Gunsmith Business Tips I Would Like to Pass On

CapitalCityby Luke Patchett
Capital City Gunsmiths

This excellent article was posted on Guns and Gunsmiths a couple of years ago. It received such a great response that I thought it worth while repeating for new subscribers–editor.

I am loving this business. I do like the gunsmithing trade, but I also love the business side of it as well. The gunsmith skill is really only half of the trade, without business skills, you will have trouble growing.

TIP #1 CUSTOMER SERVICE IS ALWAYS NUMBER 1

What I have found is that customer service is a must, and top priority… above everything else, including gunsmithing skills! Calling my customers with updates at least once or twice a week works miracles. What we are really running is a service business first, gunsmith shop second. Be friendly, easy going, and feed your customers with advice and updates constantly. I have found that out of hundreds of customers, only 1 got mad at me because I called too much. Everyone else was very appreciative.

TIP #2 KEEP A TIDY SHOP

Keep a VERY clean and organized shop. This is hard. We like to move from project to project, and the tools, parts, scrap and gunk likes to pile up. Don’t let it. Fight it with vigor! Totally clean everything, floor, clear off tops of benches, put everything in its place, then take a picture. Keep that picture on hand, and every time you complete a job, and especially at the end of every work day, make your shop look like that picture again. You want your shop clean like a new hotel room. This works wonders with productivity.

Think of it this way… those days when you feel like cooking, and you head into the kitchen, only to find a dirty floor, trash overflowing, dirty counters, 3 days worth of dishes left undone… it just saps the energy right out of you. Now you have to clean all that up first before you can start the meal, or just work in the mess.

Don’t run a messy shop, keep it very tidy at all times. This is the #1 rule at many top auto care shops (Jiffy Lube, etc) around the nation. Doing this will literally cut your stress, and time to finish your product in half or more.

TIP #3 SPEED & EFFICIENCY.

You must organize your shop around this concept. Layout everything in an organized manner and tools close at hand so you don’t spend time walking back and forth. TIP #2 above greatly helps to achieve this tip.

The more money you make in a month above your costs, means more profit for that month. More profit = growth. Spreading work out across the weeks and months is not the way to go here… don’t try to fill in the time to keep “busy”… you will never grow this way. You must turn around work fast to make that monthly profit. Fast turn around = great word of mouth as well which will get you more customers.

Bottom line is that if you want to grow, you must turn around jobs fast to boost your monthly profit. Don’t get into the mode of thinking that “Well, I’ve got the bills covered for this month, I can afford to take a break”… you can’t ever grow this way.

TIP #4 MISTAKES HAPPEN

You will have a bad day, you will break a part, scratch a stock, or worse, ruin a gun that insurance doesn’t cover. What do you do? First, if it is minor and you can fix it, then fix it and move on.

If it is something that will delay the repair, or add extra cost, inform the customer immediately. Call them right away and fess up to it, and explain that you will fix it on your dime. Never ask the customer to pay for your mistakes, ever. You will have to eat the cost, and that’s the price we all pay for running a business. Never try to cover up mistakes, or think up excuses… customers can see right through them. You may think you are clever, but you are really hurting your business.

Bottom line, fix it if you can if minor, if not, inform the customer right away (same day) and set them at ease that you will fix it and make it right. This will set you at ease and allow you to go about your business with much reduced stress.

TIP #5 ALWAYS ADD A BIT EXTRA

We have all heard go the extra mile…. and it’s true. For every job, throw in a freebie… do a clean, or touch up bluing… anything. Make sure you point out what you did to the customer, and you will have a very happy customer who will run out and tell their friends.

TIP #6 A LITTLE BIT OF SANDPAPER

This tip comes from a very wise friend of mine who said the difference between an amateur and a professional is a little bit of sandpaper. The amateur does the job to where it is acceptable, but the professional does the job until it is superb. In essence, be very detailed in your work and do the very best job you can… don’t quit when it is “functional”, but keep going until it is outstanding, to the point that you would be proud to show it off to a seasoned gunsmith.

High quality work results in a good reputation, and with a good reputation brings more customers through word of mouth.

TIP #7 LOSE THAT INFERIORITY COMPLEX

This is a big one, especially for new business owners. Most think since they are new, and have little experience, that they are not worth much. They have an inferiority complex. As a result, the new business owner does not charge what they are worth, and end up starving to the point that they quit and go punch a clock like everyone else.

Look at it this way, even working a minimum wage job, you are still worth 8 bucks an hour. That’s $64 a day for working a job with no skills. Skilled labor gets paid higher because you are paid for your knowledge, NOT for your physical labor.

Below is a cut/paste from a previous post about charging:

Gene “machinegun” Kelly tells us all the time that we need to charge… charge for our expertise and knowledge… but I had to learn the hard way.

When I first started, I was told by everyone around that we were in a bad economy, people that live around here (mid Missouri) are all redneck, backwoods, farmer type with little money. I was told that I cannot charge more than $20 per hour. This is coming from old retired gunsmiths in the area, along with local gun shops.

So, I started at $20 per hour. I put an ad in the paper, put my business cards out in gun shops, and I was flooded with work.

I got the worst kinds of people. Everyone wanted to haggle. I had a guy yell at me in my driveway over five bucks. Worst customers ever.

I was working like a dog for less than minimum wage. I talked to a friend of mine (who also owns a business), and he told me to simply raise my prices.

I doubled my prices to $40 an hour. Most of the worst people magically disappeared. I started to get a different class of customers… but business was still flowing in.

However, I was still a starving gunsmith. $40 an hour wasn’t cutting it.

Then, I had a customer come in. He owned a local pest control company… he was a 1 man show, much like me. He complained that he did not understand why he wasn’t very successful when his prices were literally 10X cheaper than his competition. He would spray for $500, and starve, while his competition would do the same job for $6,000 and run radio spots, have a nice big building, vehicles, and lots of employees and practically rolling in cash. There was really only 1 difference… he was not charging, and the other guy was.

I took that lesson to heart. I needed to trust Gene Kelly’s advice and charge. No matter what the job…. charge em. Multiple jobs per gun… itemize it all and charge em! if you want to cut them a discount, then do it, but only 10%… don’t go more than that… charge, charge, charge em!

I raised my prices to $60, then to $80. No more riff-raff. I get lawyers, business owners, surgeons and the like. Business is still strong. Still working, but now it’s worth it.

I’m charging… if they want the gun cleaned, sights installed, and a repair… I itemize it right in front of them and charge… 60 bucks for a clean (80 if really dirty), 80 bucks for drill & tap 4 holes, and 80 for a repair. $220 total bill. If they whine.. take 10% off… only had a few walk… if they do, let em… and they will come back when they have the money after payday.

If a guy comes in with an adjustable trigger and asks me to adjust it for him… all I have to do is tighten 1 screw… I know this… he knows this… but I still charge him $60. He paid. True story. Happens all the time now. If they grumble, then I offer to take off 10%. If they still complain, then I tell them that that is my policy… that you are paying for my expertise, not 15 seconds of turning a screw. They know how to turn a screw… they are really there for your expertise, and that is what they are really paying for….. so charge my good man, charge!

You should be charging at a minimum $60 per hour. I charge $80, and I live in rural Missouri around a bunch of farmers.

TIP #8 PRICING AND ESTIMATES

This is a big one. Should I list an hourly rate, or should I list all the jobs with costs? Should I list an exhaustive pricing list with every known job priced out?

We have all asked these questions… and I ask a question right back. When is the last time you went to a repair shop and seen a comprehensive pricing list of all their jobs?

When you visit the doctor’s office (another service industry), do they have their prices posted on the wall? Broken Arm: $350, Broken Leg: $500, Flu $65… etc.. No, you don’t see prices posted simply because they cannot adhere to a set price for all patients.

The only service and repair places that do have lists are the ones that do the same thing over and over like oil change places. Garages, and auto body repair shops have no list, and they just post an hourly rate. Electricians, plumbers, and other tradesmen do the same thing.

Service and Repair are billed by the hour, and a custom quote is given for the job. Every job is different, so it makes it very difficult to give up front pricing before you see the firearm. Sure, you can clean a gun for $60, but what if the gun is rusted or painted shut? You don’t know that until you see the gun and give a quote.

Also, when rates are posted, most of the customers don’t even take the time to read them. The kind of customers that do take the time to read them, they are typically the ones you don’t want reading them because they will hold you to the prices no matter what… and usually the job they have in mind is a nightmare.

Now, for quoting the price… there are three things to judge…

WARNING: I’m about to get shrewd and politically incorrect here… but it’s the truth!

(1) Estimated amount of time. Figure the true cost and estimated amount of time you would bill for. If you have to repair, clean, and mount a scope, itemize it all up, attach your hourly rate, and give a true value. Hold on to this figure for the next two steps.

(2) Worth of the gun. When determining worth, there are two types of worth:

(A) Market Value. This is the monetary market value of the gun that if you had to buy one today, what you would pay.

(B) Sentimental Value: What the gun is worth to that customer. Is it a family heirloom? It may be worth far more than market value. I always ask the history of the gun to get a good feel for how important this gun is to the customer.

(3) Customer Worth. Yep, I went there, because it’s true. A customer that is in rags, that rides up on a lawnmower (really happened btw) may not have as much spendable cash as one that shows up in a suit or scrubs. What the customer can pay truly adds to the price of what you charge. One man’s fortune will be another man’s bargain.

Be fair, but don’t cut yourself off at the knees and offer $40 for a $300 job to a man that pulls up in a caddy and is wearing full golf gear… for that man, he gets full price. Don’t overcharge, I’m not saying that… I’m just saying don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a low estimate when someone can clearly pay full price.

Once you have all three figured out, you can give out a general estimate to the customer and let them know that parts and materials will be extra. Start with the total amount of work, then judge from there the worth of the gun, and then the ability to pay. If the gun has no sentimental value, and is only worth $45… then you will have a hard time asking for $120 in repairs… It would be best to send him on his way. Don’t take in low paying work unless it is a favor for a friend, or you are very new… and I mean you have only been doing this for 6 months or less. If the gun has value, or has sentimental value, then you will most likely get away with charging full price or full price minus 10%.

Do not accept lowball counter offers. If you ever get lowballed, repeat your offer minus 10%. If they lowball you again, make a firm stand and refuse to take the work. Hagglers are no fun, especially when they agree to a price beforehand and then try to haggle during payment.

Give them an itemized list with a tag/ticket/receipt and send them on their way. Collect payment when they come back in to pick up their firearm. Do not collect payment up front unless they are buying an expensive part from you, and that’s ok, but have them only pay for the part.

So for example, if a regular customer comes in and wants a cleaning, purchase a new stock, bedding & floating… I price this out.

New stock: $350 (whatever the market price is from stockys)

Cleaning: $80 (moderately dirty)

Glass Bedding: $120

Floating: $120

New gun, no sentimental value: no change

Normal Guy: no change

I ask for $350 up front (plus 4% if credit card), and I will ask for $320 when he comes back in to pick up the gun. If he refuses, then I take off 10% of the labor. If he still shakes his head or winces in pain, then I tell him that I can do the cleaning and stock purchase now, and he can bring the gun back later for the bedding and floating job if he wishes.

That is just about as far as I take it… if he walks, he walks. That’s the way it goes.

I want us all to succeed, especially now when times are hard and every day counts!

(The following was added to Luke’s original post in response to a comment from another GCA member.)

I am a very chatty person, and when I get a chance to talk with other gunsmiths who run shops, I try to grab as much information as I can about the business as I can to see what I can do to be more successful with my business.

Here is the bottom line, from what I hear from gunsmith shops around the nation: If I try to do PURE gunsmithing, you can pay the bills, and make an ok living… if you really want to go beyond that…. let me show you the money makers from shops that are doing well:

NUMBER ONE MONEY MAKER: Retail Sales of Gun supplies, gear, and accessories, to include reloading supplies.

NUMBER TWO: Gunsmithing & Other Services (running a range, training, certifications, etc)

NUMBER THREE: Firearm Sales (Retail, Pawn, & Consignment). Markup on new guns is extremely low and competitive… many retailers only mark up 2%-10% from their cost.

I have had several business owners tell me that if you try to go PURE gun sales or PURE gunsmithing or PURE training… you will have it rough… you have to sell retail as well, stock up in cleaning solvents, rods, black powder, scope rings, cases, etc… that’s where the bulk of the profit is at.

Now as a disclaimer, I have NOT tried selling retail as of yet.. I have to do a bit of re-arranging at my shop… but I plan to.. and what I hear from other shops, it is like night and day when I start… it makes that big of a difference.

My shop is located right off a very busy highway, with a nice big billboard sign. High visibility, and I get plenty of walk ins… but they are just looking to buy ammo or some other thing I don’t have…. I would have made a killing by now if I had shelves stocked with all kinds of accessories… I will remedy that soon.

The order of sales/marketing your business is this, ranked by importance

  1. LOCATION (location is always number 1)
  2. WORD OF MOUTH (Customer Service, Speed, and Quality of work gets you this)
  3. SOCIAL MEDIA (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc… I know.. I know.. just suck it up and do it! Don’t pay for Shares, Likes, or other rankings… you can do it for free)
  4. WEBSITE & YELLOW PAGES (Gets you search engine results, and puts you on the digital maps, you can get a site now for $15 – $25 bucks a month… very cheap) (Don’t forget readers–you can get listed in the GunsmithUSA directory FOR FREE, and get help with your own website there at very low rates–Gary Howes, editor)
  5. BILLBOARD (Works like a charm if near your shop, will cost $5,000 plus (for creating the banner, hanging it, board rental, insurance, and local ad permits)… can get very pricey)
  6. RADIO (If you can afford it… expect thousands ($10,000+) to create the ad, and thousands ($5,000+) more to run it. Make the ad generic so you can run it again later if you want.)
  7. TV & NEWSPAPER (skip it, unless you have a really neat idea… then.. skip it anyway.)
  8. WEIRD ADVERTISING GIMMICKS (If a lady stops by trying to sell you ad spots in a restaurant table, or sponsoring a local sports team… this almost never pays off)

I too started with Newspaper ads… paid thousands over the years… BIG MISTAKE. It got me started, but I wish I would have created a Facebook page first.

If you don’t know how to use social media to start, go out and get some books on selling with social media…. DO NOT PAY for online advertising (Adwords, Facebook Likes, etc…). It has a VERY LOW response rate and you can spend thousands for very little results… it would be better to run a newspaper ad.

The key to doing well on social media is to create original content. Don’t share everyone else’s stuff because that gives credit to everyone else. Create original content (articles, graphics, etc) that other people want to share off of your page.

If you write an article (gun cleaning tips.. it doesnt matter) or create a graphic… and it is shared by someone else, all of their friends will see it, and it may be shared again, and again, and again. Here’s the magic of social media. You can reach thousands of people. It may be slow at first, but it will pick up, and then you will have a following. Try to post 3-5 new articles/graphics/videos a week of quality original content of articles you wrote yourself, pictures you took/made yourself, or videos you shot yourself. Try to make a mix of informative/helpful to business news to world gun news to humor.

The whole purpose of Facebook is brand awareness. You don’t want your customers to forget you.

Here’s another big secret… been in business for a while? Still have those logbooks? In your books, you have names and addresses (mine has phone numbers too) of all your previous customers. If you still have the numbers… call em up.. check on em. If you play your cards right, you can make it rain with repeat business. If you are feeling extra bold, ask for a referral or two!

If you just have addresses, send out postcards… give them 10% off a cleaning if they bring in the card… have an expiration date to push the decision.

There is sooo much more I could say… but my fingers are tired! I really hope you find something that works.. don’t give up!


5 Responses to Gunsmith Business Tips I Would Like to Pass On

  1. I remember seeing/reading this article in G&G a few times since becoming a subscriber. I like the article and it is DEFINITELY worthy of re-posting for a refresher and for those that have not read it.

    Worked on a gun for a fellow. I did REALLY good for the gun (I saved/fixed a sentimental piece that had major fire control damage) I charged 50% less than I should have (trying to get business) and I told him about that when the job was complete so he would know what rates to expect on future business he brings. He realized that I undercharged but was very thankful at the same time and understood I should have charged more.

    So, he brings me another somewhat sentimental gun and I resurrect it for him also, BUT this time I charged good/better/fair for it. I did not “charge good for it” because it was sentimental but rather because it is what my trade skills are worth. So, he gives me $20 in advance for the next job (instead of wanting $20 in change for his $100 bill put forth for an $80 job) but I have not seen him in 2 years, although he’s a phone call away and nearby.

    It’s all good and we both benefit from it – my best times so far with gunsmithing! Very rewarding!

    Thanks for an awesome article!

  2. What a great article! I have been considering going into gunsmithing but had a lot of questions about the business side. You did a fantastic job of filling in a lot of blanks!
    Thanks!

  3. Great article! I wish I had seen it a couple of years ago. I’m curious, are the prices you showed here current or are they from the original article.

    • Nothing was changed from the original article, so allow for inflation. Of course, what you can charge varies across the country. Setting rates and prices can be one of the most challenging parts of running any business.

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