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Observation and Assumption

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A friend of mine divulged a story the other day that made me think about the divide between making an observation and making an assumption. At what point do our actions change as a result of how we utilize these perspectives and what impact does it have on business?

My friend was looking to reupholster her dining room chairs. After much research, she received a recommendation from a trusted interior designer for an upholsterer. Since the upholsterer’s storefront was on the other side of the city, she discussed the work she needed done over the phone in hopes of a price quote prior to traveling the distance. Below is the breakdown of the work estimate she received directly from the upholsterer:


$180 (labor for 6 cushions at $30 each)
$250 (Fabric and materials)
$30.10 (7% sales tax)
TOTAL: $460

Given the breakdown, she felt the quote was reasonable and fair. So, she decided to utilize his service. The next day she traveled thirty minutes to drop off her cushions at his store and signed off on the the fabric selection. He was very nice and appeared to be quite professional:

He took an interest in getting to know me a little. Asked if I had kids and where they went to school. Told me a bit about his kids. Talked a bit about other clients he worked with on my side of town. At one point he even made mention of my SUV in the parking lot, asking if I was happy with it. All in all, my impression of him was that he was simply friendly and was taking time to make me feel comfortable.

After a few weeks, she headed back to pick up the finished product. Happy with the result and the workmanship, she packed up her car and headed back inside to settle up the bill. As she handed him her credit card, he confirmed the final total: $650. Not surprisingly, she was taken aback.

I was absolutely confused. Immediately I told him that the final total was much higher–$210 higher in fact–than what I was originally quoted. He said that my original quote would never have been that low in price as the materials themselves are expensive. I reminded him of our conversation over the phone. His response was that I must have misheard what he said. I was so shocked at that point that I handed over my credit card and silently scolded myself for being mistaken.

But as he was looking up a few details, I proceeded to run through the breakdown of his quote in my head. So, I reminded him about the different totals he gave me. He retorted and told me that each cushion was in fact $35 each in labor, not $30. He also said that the fabric ended up being $50 more than he expected. But even still, the math simply did not add up. The additional $5 per cushion and $50 in fabric only tacks on an additional $80. There was still $100 of unexplained charges. So, I asked him to run through his receipt again.

Sure enough, after looking through the breakdown, he discovered that his math was off. Apologizing, he re-figured the total and charged her card for the revised amount. She left the store with a less-than-positive attitude on his behavior and, despite his impeccable workmanship, vows never to return to him for further work.


© Flickr user

The Line Between Observation and Assumption?

Given how the events unfolded, my friend felt she was overcharged because of the assumptions made by the upholsterer’s observations. In her eyes, having made particular mention of things, the upholsterer overcharged her because he believed he could get way with it based on his perceptions of her financial situation. Below is *her* perspective on things:

    Upholsterer’s Observations and Assumptions

  • Given her area of town, she must live in an expensive neighborhood.
  • Driving an expensive SUV means she has money.
  • Sending her child to a private school means she has money.
  • Owning brand name furniture means she can afford expensive furniture upgrades.
  • Choosing real leather means she has expensive taste.
  • Being recommended by an interior designer means she has money to spend.

Troublesome Results

It’s hard to say whether the upholsterer assumed my friend would either 1.) not recognize the discrepancy in price or 2.) simply not care about the discrepancy in price. Perhaps he truly did make an error in his math. If this is the case, it would be wise for him to double check his work before relaying to his customer that she is the one mistaken. Or, he could bring in an accountant who could help manage the financial realm of his business.

This being said, mistakes do happen. Human error is inevitable. But, the way in which the error is handled is vital. Customers should feel respected, happy and satisfied with the service rendered. Perhaps if the upholsterer’s initial response to my friend’s confusion was one of understanding and willingness to review and revise, the situation would never have escalated to where it did.

Hopefully this was a lesson learned by both parties. When services are sought after and/or provided, it should be the priority of both parties to have a written invoice prior to services rendered. As can be seen by this very example, a lack of documentation can result in trouble. Frankly, it’s surprising that neither of them insisted on this during the face-to-face meeting. Clearly, having such a document would have ultimately prevented confusion and dissatisfaction.

business transaction

© Flickr user klueske

Unfortunately for the upholsterer, whether he stepped over that fine line between observation and assumption or not, the situation cost him a great deal. He not only lost a customer, but he also lost her recommendation AND probably the recommendation from the interior designer. And truly it doesn’t stop there. Word of mouth can be a fantastic business-booster, but it can also backfire royally. Frankly, if I am ever in need of a re-upholsterer, my first stop along the way will be to ask my friend who NOT to use.

Bottom Line: Providing a product or service means you do so in a clearly defined manner with integrity; otherwise you run the risk of tainting both the quality and reputation of your business. That’s why having and following a detailed business plan that includes a failure model is important. In the end, if you can recognize that failure will inevitably occur, you can be ready to mend any and all problems immediately.

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Ashley Lee

Ashley Lee

Ashley has been working with the AccelaWork team since 2008. She is a communications expert with a background in corporate work, and a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in Public Relations. She lives in the greater Indianapolis area with her husband and four children. Ashley enjoys jewelry, fashion, and coffee.
Ashley Lee

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