Making a profit today is much more challenging
than it was in the past. My father, who owned a small body shop
for more than 25 years, once told me, "Why, a few years ago,
we had no problem saving deductibles and still making good money
on repairs. Now, with these cutthroat adjusters trying to make
a name for themselves and shops that’ll give away the store and
do practically anything to keep the insurance companies happy,
we’re having a hell of a time just trying to make a buck!"
Proper job costing, inventory control, knowledgeable
employees … These are just some of the ways shop owners have
a chance to increase their bottom line today. But what about shop
owners who want an easier way to show a profit? Straightening
suspension parts and spraying them to look new, sectioning an
area in a way that may be faster and easier but isn’t really a
safe or professional job, using poor-quality parts that are prone
to failure and could cause potential injury or even death, not
replacing air-bag sensors that might have been damaged but look
When these types of things are going on, what
is the employee’s role? And what can an employee to do?
Collision technicians today are much more
knowledgeable than in the past; they have to be because of the
complexities of the vehicles they’re working on. Unibodies require
different procedures than full-framed cars; air bags are delicate
safety items that have to be handled with care; wheel alignment
angles are more precise and not adjustable; computers; thinner
glass; aluminum parts; etc.
Shop owners depend on their employees to know
their craft and to do repairs according to industry standards.
Both the technician and management are striving for the same goal:
the timely completion of a repair with an emphasis on quality
and safety. But what if the shop owner or his manager decides
that cutting a few corners will speed up the repair and make it
more profitable? The customer will be happy that the vehicle
may be delivered earlier than expected, and the shop can pocket
a few extra bucks! And why should the employee care, as long as
he gets paid?
Granted, it’s rare that any shop would intentionally
put on the road an unsafe or even dangerous vehicle, but there
are always exceptions to the rule. Tight cash flow might prevent
a shop from ordering a complete wiring harness for a broken air-bag
sensor wire, opting instead to repair the break with solder and
electrical tape. Or, a fast-approaching delivery date might force
a shop to "retrofit" a suspension part that was overlooked
or on national backorder. Why worry? It’ll still work!
One reason to worry: The laws allow employees,
as well as employers, to be named in any lawsuit regarding a loss
due to a shoddy repair. A commissioned or flat-rate employee,
by a process of "enrichment," becomes a party to the
suit and can be held responsible – even though the procedure
was authorized by the owner or manager. Just being named in the
suit forces an employee to seek legal council and possibly spend
hundreds of dollars to clear himself. And how do you clear your
conscience if someone is hurt or dies as a result of your actions?
Taking Ethical Action
Ethics, by definition, is the study of human
conduct, with emphasis on the basic principles of right action.
Most human beings know the fundamentals of
right and wrong. Their parents, teachers and friends teach it
to them. This is carried with them throughout their lives, but
sometimes they take a wrong turn and make decisions based on something
other than ethics. It’s easier to be bad … being good takes
work. And sometimes it takes the help of others to lead the way.
This could be where the technician steps in.
A well-educated employee can remind the manager
of the importance of a proper repair. Just suggesting that the
right procedure will end up taking less time might be enough.
Management has so much to worry about so, at times, they need
to be reminded of the basics of collision repair. But if they’re
insisting on a poor or dangerous repair, it has to be a capable
technician who emphasizes the consequences of the shop’s actions.
In a worst-case scenario, the employee can refuse outright to
commit an unethical act if he feels it can endanger the vehicle
owner. Straightening a door skin to save a deductible is a lot
different than heating a sway bar to make it fit.
If the shop employs a production manager who
seems unprincipled or if the shop’s owners are dishonest, the
workers often end up reflecting their company’s attitude in order
to keep their jobs. This industry has enough trouble being honest
and forthright in the eyes of consumers. Insurance companies believe
that collision repair centers are the hub of duplicity, and even
shop owners know of shops that perform less than adequate work.
A short education in liability laws might
be in order for some shop owners. Outright fraud is a felony,
injuries due to poor work can cost thousands and raise insurance
rates, and diminished-value rulings can cost shops money and their
One advantage techs have today to thwart a
boss from committing a dishonest act is the shortage of qualified,
competent workers in our industry. If a shop owner knows an employee
won’t allow a repair that’s not to professional standards to leave
his work area, then the odds are good that the owner won’t force
a poor repair down that employee’s throat. It’s difficult to replace
a profitable, intelligent employee – and shop owners know this.
I say to the employee, "Stand your ground."
Don’t be swayed by anyone to change your work ethics. Your reputation,
as well as the shop’s, is on the line with every vehicle you touch.
And remember, most people will remember the shoddy, unsafe repair
rather than the many excellent ones you’ve done.
To find out how employees would handle an
unethical boss, I asked the question on an Internet collision
repair discussion-group site. All the respondents said they would
pack up and leave. One technician even said he’d swing by the
vehicle owner’s house and tell him why he quit the shop!
Keep Yourself in Check
Word of mouth can destroy the reputation of
a business as fast as a roaring fire. Insurance companies scrutinize
every line on an estimate of an unethical shop, lawyers just love
to pounce on consumer fraud cases, and diminished-value inspection
centers are exposing poor work and deceitful practices daily.
The potential for catastrophic losses as a result of dishonest
practices far outweigh the few dollars made.
The collision repair industry needs to constantly
conduct itself in an ethical manner, reflecting moral principles
and positive social values, if we want to succeed in our quest
for recognition of our professionalism. Back-alley shops and crooked
business owners have slapped our industry in the face and dragged
our names through the mud long enough.
Writer Henry Netter has worked in the collision
repair industry for more than 36 years, is an ASE Master Certified
Collision/Refinish Technician and works as the senior repair technician
at Auto Tech Collision in Philadelphia.
Keeping Everyone Honest
If shop owners and managers are I-CAR trained
and ASE certified, then everyone involved in the repair process,
from the estimator on down, would know what the procedures are
in a proper repair. Not only will the job be done right, but all
necessary repair procedures can be documented on the estimate.
You can’t justify the repair to the vehicle owner or the insurance
adjuster if you don’t know what you’re talking about. This allows
the shop to charge for the repair fairly and doesn’t force anyone
to cut corners to make a profit because of an incomplete estimate.
Everyone wins in this situation.
Involvement in trade organizations helps to