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Bedside Manners


Assuming that some of you will be reading this at AES, I’ll go easy on the traditional geek stuff. Schlepping though miles of aisles of gear can be mind-numbing without having to read a treatise on resistor codes or sources where you can buy the really good solder flux.

Last month’s “Tech’s Files” dealt with the leaves, trees and forest of getting gear fixed. Since writing that column, I’ve been haunted by the other facets of this topic, such as tips for management, bedside manner for technicians and the art of doing business at the entry level. So, here we go.

For those who are just starting out, a major challenge is learning the geek equivalent of pre-production. The art of mapping out a project — so that its realization is within the estimate and on time — is key to good customer relations and positive word-of-mouth advertising. This holds true no matter what level of service you are providing.

Initially, I jumped into projects, often without exploring all the “gotcha” issues such as project cost and customer requirements. It’s one thing to make a mistake and have to personally “eat” the labor cost, but employees have a way of magnifying planning errors. This needs to only happen once, which is enough to provide the data to make a better estimate on the next project.

When my company did many project studio installations (circa 1990), I estimated job costs based on the number of patch points — $2,500 per Bantam patchbay wired end to end. Patchbays are an investment; mine are 15 years old, have seen several control incarnations and are still doing their job.

Creating my modular patchbays (wired to multi-pin connectors) took about a week. Some of the actual cabling was fabricated in-house, minimizing the on-site installation time. In this case, modular patchbays in 8-channel groups simplified handling customer’s changes without rewiring the actual patchbay.

Before doing any work, customers were required to pay an up-front estimate fee. I then translated all of their wiring needs into a patchbay template. Providing a visual aid greatly simplified the explanation of what was being done — an example of bedside manners. This is the tricky part of this business: the trade-off between giving customers what they want vs. what they need.

I was a real stickler for patchbay layout because everyone was always upgrading their multitracks — analog or MDM — so I always left room in the bay for the possibility of eight more tracks, more outboard gear and even a mixer upgrade. Things haven’t changed much: Now, it’s converters instead of multitracks.

Once I knew the number of patchbays, I could easily estimate the price. My accountant at the time suggested that the deposit be close to the actual job cost so that the balance would be the profit. This is good advice.

Prior to leaving New York City, I had a three-tiered rate structure: standard, fast and “New York minute” repairs. At the time, being able to do the work when requested was key to having business — the difference between same-day service and a two-week turnaround being burn-in time. In New York City, I could play cowboy, telling customers to bring it back if the fix didn’t stick.

Things changed when I moved to the Twin Cities, overnight shipping being one of the factors. I hung up my cowboy boots, too. Now, gear stays here longer to make sure it stays fixed. I feel lucky that customers are willing to wait for my services. My turnaround has only recently begun to improve thanks to Logan, my new assistant. Finding and keeping good people is a challenge. No matter how humble our entrepreneurial beginnings, we all must expand to survive.

I once asked a mastering engineer if any incoming projects needed to be remixed before being mastered. His response was that it was better to do the best possible job with the material at hand rather than suggest a remix for fear that the work would go elsewhere.

I recently mastered a project for a young local engineer who went out of his way to keep costs down to the point of not charging for all of his time. The goal was to reserve money for mastering. Unfortunately, he never explained this to the inexperienced band, who didn’t really recognize or appreciate his generosity.

The engineer did a fine job, lucking out because the band’s arrangements were sparse. Still, I was surprised that the material came in with no notes and no reference material. I took a conservative approach to the job and a back seat in terms of customer relations, never thinking to ask for the bandleader’s number. Then we waited for the band’s response.

About six weeks later, the band decided that the CD wasn’t loud enough, so out came the peak limiter and up came the level about 5 dB — while trying to preserve the engineer’s good work. This reminded me of how much emphasis I put on interactivity and feedback. I should have been hounding the band, asking lots of questions, etc., and they would have known up front what they were paying for and why.

I’m often asked to just fix what is broken, only to discover systemic problems. Detailing the options in writing is like pre-production for having the actual conversation. Taking the time to explain how much work needs to be done and the most cost-effective way to do it gives the customer the option to save money. That said, some customers prefer to do the job in chunks during several visits. They pay more in the long run but less up front.

I once hired freelancers in addition to my regular staff and purchased two de-soldering stations for a job replacing every switch on an MCI 600 Series console. It cost more money up front, but was more cost-effective and efficient than paying me alone, at my rate, over several months of house calls.

No matter what the task, my estimates are always high to protect the customer and myself. That’s not to say I’m hard-nosed about it, but more often than not, attempting to accommodate someone never quite works out the way you thought. It is much better to know the cost up front and to occasionally pay less than the estimate.

Even with my experience, things can get complicated. For example, a year ago, an engineering student initially called for advice about a motor drive amplifier problem on a Fostex G24, a 1-inch analog 24-track recorder. Once hitting a brick wall, he drove for several hours, arriving early enough with the hope of taking it home the same day. I quickly fixed the motor drive problem, but then he mentioned all the bad channels.

Long story short: The service manual didn’t match the audio electronics and two months passed before the correct documentation was available. At that point, I could only give an estimate on parts and labor. In this case, if various channels have input, metering and repro issues, then all of the channels should be treated for all symptoms. This meant ordering a pile of capacitors, which I did without asking the customer.

Before you tell me how stupid that decision was, remember that the plan was for me to diagnose and the customer to do the work. Still, the sticker shock had us discussing whether anything was going to happen on the day the customer arrived to do the work. I was willing to eat the parts and have him walk rather than have Mister Grumpy for an assistant. In the end, we split the difference: I fixed half the channels (while he watched) and he took half the parts.

Challenged though I may be at times, learning how to communicate has greatly improved my ability to do business. For some, this is an instinctive skill; for me, it’s taken some time.

Being an employer for the first time in 11 years reminds me that I know a few things about troubleshooting and customer relations. I learned a lot the hard way. Hopefully, by exploring some of my mistakes (and fixes), you can avoid a few potholes.

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