Clark's Corner: Explain Yourself

Explain Yourself

How would you explain the auto body industry and what you do for work to the fellow next to you at the bar? Here's what I tell him.


We’re in a unique and unusual business, collision repair. Either as technicians, shop owners, distributors or PBE manufacturers, we mostly make our living helping repair the accident damage to Mrs. Smith’s vehicle. At cocktail parties or bellied up to the neighborhood bar, people ask us what we do for work. I used to just say that I owned a small business because it was much easier than explaining that I sold paint, sandpaper, paint guns and air compressors to auto body shops. Recently, I had an inquisitive and determined saloon inhabitant who insisted I should be able to explain any industry in a few clear and simple terms.

I said that Mrs. Smith (my universal consumer) has an auto accident every seven years. Her vehicle sustains $2,500 worth of damage. She is insured with MSR (Multi-State-Ranch) Insurance (my typical auto collision carrier), and they will pay 90 percent of her repair costs. Her monthly car insurance premium is about $100, and MSR wants her so happy during this claim that she’ll send her $100 to them again next month instead of to one of their many advertising-crazy competitors.

Sadly, Mrs. Smith is going to be without her vehicle for somewhere around 10 or 11 days. The longer she’s schlepping around town in an inexpensive rental car, the more likely she is to try a different insurance company next time. On the bright side – and in an often unexpected outcome – her correctly repaired vehicle will look as good, last as long and drive as well as it did when the robots first built it in the plant.

The Repair Process

The invoice for Mrs. Smith’s car will include around 18 hours of labor time at a locally-set labor rate, inexplicably ranging from $40 per labor hour to $120 in different U.S. cities. The labor portion is roughly 11 metal working hours and seven hours refinish time and totals around 50 percent of the whole repair. The parts (new OEM, aftermarket or used/remanufactured) to fix her vehicle account for about 40 percent, and about 10 percent of the body shop’s sale to Mrs. Smith & MSR Insurance is for the expensive paint and support materials to invisibly refinish the repair. Which leads me off on my first rabbit trail: how good a job we do.

I take this moment to explain that Mrs. Smith’s auto was originally painted on the production line by robots and computers in closely and consistently controlled high heat baking environments and will withstand decades of abuse from weather and sunlight. The magic part is that a refinish repair done right at her local body shop will last just as long and look just as good as the OEM finish does – a tribute to both the auto paint company chemists and the talented painters who make it so.

So the circle closes when Mrs. Smith gets her repaired auto back 11 days later. She and MSR Insurance pay $2,500 to the body shop, and the body shop pays the wages owed to the techs and also the bills from all their various vendors. And it all starts over again tomorrow when Mr. Smith has his seventh-year turn in the barrel. And that’s how our industry works, I say to the folks at the bar.

What Should I Do?

Everyone’s next question is, what should they do when their turn rolls around? How should they choose a local repair shop? Which insurance carrier is the one for them? I’m quick to say that a quality repair is dependent upon quality technicians and that a slovenly shop with great techs could still provide a good result. But, if the shop doesn’t look like they can ever find the broom or vacuum cleaner, aren’t the chances slim they’ll perform the repair you want?

I suggest the consumer look for a local body shop with a great street presence. Every person in the USA cruises by numerous body shops in the course of a single month’s driving. Our business has a bad rep, by the way. Movie directors looking to set the stage for a seedy neighborhood in films often have the flickering neon bar sign on one building, next to a tattoo parlor on one side and the scary-looking body shop on the other. If it looks like a clean and well-run facility from the street, that’s step one for me.

How I’m treated when I enter to do business with any vendor matters. If the clean-looking, well-lit shop has the dusty ol’ grouch behind the counter or the too-busy-to-greet-you receptionist, I suggest you keep looking. There are better choices nearby. And I’m clear that a personable service writer or estimator is no substitute for a talented repair person. The people smiled at me doesn’t fix my car, but I’m inclined to let them sell me on the idea.

Training Matters

Having located a clean and friendly shop, now what? Evidence of training! Chances are super slim that I know any body shops in your neighborhood. What I do know, wherever I travel in this country, is that top-quality shops believe in training and have the written proof prominently displayed. I-CAR Gold is a real-world differentiator. It took that shop lots of time, money and effort to complete their rigorous requirements. No I-CAR Gold shops near you? Evidence of training and testing from ASE and the major paint companies and car manufacturers also serves to ensure the technicians are better and smarter as well. Ask about training if no evidence is visible and the shop doesn’t bring it up.

Which leads me down my second rabbit trail: the body shop that tells Mr. or Mrs. Smith that they don’t have or need formal training because they have that magic elixir, experience. “We’ve been doing this for eleventy-billion years, and we know how to fix the car.” It’s bull and baloney. Automobile engineering and construction are changing every day, and the state-of-the-art changes with them. Forty-year-old methods are unlikely to be the solution Mrs. Smith and MSR Insurance require. Choose the shop that trains, trains and trains. Most likely, they’ll be scrupulously clean, knowledgeable and glad to see you too. Now that’s how your own turn in the seven-year collision cycle is a happy time!

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