of amateur luthier gaffes (horrendous set-up/soldering work, splotchy paintjob, error-prone hardware, backwards installation of electronics, etc.), wouldn't you want to please the paying customer in good faith and have a clear conscience that you do indeed, operate an honest business?
  2. Nocturnal

    Nocturnal Abuser of Thunderbird Shaped Objects. Supporting Member

    Jul 31, 2002
    Chandler, Arizona
    I'd like to ask a question that I think goes along with this thread. Lets say that I paid a luthier a large deposit to build a bass for me, but after 9 months, it isn't complete, or any further along than it was 5 months ago. After confronting him with the issue, he finally tells me that he has run in to problems and won't be finishing it. He tells me he'll refund my money. Most of it on one date, the balance a couple of weeks later. Well, the first payment has come due, and I haven't heard from the guy. I've emailed 3 times (a few min. ago made my 3rd attempt to contact him) and heard nothing so far. What is my recourse legally if he tries to stiff me? As you might be able to tell from this, this isn't a hypothetical situation. I was getting on here to ask for advice when I saw this thread and felt that it was pretty similar to what I am dealing with. Sorry if I hi-jacked your thread.

  3. I'm an intruder from the DB side here, but I think I'll comment on this question. I'm not very familiar with BG luthiers, but I have had a lot of experience with people in the double bass and violin making/ repair industry.

    My impression is this: Many of the people making and repairing instruments, especially those who work independantly rather than for a larger company, are rather artistic types who may or may not be the most responible or socially fuctional individuals, even though they may be extremely talented. Sometimes, these guys have trouble dealing with either A; getting enough work done to pay the bills when they'd rather be creating something more interesting, and B; dealing with customers who are in their eyes 'troublesome' or who happen to end up having problems with their work whoevers fault it may be. I think more often than not what happens is that these guys try to deal with these problems the best they can, and the customer, who may not understand the whole situation for whatever reason, ends up getting upset and thinks he's getting screwed.

    Now, I'm not trying to defend anybody or anything, or saying who might be right or wrong in any particular situation, just throwing out what I've seen.
  4. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE

    custom instruments are a bit special.

    Let's say you order something very special from a builder and for a nice amount of $$. First, I guess you've done some work researching infos about the luthier you've choosen and the quality of his work, reviews, pics and all...pretty easy with the internet now.

    then, of course you need to understand that If you ask for CUSTOMS specs, like a 10 strings bass, with midi, custom strings spacing, custom scale length or whatever, the builder might just no be able to get the instrument back from you and totally refund if you finally think that it doesn't suit you.

    That would be a complete loss for him. Now we can find two different cases:

    - what doesn't suit you is custom specs related. Too bad you dodn't think twice before ordering or worse you sometimes went against the builders advice. You ordered 11 strings all wenge bass and you think it's a bit heavy??? too bad. You ordered a 40" scale bass and have a hard time playing it? custom electronics...too much knobs?? too bad :(
    the builder here is IMO not responsible at all. You can ask him to help you resale the bass but....no refund

    - what doesn't suit you is related to how the instrument was built. Neck won't adjust correclty, a part is broken, finish is chipping, bridge is not aligned, frets not dressed. Totally different situation here. Obviously, I can't think of a builder not willing to work out this kind of issues.
    Never had the case but of course I'd ask the isntrument back to work on correcting the problem and then send it back, at my charge. In case of international relationship and depending of the problem I would also ask the customer to bring the isntrument to a friend luthier in his area and I'd pay for the work. Well basicaly I'd do everything needed to get the instrument in good shape and I'd assure it meets needed quality criterias you can expect on Hi-end instruments. This is just par of the waranty and once again, due to the fact we're talking about customs instruments (must be very custom, you're talking about a 2 years wait) it would be hard to do a refund.

    Problems listed here are the reason I stay away form "TOO custom" specs. If I see a customer isn't hearing my advices, based on my experience of determining what will work or not, I just don't work with him.

  5. I'm just a rookie in the luthiery field but I'm bringing all of my business experience to this venture as well. For a good portion of the last 20 years, I've maintained a freelance graphics studio for sidework. Graphics, like custom basses, is a totally subjective product and it's pretty much a blind purchase for the client. That is the root cause of most problems between parties. My approach is to keep communications channels wide open throughout the entire building process and to be perfectly open and honest in the negotiation stages. There are things I can't or won't do. I'm careful to control the design as the client begins forming his requests to make sure that I can produce a good product for him. Sort of what JP is talking about. I am in sitiuation like that right now. My client has agreed to purchase a design prototype that I'm building now. As a "design proto" this is the first bass made from the original computer design and it is the first time I have a chance to see how the parts fit after cutting. Because of this, there may be alterations or corrections in the design and I make sure that I pass along this info to the client. He understands this and appreciates the updates. By keeping this up, the bass will be very familiar by the time it arrives and the only thing left for me to attend to is making damn sure the thing is put together right and setup perfectly.

    I always use a graduated payment system to ease fears, and the strain on wallets during the process. This way, a client never feels that he has his entire purchase price in jeopardy. A downpayment gets the project started with additional installments coming later. I like this process since it allows either of us to stop the project at one of these payment points if we have reservations. By doing it this way, I also get paid for whatever work I do and the client doesn't have to pay for work that I didn't do. It really balances out nicely.

    So what happens if the client doesn't like what he recieves. Fortunately, in luthiery, I haven't had this problem yet but if it does happen I would handle it like this: Since there is no way to hear what the client hears, I take the stance that a buyer is obligated to accept an instrument that is well built but might not be the tone he was looking for. I maintain that I can build towards a goal, using all of the knowledge I have and reserching what I don't have, to make a bass with a certain tone. But, if those steps are taken, with the client's input and guidance in the mix, and the instrument isn't to his liking, then that's his responsibility. But, if the client has issues with the quality of the build, then it's definitely my responsibility to make it right. I hopefully won't ever be so blind to my own failings as to let an instrument out of my shop with playability issues. That's the ultimate in stupidity. What was the client asking for and what was I building it for if not to give the purchaser the best, most playable instrument I can?
  6. This thread is open to anyone in the musical instrument community that has attempted to work out any type of dispute in good faith with an instrument maker and is unsure of what they can do to remedy a grievance.

    Hypothetically, if someone builds you a bass, whether it is custom or not, and they do not possess the necessary "expert luthiery skills", as they heavily advertised to you, then you should without question, seek a full refund BY ANY LEGAL MEANS NECESSARY. You can usually tell a builder's competency by looking at several different instruments he/she builds and if you do notice consistent production/set-up gaffes that are inexcusable, then you should avoid doing business with them. But, you could also be helpful to their small company by pointing out some of their production downfalls and inherent weaknesses. This will help to ensure that future potential clients receive a great bass that they can share within this small community! After all, this is a small community where everyone knows everyone else's business, so it makes sense to try and make the paying customer happy by any means necessary. There is a reason why some companies have been around for 20 years reaping in profits, doing great work by protecting the business needs of clients that shell out sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for an instrument. This is of course a harsh contrast to younger, less stable companies that simply disappear.

    Those familiar with US Import and International Law in relation to the Federal Trade Commission should realize that these types of paying client/vendor disputes occur ALL THE TIME within young companies EVERYDAY. So please don't feel that you are the only one getting screwed. There is of course a way to fix the problem and to get your money back.

    One should never receive a bass that out of its hardshell case, possesses amateur build gaffes like a poor, chippy paintjob, a shoddy electronics set-up and soldering job, a sloppy truss-rod installation, etc. etc. etc. If you do in fact get stuck with a lemon, you can always seek a 2nd opinion by a variety of professional expert luthiers in the marketplace who work with unsatisfied clients all the time in court proceedings. An independent expert luthier, as issued/selected by your insurance carrier or credit card company (if you have a protective policy), are always the best people to professionally attest as to whether an instrument is truly a lemon or not. :)

    As Hambone, JP, Tender Prey, and Toman suggest, there are far too many fraudulent builders in the space that do in fact, live paycheck by paycheck. Due to the "artistic nature" of their businesses, they may not even have the ability to recognize their lack of competency, in terms of end product craftsmanship and sound business aesthetics.

    If anyone gets stuck with a lemon instrument that is not protected by the competency of an expert luthier OR a noble customer service level agreement, then you should initially work with the vendor to come to an amicable resolve. You should voice your complaints in writing to the vendor and make sure that you document all of their grievous errors, making sure to point out that they are 100% responsible for the errors that occurred in their shop. You are not paying thousands of dollars to bind you wallet with amateurism.

    If they still do not recognize the seriousness of the situation in relation to your well-documented and obvious grievances, and they still refuse to issue an immediate refund in exchange for returning the error-laden product in good faith based on their horrendous errors, then by all means, get an attorney who specializes in overseas disputes and fraudulent credit card transactions.

    You can also contact the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, applicable International Law experts, and many other avenues to ensure that you are not being robbed of your well-earned money.

    If you are approaching a particular situation with honesty and integrity, you'll eventually get your money back one way or another. This is what good business is all about. :)

    Good luck,


  7. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE
    How do you determine "expert luthiery skills" ?
    You eventually need those skills to determinate if someone else has them too.

    If this happen, you need to send the bass back right away (the day after you opened the cas) after discussing with the guy who built it...and work out solutions with him.
  8. These are good points Hambone.

    One should send back an instrument for a good faith refund especially when it is overly obvious that a vendor has embarrassingly enough, let a poor quality instrument out of their shop in the first place! That's just sloppy business and in this marketplace, no one wants to work with someone who can't tie their own shoelaces.

    From the meticulousness that Conklin, JP Basses, Adler, Dingwall, Bee, et al. preach, you'll probably NEVER see a lemon leave their shop. Basses don't leave these types of shops unless they are perfect.

    It is an atrocity that some people are just not detail-oriented enough to have the proper last check quality assurance processes in place, that protects the paying customer from receiving a dud, which ultimately forces them to swallow a sizeable business loss. I'm sure by now we've all heard horror stories of companies that do this! (Remember the class action lawsuit against the Chevrolet Car Corporation in regards to their Corsicas, about 10 years ago? UGGH!!)

    Again, there are plenty of insurance companies that help their clients in allocating expert evaluators, if problematic situations do indeed arise. ;)

  9. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE

    Sorry Jay,

    I don't want to speak for other builders you mentionned but it already happend that I let a bass out of the shop and finally discovered a "flow".

    Last I remember it was a bad wiring. No biggie and easily corrected.

    Sh*t can happen to all of us. :(

  10. Nocturnal

    Nocturnal Abuser of Thunderbird Shaped Objects. Supporting Member

    Jul 31, 2002
    Chandler, Arizona
    I'm going to add a little more to my earlier post. When I started my bass project with my builder, we talked extensivley about every aspect that we could think of for the building process. I really don't think we left any stone unturned. Wood choices,hardware, pickups/electronics, etc. He had some different ideas about how to do some things. Some I agreed with, others we discussed until we both were on the same page. For the most part he was very easy to deal with. My wood choices were standard in the bass world (swamp ash/maple topped body, wenge/purpleheart neck, ebony board. Basically a Conklin Groove Tools without the p/heart fretboard) so I didn't get any real resistance to my choices on that. He wanted to use LightWaves pickups which I wasn't familiar with and didn't have access to any to test out. We comprimised and agreed on a Lightwaves/Emg DC pickup combo so I could go either way I liked. My body shape wasn't some crazy B C Rich inspired design. His designs are actually far more radical than mine. Everything went great until one day he just quit getting in touch with me. I went 3 months with no word at all, which was a long time considering we emailed questions/thoughts/ideas back and forth several times a week. Hell, sometimes 3 times a day!

    When I did finally hear from him, things had changed. He couldn't produce the bass he had promised. He wasn't going to be able to do several things that had been major parts of the overall bass. I told him That I wanted to end the whole process at that point. He agreed that would probably be best and said he'd send me 2 payments which I agreed to. I told him I needed to be kept informed of when he sent the money so I would know that he was able to keep the agreement and know it was being sent. We had an issue where one money order I sent to him was lost in the mail, so I didn't want to run into that kind of situation again.

    The 20th was the date he told me he would send the first part of the payment. The day came and went with no word from him as to his sending it or not. On Mon. I emailed to check up on the situation. No response. I emailed him again on Thu. asking again for an update but being more firm about the situation. No response again. In the last email I included 3 additional email addresses I could be reached at if for some reason his messages weren't getting thru (this had happened once before). But I guess he doesn't have much to say at this point. Today I recieved a money order from him for part of the first installment. It wasn't as much as he said he'd send, but it's better than nothing. It wasn't postmarked until the 23rd, which is a few dys later than he said he'd send the money. It's not a big deal that it wasn't sent when he said it would be, or that it wasn't the amount that he told me he'd send. It's just that he could have contacted me to let me know what was going on. That has been the biggest problem with the situation in the last several months, the lack of contact.

    The guy is young (22 yrs) but very talented. He said he probably won't try to do this for a living, or maybe at all in the future.Thats sad really, to be so talented at that age and to give up on it. I hope he continues his work in the future, just learning to handle the business end of dealing with customers would be a great benefit. My bottom line is this, as long as he refunds the balance in a timely fashion I'll have no beefs with the guy. He agreed to deliver a certain product on a certain date for a certain price. He couldn't do that, and I didn't push the time issue until he quit contacting me. I'm easy to deal with and have never complained to him or made any unreasonable requests of him.

    I guess all I'm trying to say in my book-length post is if the guy had kept in touch with me and been upfront about what was going on then I probably would have worked with him to get it finished. But I just felt that it had gone on too long and the situation seemed to be getting worse, not better. At least he's kept part of his end up so far. That's all I can really ask I guess. Sorry about the endless rambling.

  11. Andy,

    We all feel your pain!! Although my experiences are limited to working with shifty vendors that can't install hardware or electronics correctly, I can completely sympathize with your attempt to cut your business losses. :)

    BTW, If you have not done so already, file an immediate grievance with your credit card company, if you paid by credit card. They'll usually credit back your account and then they will use their own legal means to make the vendor's life less than comfortable.

    In the business world, if they can take your check and cash it, THEN they should be equally able to refund your check as promised.

    You probably recognize by now that this guy clearly lacks the fiscal means AND stellar business acumen to run a proper business practice.

    And although you have tried to be easy to deal with and have never complained to him or made any unreasonable requests of him, some people are just plain shifty in their business practices. Shifty people always have great excuses, don't they? It's never their fault. Either the dog ate their homework or you were bugging them in the middle of their soldering job or it's your fault that they installed a bridge and nut slot crooked! As you know, it's far easier to point the finger than to look within and be held accountable. But I highly doubt that these people sleep comfortably at night knowing full well that they screwed a paying customer.

    It sounds like you have ample documentation of him not living up to his good faith promises and right now, this guy isn't living up to your binding mutual agreement. Cut your business losses and don't trust someone's shifty words and broken promises, especially after you have given them chance after chance.

    Life's too short to waste your time chasing down some delinquent and besides, there are many credible builders out there that will listen to your story and make you a great bass!! Go ahead and e-mail the "best of the best" luthiers in the space and ask them if they would ever do that to one of their paying customers. In situations like yours, most of them will issue a refund immediately for fear of backlash within the community. :)
  12. Skorzen


    Mar 15, 2002
    Springfield MA
    I Think JP hit the nail on the head, for the most part anyone who is serious about this will try to do the best job they can, and once in a while Stuff just goes wrong(not that it should be left at that). I have a feeling that the if you really asked any of the big luthiers out there(MTD, Conklin, ect) if they have ever built a perfect bass you might be suprised by the answer. Not to say by any means that this should be an excuse to let a shoddy product out of the door, but that what may appear flawless to 99% of people may be totally unacceptable to the other 1%.

    Now as far as Andy's situation, this is an unfortunate situation. The luthier is clearly the one who is at fault here. He has had some issues with communicating and delivering what he promised, but he is trying. Personally I think that the suggestion of having the credit card company take over the collection is way out of line. You are not dealing with Fender here this is a 22 year old "kid". Cut a guy some slack. This is'nt a buisness your dealing with at this point but an individual. That is the risk that any buyer takes with going to a new builder, he is relatively new and untested. Now don't get me wrong what this guy did was wrong, if he was unable to follow through with the commission he should never have taken it, but stuff happens.

    I think that my thoughts on the subject are that you should get what you pay for, but do you know what you are paying for? Have you seen these luthiers work first hand? I think that in alot of the cases of disappointment the buying was trying to pay for a Pushic and get an MTD. there is a reason some builders can charge $4k+ for an instrument, and why others can't. not that you won't get a great instrument for that, but you lose some of the consistancy of quality from builder to builder in that price range.
  13. Nocturnal

    Nocturnal Abuser of Thunderbird Shaped Objects. Supporting Member

    Jul 31, 2002
    Chandler, Arizona
    I agree with the whole "cutting the guy some slack" idea. As long as he follows thru with the rest of my money in a timely fashion, I won't threaten his life or anything like that. He doesn't seem like one of those creative type of flakey people that we all encounter from time to time. I think he just got in over his head and didn't quite know how to deal with it. I have reciepts for the money orders I've sent, plus a copy of EVERY email we ever exchanged. I think if it ever came to a legal issue I'd win no problem. I don't think that it will come to that tho.

    Like I said, he's young and probably has a lot to learn about dealing with people/customers. I do know that another guy that was dealing with him asked for a refund at one point also. I didn't want to give his name or anything like that. I wouldn't have done that unless he did rip me off for the money. Then I would have put his name out there just to warn others.
  14. Skorzen


    Mar 15, 2002
    Springfield MA
    Yeah I totally agree. If you feel he will go through with returning your money, then give him a little room. If not, then you would need to take action. Whatever that may be. I have no idea what you have in this in terms of $, but there is no reason you should not get it back.
  15. I dunno...It looks to me like this guy was sending up plenty of warning signs to his lack of business skills. And pardon me for the anti-PC observation but a 22 year old, no matter how "talented" shouldn't at all be trusted on faith and a phone call. YMMV!

    I'll describe how I came to agreement with this last client but I'll leave out all reference to pricing in deference to forum rules. The idea was for a bass of a different shape. I had the shape and I came up with a basic set of specs for the build. With several emails back and forth, we settled on the list of standard features and some additional "custom" features to be added. This was finalized with a very nice "invoice" with these highlighted items:

    - All correct contact information for both parties
    - Description of the instrument including all build details as they were known at the time.
    - Description of additional "custom" elements
    - An accurate computer rendering of the instrument - front & back
    - Monetary inclusions
    - A "soft" turnaround time
    - A stated caveat covering the possibility of alterations during production
    - An approval form for quote acceptance

    This was sent as a .pdf file, signed, and sent back. This way there is a hard copy of our agreement. Since this transaction, there have been a couple of details cleared up like action height but nothing requiring a re-quote. If there were, I would submit another comprehensive quote for approval.

    We are currently about 2/3 the way through the build and I've kept him up to date with several rounds of emails with detailed color photos attached. To tell you the truth, as easy as this is, it should be common practice - it's not only good business, it's good marketing too!

    It boils down to treating your customer like you would want to be treated. Duh?!
  16. Nocturnal

    Nocturnal Abuser of Thunderbird Shaped Objects. Supporting Member

    Jul 31, 2002
    Chandler, Arizona
    I agree with you Hambone. Had I known when it all started that he was as young as he was, I might have handled the entire affair differently. I didn't know for several months about his age. I honestly never thought to ask. There actually were no warning signs that I noticed until well in to the thing. Looking back, maybe a couple of things but nothing glaringly obvious. I did contact a couple of people that had his instruments. They all raved about the work, but then they bought pre-made custom basses, not special order. I've learned to ask more questions and be more cautious next time I go about it.

    Sounds like Hambone has the right idea about the invoice. It would cover both parties concerns should issues arise later. It should be common practice.
  17. gyancey


    Mar 25, 2002
    Austin, TX
    I completed my first commissioned instrument when I was 21. Everything should be done on a case-by-case basis.
  18. john turner

    john turner You don't want to do that. Trust me. Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2000
    atlanta ga
    well, i have 10 custom instruments that i've gotten over the past 10 years, and i'm on a first name basis with perhaps 10 or 12 custom builders and i don't see any trend like this at all.

    this is a pretty irresponsible statement to make - you speak as if you have experience with a vast number of custom builders. do you? i doubt it. from what i understand of the situation that motivated these comments from you, this is mostly based on one bad experience with a german luthier. please fill me in if i am wrong :)
  19. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    Jay, I think you may be misrepresenting a bit here. To paraphrase:

    Tender Prey said he was dissappointed in the luthier's inability to produce the bass, and is dissappointed that the money, which was agreed to be refunded, is coming too slowly. No intentional fraud hinted at.

    JP said that if a bass is custom to your specs and you don't like the sound, tough. If it has build flaws, the luthier should correct them. Nothing relating to widespread fraud.

    toman said that many luthiers are of an artistic bent and lacking in business skills. As I read it, nothing about inability to recognize a bad product. Nothing about intentional fraud.

    Hambone outlined some good business practices that any luthier would be wise to follow. No intimation of far too many fraudulent builders in the shady world of luthiery.

    There was also nothing supporting your statement about "alarming trend amongst US-based luthiers and European-based luthiers."

    I am sorry that you have had the troubles that you have had. But I think that you are painting with too wide a brush. Even the few luthiers that we know (that come up often on TB) to do often spotty work seem to have been willing to fix the mistakes. And not to fiddle with the cash.
  20. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE
    Word Peter!



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