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Repair or Replace? Part 1: Posing the Question

Miscellaneous | March 1, 2014 | By:

0314_f2_repairA customer wanders into your store with a tattered and torn bimini top in hand—one that obviously has seen better days. Although the boat owner requests repairs be done to his beloved top, your better judgment foresees the need for a complete replacement. So how do you handle this situation? How do you ensure your customer receives the best end product—whether it is a solid repair or a brand new replacement?

When evaluating whether to repair or replace an item, it is imperative that fabricators see the existing pieces and, in some cases, see them housed on a boat. “I try to keep all conversation on a positive note with customers,” says Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass. “If it is not repairable, a great response is, ‘You sure got your money’s worth’ from this existing piece.”

Hanks says when evaluating a repair or replacement scenario it helps to show and explain where the stress wear points are and what caused the failure.

“Was it the fit, wear, failure of materials, poor care or was it a design flaw?” Hanks asks. “After reviewing their project, I try to give them options in terms of yearly dollars they would be spending for a repair versus new. Sometimes we offer to call them when we reach an agreed price point and have a better idea as to the final hours of repair.”

Vonnie Hummert, owner of CYA Canvas in Helena, Mont., physically inspects the entire canvas with the customer, chatting and asking questions to determine both the age and condition of the product and the customer’s level of experience and commitment to proper use and maintenance of the product.

“If the fabric is rotted, we have him tear it so he fully understands that level of deterioration cannot be sufficiently repaired to return to service,” Hummert says. “Based on his responses and our observations, we recommend a course of action to fit his needs, expectations and budget.

Hummert keeps two “retired” bow covers to show her customers the difference between a 23-year-old cover that was well maintained and stored inside winters and a 9-year-old cover that was abused and improperly used.

“This makes it easy for the customer to come to his own evaluation of the condition of his item and to make an informed decision about investing in further repair,” Hummert says.

First steps

Assessing the condition of the canvas and how much area is affected is the first step Hummert takes in the repair or replace evaluation process. She then balances the estimated cost of repair versus the likely serviceability of the product.

“If the item condition is borderline, we give the customer our estimate of the repair cost and our opinion of how much longevity can be expected for the way the customer uses the item,” Hummert says. “The customer’s level of care and maintenance is an important part of this evaluation.”

Hummert will make more allowance for borderline repairs for an experienced boater who will take time to properly install and store his canvas and keep it clean than for one who “does everything wrong.”

When judging if something needs to be repaired or replaced, Hanks and his team review fabric, thread, zippers, windows, reinforcements and fasteners. And they determine what is needed to insure the same problem does not reoccur.

“It’s very important to note how the canvas has been and will be used and maintained,” Hanks says. “We always try to make the repair look like it blends in with the existing work.

“I try to give an assessment of the condition and life remaining in terms of years. There is a huge caveat in that we cannot foresee or guarantee that the fabric will endure all the circumstances of exposure to the elements.”

Likewise, Charlene Clark, IFM, of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., takes into account the age of the canvas and evaluates the canvas itself to see if there is still life left in it. She also will assess stitching.

“If the thread has started to deteriorate in one area, it is highly likely that a full restitch will be necessary,” Clark says. “We look at the zippers to see if there are any broken teeth and/or if the teeth have begun to deteriorate. We will also look for areas that could potentially become an issue such as wear holes/areas, worn binding and other areas.”

Tom Matson, MFC, of Afton Marina in Afton, Minn., points out that usually the client will come in with a predetermined outcome for their item and it is his job to meet their expectations.

“As the professional, we have an understanding if an item can be repaired economically or if it does indeed need to be replaced,” Matson says. “As a certified MFC, we have an ethical responsibility to the client. If the item can be repaired, and meet their expectations, we will repair the item. However, if the customer will be ‘chasing good money after bad,’ then it is our responsibility to advise them to have the item replaced.”
Ultimately Matson says he has to meet his clients’ needs and meet or exceed their expectations. “We generally have to look at how much life is left in the item, and then we have to communicate that to our client,” Matson says. “The main factor in determining if an item needs to be replaced comes down to how much money the client wants to put into the item.”

Matson once had a client who brought in a bimini top that had one zipper coming loose. He insisted that Afton Marina re-stitch just the loose zipper.

“We advised the client that all the other sewing is in the same condition, and that we advised that the entire bimini top needed to be re-stitched,” Matson says. “The client authorized only the one zipper re-stitch. We repaired just that one zipper, presented the bill, and he paid it. Three hours later, that same client returned. He now had other zippers that were in need of re-stitching. As the client was putting the bimini top back on the boat, extra stress was put on the pocket zippers, causing the compromised stitching to fail. He apologized for not taking our advice.”

Is the customer always right?

Fabricators often find themselves in situations in which the customer is insisting their items simply need to be repaired, not replaced. In some instances you may agree, but in others it might be evident that the item needs full replacement. How would you handle these situations?

Hanks finds that reviewing the entire project with the customers helps them understand the scope of the work involved, showing them the weak areas, and how he would address these areas if repaired.

“If the repair is not possible due to the condition of the fabric, we will simply tell them,” Hanks says. “In some cases, the repair is more costly than making a replacement. We will try and help customers who insist on repairing due to budget or timing issue by doing the repair—but also stating on the estimate and invoice that we will not guarantee the repair due to the poor condition of the material.”

When a customer insists to Rebecca Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Custom Upholstery in Ocean City, N.J., that just a repair will do when she recommends replacement, she holds that line.

“It’s never worth the headache,” Kennedy says. “I find that working outside our shop policies always causes misunderstandings and reinforces why we made those policies in the first place. They always come from a lesson learned the hard way and a promise to ourselves to never repeat it.”

When dealing with customers who insist on repairing rather than replacing an item, Hummert reminds the customer that he has come to her for a professional opinion and that she does not compromise her standard of quality only to have him quickly realize that she was willing to let him waste his money.

“If he persists, we hand him a list of colleagues who can do the work—hoping they have the same level of integrity—thank him for his time and wish him well,” Hummert says.

For Kennedy, one crucial guideline for deciding whether to repair or replace is the condition of the materials. “You don’t want to repair a cover when the material and thread are already dry rotting,” Kennedy says. “Not only will it make your shop a mess, but more than likely you will notice that the scope of the repair needed is larger than what the customer mentioned. Then one of two things will happen: You either end up doing more work—whether or not you charge for this extra work is another dilemma—or you do just the small repair and then the cover ends up coming back to you again and again when each subsequent section rips.”

Partners in progress

Hummert says a common mistake fabricators make is trying to accommodate a customer’s request for a stopgap repair without effectively communicating to the customer that the repair will be temporary, at best, and is unlikely to look good.

“Customers often have unrealistic expectations or cannot visualize products,” Hummert says. Another mistake is giving too little or too much information. “Too little does not engage the customer and too much will send him to a competitor who doesn’t confuse him,” Hummert says. “Listen to the customer and he will show you how he needs to be sold. And remember, a clear understanding of reality instills confidence in customers even when it may not be what they wanted to hear.”

In Clark’s experience, people bring in nasty, dirty canvas and expect her team to bring it back to life. Some shops will refuse to take repair work at all. Others will discourage it as much as possible and lead people to replacement whether it’s really needed or not.

“Our philosophy has always been that we are a ‘full-service’ shop and repairs are a product of doing business. In our experience, when we have been honest and upfront with people, provided them with good service and a fair price for their repair, when they are ready to replace their canvas, they always come back to us,” Clark says. If a customer brings in a product that, in our professional opinion, is ‘beyond repair,’ we set the expectations right up front on what we can and cannot do,” Clark says. “We’ve had to tell people in the past that ‘we’re canvas makers, not miracle workers!’ Again, honesty is always the best.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer from Plymouth, Minn.

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