Classic Cancellation/Callback

A man called about a problem with one of his safes.

The combination worked fine. He told me that after he unlocked the combination the next step was to turn the handle that controls the door bolts and the safe would be open.

The first part of the problem was that after he unlocked the combination, the handle that controlled the bolts wouldn’t turn. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to open the safe as he normally would, he decided to help the handle turn. With a large hammer.

The handle that wouldn’t turn was now in his hand, with the shaft that connected it to the bolts inside door sheared off below the surface of the door. The owner wanted to know how much I would charge to open the safe. He also said he wanted it done as soon as possible.

After asking some questions I had a good idea of the safe’s make and burglary rating. The owner was a jeweler. When I hear “jeweler,” I have a better idea of the safe’s rating. Insurance companies stipulate minimum acceptable alarm and safe ratings to clients. Knowing that it has to be at least the minimum acceptable rating helps people like me price safe opening services.

No price-shopper likes hearing “It’s $xx.00 per hour, but I don’t know how many hours it will take.” It feels like handing over a signed blank check to a stranger. That reluctance works to my advantage, because by now I know what most safe opening jobs will require in terms of time, effort, and tools.

When I have specific information, I quote flat rate opening prices. That’s a nice advantage when talking with price shoppers. Even if the dollar amount seems expensive, known quantities are less unsettling to them. The reason a lot of outfits don’t flat-rate safe opening work is because it’s not only unpredictable, but also because the experience, skills, equipment, and capabilities of safe technicians covers a wide spectrum, from nearly nil to top end. Another advantage I get from flat-rate pricing is that I get my refusals over the phone. I've always disliked making a time-consuming visits and diagnoses, only to hear “Thanks, we’ll think about it.”

I gave the jeweler my price, saying I could see him at his downtown San Francisco place of business in about an hour. He said, “Okay, please call me when you’re on the way.”

After finishing what I was doing, I headed towards downtown and called his number. No answer, but I left a message that I was on my way.

He called right back, saying thanks for the phone time and price quote, but please cancel the visit. He’d found a locksmith who quoted a much lower price than mine, and who would be arriving in ten minutes.

Classic – he’d accepted my price and booked me, then continued shopping as soon as he hung up, using my price as an index. When he found someone who promised not only a faster response and a much lower price, it proof enough that my price was unreasonably high.

This sort of thing has happened so often over the years that I was only mildly annoyed. I didn’t get pissy with him, though. Instead I just asked who beat my price by a country mile. He told me, and I put a smile in my voice as I told him, “Okay, thanks for the call. You should know that if you need me to open your safe after someone else has tried, the price will be different than what I told you earlier.”

He said he understood, and we hung up. Despite the cancellation, I continued towards the jeweler’s address. I knew the outfit he’d called. They’re one of the scammers that have proliferated in big cities. Unlicensed, uninsured, and possessing questionable skills, they mostly run around unlocking cars and doing rekeying jobs. Their skills are minimal, except when it comes to getting jobs by quoting low, then jacking the price up after arriving. What few safes these guys can open are simple low quality boxes.

So I figured I’d hear from the jeweler again. My guess was the scammer would show, see the safe, mess around, realize he was in way over his head, collect a show-up fee and rush to the next car-opening job. I reached the address, parked, and killed time reading a book.

After almost an hour, I began to suspect that I’d cost myself a needless trip downtown by being too sure of myself. Most locksmith scammers don’t spend much over an hour on site when they know they can’t deliver. Although I’d have bet money earlier that the scammer wasn’t going to be able to get a result, it might have turned out to be an easily-solved problem. “Oh well,” I thought, "let that be a lesson for me.”

Before I drove away, though, my phone rang. Serendipity . . . a regular client, whose store was about 50 yards from where I was parked needed work done. How often does that happen? So it turned out that there had been a trip downtown in my stars. I did their work, then left the neighborhood.

It was the latter part of the workday by then; nothing more to do. As I neared the home-bound freeway my phone rang.

The jeweler was on the line. He said the locksmith had spent most of the afternoon trying to open his safe. After progressing from a drill to a grinder-type cutting wheel and getting nowhere, he’d told the jeweler the only way to open the safe was to have a friend of his use a cutting torch to slice off the back of the 2,000 pound steel safe. Could I get the safe open without a cutting torch?

We were in my briar patch now. I reminded him of what I’d said earlier about the price changing. He acknowledged, and I told him the new number. It was twice what he could have hired me for earlier. However, my first price was given before the failed attempt created new complications, before he was asking me to run downtown to work at night.

It wasn’t really about vindictive pricing after getting jilted earlier. It’s realistic to assume that whatever problem existed when we first talked had been made worse by the unskilled operator. Harder job, service to your door at night, higher price. Simple.

I went downtown after towaway time. The safe was a model that's considered a tough opening job even without what amounted to burglary damage. By the wee small hours, after sweating what felt like gallons, I was bone tired after working on knees and haunches all night. So good for me that I was trying hard, but the only thing that counts in safe opening is results, and the safe was still locked. After all that work, I still wasn’t even sure what the original mechanical problem was. All I knew was that there was a jam somewhere.

My brain was tapioca by then. I suggested to the owner and his father (who had been an anxious presence all night) that we rest and return. They agreed to 10am, just a few hours from then, just enough to shower and grab a few winks.

I didn’t think much more about the job until I was on the way back in, trying to visualize the parts of the mechanism and how they were to supposed to move with each other. Once there, after moving the safe a few feet to a more advantageous spot, I had yet another idea about where to look for the mysterious problem. I looked, and there it was.

One more drilled hole later I had a tool on the offending part. One hard push unjammed it. What a difference a couple of hours rest can make. I finally got the bolts retracted and the door open.

As we settled up, the safe owner remarked that he should never have called the other company.

I told him I knew that.


Ken Dunckel
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.


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