Safe Opening: Shop Around, Schedule Once

A lady in San Francisco owned a safe that wouldn't open.

She contacted a locksmith who tried, but couldn't open it. She had the combination and was convinced it was some kind of malfunction. The locksmith called me to ask how much I would charge. He said he'd relay my price quote to the lady.

Later she called. In English that made me think "Eastern European" she described her problem, asked if I could handle it, and finished with the all-important "how much will it cost?"

I knew she'd been told my price, but I repeated it. She reacted with the standard shocked noises . . . she didn't have enough money for my fee. Could she pay installments?

Simple question, simple answer: "NO."

This is a loser. When people ask for such concessions alarm bells go off in my head. You might get an initial partial payment, but usually not the rest. Ask me how I know. Upon hearing my reply, she said she'd have to wait until she gathered enough money for my fee.

"Okay," I said. I wasn't being mean. A broken safe isn't like a medical emergency. A safe lockout is more an emergency of inconvenience. In fact, I'd call a plumbing problem more urgent than a broken safe. But despite what it takes to become competent at safe-opening, it's not something people want unless they're backed into a corner. Even if I only charged ten bucks, it's way more than people want to spend. Fair enough, but for me it's a living, not an interesting retirement hobby. So I figure I might as well get my rate.

Most such calls end right there; no further contact. People who play the "sticker shock" game are predictable; they either abandon the idea of having the work done or they go phone-shopping. They often do find lower bids, and they get a mixed bag of results. Sometimes they find a bungler who does way more damage than necessary, or another one who takes much longer to do the job, still another who can't repair the his damage from the opening phase. Some start, do damage, then realize it's more than they can handle, leave to "get another tool," and are never seen again. Others quote low on the phone, arrive, then start tacking money onto the phone quote for various bogus reasons. If the customer refuses, they demand a show-up fee.

I follow a lot of this stuff. Cleanup work usually costs more.

To my surprise, the lady called back about a week and a half later. She'd gathered the funds, how soon could I do the job? I told her I could see her in two hours or less. She said okay.

An hour and a half later I was on her street in San Francsico's Sunset District, looking for her address, when I noticed a truck half a block ahead of me bearing signage for a well-known San Francisco locksmith company.

Coincidence? Maybe . . . they have trucks all over town. Then it slowed and turned into a driveway right about where I figured my caller's house would be. I rolled up and saw that sure enough, the service van was at the address I was looking for.

When this sort of thing occurs, it's usulally for one of two reasons: One is that it was possible that the lady who called me had also scheduled other lock work of the sort that I don't do. Totally plausible . . . in fact, if she'd needed lock work I'd have recommended the same company.

That company, however, doesn't do much in the way of safe opening beyond the basics. "Basics" meaning fresh batteries, rattling handles, jarring the door with a deadblow mallet and such. I knew this, because a lot of my calls only come after basics don't get results. When basics don't work, that company's people usually leave, report to their dispatcher, and the next step is that their dispatcher calls and subcontracts me. They've been subcontracting me for years.

Possibility Number Two was more annoying to contemplate, but neither am I a stranger to it: The lady had called around for price quotes from more than one company in hopes of finding a lower and therefore preferable price. Shopping for lower prices is fine. It's a free country.

The annoying part comes when they tell more than one outfit to come. If you've already scheduled someone else, common courtesy dictates that you at least call and cancel all but the outfit you've selected. Otherwise it's like calling three taxis and taking off in the first one to show. Yes, annoying to say the least.

Hoping for the former, I parked and gathered my gear and walked the half block to her house. The garage door was open. As I stepped into her driveway, she appeared from the garage. Seeing my tools, she asked, "Oh, did your office send reinforcements?"

It sure did look like Possibilty Number Two, but I said, "I'm not sure what you mean, I'm Ken, from Safecracker. We talked a little while ago when you called to tell me to come up and open your safe."

A look of alarm crossed her face, and she said, "Oh, but I didn't call you! I can't pay the money you want for this work."

I said, "Sure you did. You called me an hour and a half ago, told me to come, and I said I'd be here in two hours or less. It looks like you called two companies for the same job."

She again insisted she hadn't called, but it was clear what was happening there, and my ire was up. Holding up my cell phone, I said, "You did call. Here's my phone record of your call to me, and it shows the time you called. I didn't call myself from your home phone."

I'd punched up the Recent Calls display, and there was her number. She glanced at it, then shook her, insisting "I don't know about that, but I didn't call you. There is a man here working now."

What she did falls under the general legal heading of "theft of services." Though I would have been within the law to insist on collecting a show-up fee, it would have been ugly at best. The chances were good I'd have to either threaten her with a cop or actually call one, then wait for the cops to show up, with no guarantees of satisfaction. Cops don't prioritize calls like that, especially in big cities with real crime.

I decided I didn't need the bile. It's too easy for me to compound problems with my mouth, so I took the path of least resistance; said goodbye and wrote it off.

As I returned to the truck and stowed my gear, it occurred to me there was still a good chance I'd hear about this job again. Remember, the company whose man was already there didn't have a staff of safe openers. I also knew that former factory employee had already tried the basic stuff without success before referring the lady to me.

With nothing else to do, I got back in my van, turned on some music, did some paper work, and kept an eye on the locksmith's van in the lady's driveway.

After twenty minutes, the locksmith returned to his van, rummaged inside, then emerged and headed back inside carrying a claw hammer and a thick piece of cloth. I guessed he was going to try smacking the safe, which is as basic as it gets; the hammer to hit and perhaps jostle any stuck part of the lock mechanism, and the cloth to fold and place against the door to prevent marring the paint. That works . . . sometimes.

As I watched, I thought it might be wise to call the locksmith's dispatcher and tell him about my involvement. Partly to share the anecdote, partly to let him know I had prior involvement.
Twenty minutes later, I watched the locksmith climb into the driver side of his van, back out of the driveway, and drive away. Hard to know if he'd been successful or not, but my guess was not. I silently congratulated myself for not letting the lady ruin my day.

That little episode was over by early afternoon. Late in the day I got a call from my locksmith dispatcher friend. Their man hadn't been successful. He'd left and reported back. Before leaving he told the lady they would have to send an expert, who happened to be a subcontractor. Who happened to be me. The dispatcher was calling to let me know. We had another chuckle, and I told him I'd think about it.

Less than half an hour later, the lady called me directly. I let it ring through to voice mail, just to hear the message. When I listened, her tone was very nice and sweet, saying there'd been a misunderstanding; she hadn't known I was the "expert" the locksmith had spoken of until after the whole unfortunate occurence.

Of course she hadn't. She called the locksmith company from the phone book listings, and had probably called others as well. The upshot was that she wanted me to come and open the safe now. I called, identified myself, and told her I'd heard her message.

She began by saying the locksmith company had misrepresented by not telling her they subcontracted to me. I listened, and as she spoke her voice kept rising. When she finally paused I said "they didn't misrepresent anything to you; it was you who didn't tell the truth when you told me you didn't call and tell me to come and do the work. Companies around town and everywhere subcontract lots of jobs."

When I referred to the earlier call, she went off, raising her voice more and talking very quickly, literally overpowering any replies. It was all about how this was the locksmith company's fault, they should have told her they used me for opening safes, she shouldn't be subjected to this, and on and on. I tried to interject a few words a couple of times, but she raised her voice even more and kept repeating herself.

I'd been highly annoyed earlier when we'd met, but I also held my tongue. By this time, though, I was about ninety percent sure I didn't want to work for her, and one hundred percent pissed off at the shouted denials. So I didn't have any compunction about shouting back into the phone, "Will you just be quiet and let me talk?"

It took a couple of repetitions, but I finally got a chance. I just told her, "If I come to do your work now, you'll pay before the work starts."

She asked "Will it cost the same as what you already told me?"

"No, because now you've involved the other company. It will cost more because you involved them. You wasted my time earlier."

She exploded again, going on about how she didn't know about the subcontracting, how she only wanted to get the work done as cheaply as possible, and how she shouldn't be penalized for shopping. Of course she shouldn't and if one shops wisely, one won't be penalized.

I told her so, adding that if she hadn't complicated things by summoning two companies and then denying to my face that she'd told me to come, none of this would be happening and the job would have been finished hours ago.

That of course sent her to the moon. By then I was one hundred percent sure I didn't want to work for her, so before she finished her next tirade I just hung up.

Who needs it?

Maybe she'll get her safe opened. Not by me, though.

The moral here, if there be one, is this: By all means, shop, but if you do, think about more than the lowest price. Especially with safe work.

And if you do shop, keep a list of who you called, and what their quote was.

Last, when you finally decide to give a job and schedule call just ONE company. Don't call a second or a third until you cancel anyone else you might have called.


Note to readers: Please feel free to comment and post your thoughts about this and any of my posts. Don't worry, I'm pretty thick-skinned. Thanks.


Stickman said…
All great stories, but this one was the best!
jrw-google said…
What an annoying experience. It must have been gratifying turning down this job. - Jim W
Bill B. said…
I think you were very patient and handled it with great professionalism.

It's also good that you were able to prove to the woman that she lied about not calling you. Too often people get away with their lies.
Anonymous said…
"Most such calls end right there; no further contact. People who play the "sticker shock" game are predictable; they either abandon the idea of having the work done or they go phone-shopping"

Ok, so given that why not ask her if she's called anyone else, and the name, because I am a subcontractor for other firms you may have already called.

I might ask her for something specific to tag the call such as her middle name. I might give a nickname for myself to further tag the call.

I'd also tell her I'm asking if you've called other companies because if I show up and someone else is already arrived I am owed that a 'show of fee' of $100 applies which she must pay if I show up and you've decided to hire someone else...just as you can't order two pizzas and only pay for the one that comes first.
Anonymous said…
Based on these posts, I get the sense that you don't like people. Maybe you would be happier in another line of work that requires less customer interaction?
"Based on these posts, I get the sense that you don't like people. Maybe you would be happier in another line of work that requires less customer interaction?"

Excuse me, but you go try a work that involves customers and I guarantee that you will be ripping your hair off and are ready to kill the customer at some point. There are 99% nice customers, but the last 1% will drive you crazy.

And why would he change his job, he obviously knows what he is doing and loves the work.

Maybe his post makes you think he is an idiot who doesn't like customers, but I'm 120% sure that it just seems that way because he doesn't blog about every successful job he has done (the 99% of jobs).

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