Friday, December 11, 2009

Piano Tuners: Professionalism is So Hard To Find…or…Word of Mouth is Not the Way to Go

I got a new piano a couple months ago, and I've been waiting for the weather to stabilize before I have it tuned and repaired. It's in fine condition, but it needs to be tuned, obviously, and it need to be regulated (regulation is when you modify the playing mechanism to make it work smoothly and silently).

My old piano tuner is a nice guy who does good work. He's good to have work for you because he really cares about the tuning and the pianos. He's a a real aficionado in that way. The problem only arises when you try to get a straight price out of him. He used to charge me $80 for tunings, and everything was ok. That was a little steep for me at the time, but it was a fair rate. At one point he forgot to tune a note, and when I called him back to check it, he apologized and fixed it no charge. I told him I was a piano teacher and he told me that for each referral that I got him my price would come down $10. I asked him how low the bottom price would go, and he told me free.

"Yes. You keep getting me referrals, eventually, free tunings. Yes."
"Wow, that's really generous of you."
"You are a good customer, it's good to work with you."

Well, somewhere down the road I got him three referrals, and at one point I called him up and asked him to come by with a tuning. 

"Hey ____, since we last spoke, I gave you three referrals, so our price should be...$50. Yes?"
"Yes, well..."
And then he began to hem and haw. I can't dialogue the exact conversation because that's where I stopped listening carefully. He started to tell me about how the economy was going bad and how he was losing customers. With my words I told him that was unfortunate news, but my tone of voice was saying "that's not my problem".

Eventually I got him to settle on $60, which is still a good deal for me, and when he came, he tuned the piano no problem. Then it came time for me to pay him.

"Ok A----, we agreed on $60–"
"Yeah. About that." (He has a very funny accent. He has huge pauses between his phrases, like Christopher Walken, but not as unnatural.) "It has to be $85."
"It has to be $85. I'm sorry."
"What!? We discussed $60 on the phone not two days ago!"
"I cannot work for $60. Look at me, I keep these nice clothes and wear these nice shoes, I do not work for $60. I simply can't. I cannot do it."
"A---, you have very nice clothes, and very nice shoes, but I want you to work for the price you agreed to work for."

What then ensued was an agonizing (yet strangely amusing) interplay about how much he was charging, how bad his business was, how he was being careless that day when he told me he'd be able to continue giving me discounts on tunings when I refer him service. We even talked about how he was losing money and didn't know why or where. I took him into my office and showed him the book that I use for notating expenses. He looked at me in awe. 

"I should get one of those" he said.

It was all very funny and tiresome, and after about thirty minutes of arguing I told him:

"I'm going to write you a check for $65. Here I go." He smiled, thanked me, and we vowed to have $65 tunings now and forevermore. 

I vowed to find a new piano tuner, perhaps one who had his act together. 

I told one of my musician friends about my plight and she referred me to this new guy. I called him up, told him my location and asked for his rates on tuning, voicing and regulation: $85, 40 and 20. Fine. I called up my other tuner and asked him the same information. He hemmed and hawed some more (I was not surprised) and told me he couldn't give me a price. I explained that I know that you've never seen and played the piano, but assuming you had to rework the entire piano, just quote me some figure for budgetary purposes. He gives me $160. 

Simple. I figure I can have him tune the piano for the low low price of $65 and then have the other guy regulate it.

I called the other guy back and scheduled an appointment for December 11 at 9am.

December 11, 8:40 am: I was about to step into the shower when my phone rang. 

"Hi, it's the piano tuner. I'm right outside."
"Hey, you're 20 minutes early. Can you give me a couple minutes?"
"That's ok. I just found out I have pianos to tune at C------- and they need me there this afternoon. Is it possible to do our tuning maybe later today at 12:30 or so?"
"Um, I'm afraid not, but I just need 15 minutes."
"Ok. I'll be outside."

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people arrive early and pressure you because they're ready and you're not. I briefly thought about letting him into the building and asking him to wait in the foyer so he wouldn't be stuck out in the cold, but I was afraid he'd just show up at the door knocking anyway. So we hung up, I rushed to the bathroom and took one of my trademark 6 minute showers, shaved, didn't brush my teeth, and put on pants and a shirt. 9 minutes later, I called him back and invited him up. 

I'm clearing off the piano. 
Another telephone call. 
He made it into the building, but didn't have the apartment number. (I know I told him the whole address when I scheduled.)

A few moments later, in walks the piano tuner, nice blue denim shirt, red and black striped tie, clean shoes that match his dark pants and a pair of briefcases. Presumably one containing his tools.

"Come in," I said, and gesturing to the new piano, "make yourself comfortable. This is the piano."
He went over to it and took out the music stand, and moved all the extraneous musical tools. I sat down and started showing him all the keys that needed fixing, especially one key in particular that has an irksome half-dampened sound. He, of course was in a great hurry and wasn't listening carefully. I knew exactly what the problem was, and I had to explain it to him two times before he understood me. (The hammer is too slow in jumping off the string after striking.) After I went down the list, I asked him what he thought.

He made it clear that he didn't have much time to work on the piano because he got a text (?) from C------ (a college with whom he's had a seven year contract) last night and had to tune two pianos there at 12:30 today. 

"When we were on the phone, we talked about a tuning and regulation. How long do you think it would take?"
"Well, tuning we could do now, but regulation would probably take an hour and a half."
Cringing with the impending fear of déja vu I looked while he produced a PDA from his utility belt of what looked like at least four different electronic devices. He was about to show me the text message from C------- last night asking him about tuning when I said:

"You could have let me know that you had to be someplace this morning. When we talked on the phone we agreed on a tuning and a regulation." 

Smiling, I went on, "It's good that we don't have to do any voicing (one of the notes I was worried about was only hitting two of the three strings, a problem fixed with regulation, not voicing) but I expected you to do at least those two today." 

He thought for a minute and said, "We could regulate it now and take care of the tuning later."
"That would be great, the piano is in good shape, so it's all uniformly flat. It needs regulation a lot more than it needs tuning."
"Ok, let me go and get my regulation tools."
(This was a suspect thing to say. The feeling of déja vu was strong.)
"Hold on a moment, before you go, could you tell me how much to regulate the piano?"
He stood up and thought for a long while.
I knew that he couldn't necessarily quote me a completely accurate price over the phone without having seen the piano. I also knew that his price was low and that my piano needed a good bit of work, so I asked:
"How do you feel about $40?"
"Oh, not for $40, after taxes I'd take home $20."
Long silence. Since when did taxes become my fault?
"On the phone you mentioned $20–"
"That was for regulation after a tuning job. Usually just a PART of the piano. This WHOLE piano needs to be regulated."
You knew that!, I thought.
"Okay…so how do you feel about 50?"

He got his hat, picked up his briefcases, and muttered to himself, "I can't negotiate on this piano."
"Hey! What happened? What's going on?" I cried.
He was backing toward the door. "I can't negotiate on this piano. I can't negotiate on this piano. I'm sorry." He backed out of the door and closed it.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, with a piano that sounds just as bad as it did when I woke up this morning. I nearly got screwed for not working out the price before the work was done before. I tried someone else, tried to get a fair price beforehand and I got slammed in the face with my own door.