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Being Held Hostage By Your Repair People?

Furniture World Magazine


Owners and managers are losing control of their repair departments. It’s a problem that negatively impacts profitability and customer satisfaction.

Can you imagine how retail furniture sales would fare if we treated our customer’s requests the same way that a lot of furniture repair techs treat your requests? “I’m looking for a cherry armoire to complement the side tables in my living room.” “Nope, sorry, we can’t do that, you’ll have to figure something else out.” You’d be out of business in no time! But perhaps unwittingly, the same thing is happening from within your own company…and I’m sick of it.

As a furniture repair consultant, I go into a lot of warehouses where, to the staff, I’m the bad guy right out of the gate. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m actually their advocate—in the beginning. But if they are foolish enough to tell me that they have thirty years experience, and already know it all, then they need to show me what they’ve got... and many can’t.

I guess the most disheartening thing owners say is that their repair techs are great, and are impossible to replace. Often, the opinion of the owner doesn’t fully match that of the warehouse manager, or the customer service manager.

Now, anyone who has read my work or has met me will know that three things I absolutely hate in this industry are: parts, exchanges, and clearance. So my first question is typically, “Do you order a lot of parts here?” Invariably the answer is yes. Initially the hair bristles on the back of my neck but I follow up with other questions. If most of the parts ordered are upholstery-related, like fabric, cores and mechanisms, I’m much more understanding.

But if parts like tops are routinely requested because of scratches or crushed corners, then there must be a problem.

The only—and I mean, the only—way for repair people to obtain a high skill level is to take on every miserable, difficult, challenging job that comes their way. They need to dissect and understand the problems they face.

Therefore, if they title themselves a furniture repairman, then they must be able to—what?—repair furniture. If a man calls himself a lawyer, or a woman calls herself a doctor, do we expect that they can solve our problems? Of course! So why is it that we do not demand the exact same thing from the well-paid repair tech who routinely sends mildly damaged goods to clearance, or forces customers who are already annoyed, to wait even longer for parts, or commands even exchanges—based on his word alone? Whatever happened to actually repairing furniture?

Of course there are instances where parts are necessary. But if owners are paying someone $15 or $20 an hour to fix furniture, then they should expect the furniture to be fixed. It is easy to hire someone for $8 an hour to swap out parts, but there is a trend, and it’s a strong trend to treat more damaged goods as trash.

As more and more furniture is imported from China, there is a prevailing belief that these less expensive goods, if damaged, are rubbish, and should be treated as such. Why fix them? They’re cheap! This is an enormous mistake and when made, can set in motion a series of profit draining events as warehouses fill up with non-saleable merchandise.

At some point, in a good number of otherwise excellent home furnishings retail operations, owners and managers lose control of the repair process. The decision to repair or not to repair shifts to the repair techs, and away from the owner, the warehouse manager, the sales manager and the customer service manager.

Managers are busy, and it is natural that they should rely on the expertise of their experienced repair techs... right? The problem is that managers are often presented with misinformation or disinformation coming from the repair department. Don’t believe me? See if any of these situations is familiar:

  • Cross-grain scratches can’t be repaired.
  • Scratches on tops can’t be repaired because they’ll look muddy.
  • Black (or white) is too hard to repair.
  • It takes far too long to strip and refinish something.

None of these statements are true. In particular, stripping and refinishing is often a very quick and economical solution to cross-grain scratches! True, if you’re going to spray lacquer from a gun you must have a (legal) spray booth, but retailers have begun to realize that having a booth provides an incredibly powerful tool to combat the rising number of NAS items in the warehouse. If you can’t repair it you’ll never sell it for full value. A spray booth is somewhat daunting from an expense standpoint but how else can you repair something you sell every day? How else could an auto dealership sell cars without a shop? The two go hand in hand, but furniture retailers routinely shy away from booths based on the misconception that the benefits will never outweigh the costs. But suppose a booth costs $30,000 to buy and install. It’s a one-time expense that can be depreciated, and you’ll have it forever. Without it, and without someone who knows how to use it, you’re fated to a cycle of parts, exchanges and clearance.

Repairing Your Repair Department
A while back we noted the shift of decision-making power from store management to the repair staff. It is easy to see that if management is without a basic knowledge of furniture construction, finish materials and a good understanding of what can be repaired and what can’t (from an expert point of view), then the repair staff will forever have the upper hand. They will tend to guide the more difficult repairs away from their department and back onto inventory -- for you, as an owner, to deal with. The only way to remedy this situation is to get an outside consultant in to examine your so-called “damaged beyond repair” items and provide clear, concise and low cost repair methods to help get your repair people back on track.

Your staff, feeling challenged, may resist outside assistance. This is to be expected. People get comfortable and resist change.
Once you commit to undertaking change, it is important to do a little soul-searching of your own to see if you or your company has encouraged the mind-set of disposing of, rather than repairing furniture.

A lot of retailers have, in recent years, changed their product line-up to realize the enormous profit potential that low-to middle-end import lines provide. Manufacturers such as Ashley and Bassett have become wildly successful by introducing fantastic transitional designs that have brought imagination and elegance to the lower echelons of furniture buying. The problem is that some retail operations have unfairly labeled such lines as unworthy of repair due to their low replacement cost. In effect, these goods are relegated to a lower caste of importance.

Once this type of thinking takes hold, it can become a smokescreen that repair employees use to reduce their workloads and accountability. By refusing to work on certain goods, they often lower the overall professional level for the repair department and shift the responsibility for correcting problems and repairing damages to the sales department and customer service staff. This is wholly unacceptable because it lowers margins, increases inventory carrying costs and negatively impacts customer satisfaction.

Empowering the repair staff by confronting their security (and insecurities) is just one way of taking back control of your organization.

Finding A New Repair Tech
Let’s get back to the main point here, that a lot of furniture store owners treat their repair person as someone without whom they feel they could not survive. The irony is that the perfect replacement repair tech is often someone whom they are ready to fire, or would never consider for the job!

It is important to understand that furniture repair is an art form, and that artists are perfectly suited toward this craft. After all, art material in its simplest form is nothing more than pigments or dyes ground or dispersed in a specific medium, such as linseed oil or water; or, in the case of furniture, wax, glazing medium or lacquer. Generally, to understand one is to understand another; artists can usually “flip” between media depending on the substrate they are working with. A substrate can be a canvas, glass, wood, marble, whatever. The basic concepts are the same.

The only concepts that might be new are the necessity of creating a durable finish and making the repair impossible to detect. These two additions are easily taught by the right instructor.

A new repair tech can start as a deluxer, get a little training and work his or her way up. It is a good idea to advertise for someone with artistic abilities. Finding someone with innate abilities may be slightly more expensive in the short run, but vastly less expensive over the course of their employment.

Chances are that there is someone in your organization who simply doesn’t “fit in.” He or she has been on the outs for a while and it’s just a matter of time before they’re fired. Many artists don’t “fit in.” Have you ever met a repair tech that is completely well-adjusted, has no quirks, gets along with everyone, and goes with the flow? We’re all a little “off,” I admit it. You’ll never find a repair tech worth his weight in salt who isn’t a little different. Virtually every retail home furnishings operation already employs a person who has the ability to be a great repair tech. I can spot them a million miles away.

By bringing on a neophyte who will typically turn into a short-term wunderkind, the rest of the staff may find that they need to step up to the plate and prove themselves all over again.
If all this makes sense to you and you decide to bring in outside help, make sure that your consultant will do more than just teach some new tricks. He or she should also advise management, invigorate and challenge the existing repair staff, educate and encourage up-and-coming repair techs, and review the entire operation for areas that can be improved upon to diminish the repair initiative overall rather than augment it.

You may say that “your guy” is the best, but he can probably be just a little bit better.