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Creating The Super Estimator

Transform a mild-mannered estimator into “The Man Who Sells Steel Repair” by teaching him how to communicate effectively with people.

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The position of collision repair shop estimator is one of the most unique positions in the industry. Why? Because an estimator requires personality traits and skils that are poles apart from each other: Writing an estimate requires a good working knowledge of the way automotive mechanics work, but it also requires the ability to convince (sell) the customer to have the work performed at your shop.

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Individual personalities tend to fall into one of two distinct categories:

• People who enjoy dealing with things, and

• People who enjoy dealing with people.

Other terms are also applied to these traits (such as social and anti-social; people-oriented and task-oriented), but the simple fact is this: People who enjoy working with things (cars, computers, tools, numbers, etc.) are much happier when dealing with things than when dealing with people. And people who enjoy working with people are much happier when working with people than when dealing with things.

But, in order to be truly successful, estimators must be able to deal effectively with things and people — first, completing the technical job (writing the estimate) and, then, selling the job to a person. This is further complicated in the collision repair shop since, in almost every case, there are a minimum of two customers (consumers and insurance companies) — both of whom might have very different goals about what they want to accomplish with the repair of the vehicle.

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How do we develop these traits in our estimators? This question reminds me of a story I once heard: A gentleman was standing on a street corner in New York when another gentleman walked up to him and asked, "Pardon me sir, but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall from here?" The other gentleman replied, ‘"Well certainly! The best way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice!"

This advice certainly applies to estimators. Most estimators are very good at dealing with things — they’re technically oriented — but to be good at selling the estimate once it’s written, they need to develop and use their people skills. Why is developing and using their people skills important? The answer lies in this question: Do you want your estimators to write estimates or to sell estimates?

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Developing People Power
Every day our management consultants are in collision repair shops — observing estimators writing great estimates, only to lose the deal by handing the estimates to the customers and thanking them for choosing the shop. If you’re thinking, "OK, what’d the estimators miss?" then you need to pay attention: They didn’t sell features, advantages or benefits of why the customers should choose the shop for the repairs. They didn’t ask for the business!

How can you teach estimators who prefer dealing with things to be proficient at dealing with people, too? You, as the shop owner, need to provide four key ingredients:

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  1. Image and sales training.
  2. Negotiating skills.
  3. Tracking procedures.
  4. Follow-up policies.

The Power of First Impressions
The initial contact sets the stage for everything that follows and how the customer will react to your estimator’s input. For example, if your estimator is smiling, friendly and ready to do business during that first contact with the customer, he sends a non-verbal message that your shop wants the customer’s business. On the other hand, if your estimator is busy talking to technicians, has a messy desk, has no paper and pen available, or looks disheveled, he sends a non-verbal message that says, "You’re bothering me!"

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Remember, customers have a tendency to focus on your estimator’s negative image projections rather than on their positive image projections. For example, an estimator can have a perfect greeting, say and do positive things, then allow an interruption by a technician or other shop employee to ruin the customer’s image of him and your shop. The customer tends to focus on the fact that the estimator is placing other people’s needs ahead of his. And this makes it very difficult to convince the customer that your shop will really do all the things you say it will. As the shop owner, you have a great deal of control over your business and you can change a lot of things, but remember this: You can never change a customer’s first impression.

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Since initial contact is critical, estimators need to focus on the customers and listen to their concerns. They also need to focus on potential negative image projections and always use positive verbal and non-verbal communications. For example, when customers ask how long it will take to repair their vehicles, the estimator shouldn’t respond by saying it normally takes two to three days or even weeks. Instead, the estimator should ask, "How soon do you need your vehicle back?" This implies that he wants to help the customers work the repairs into their schedules, instead of requiring the customers to fit into the shop’s schedule. Also, don’t forget the role the telephone plays. Many customers’ first impressions are generated over the phone — and it’s just as easy to send a non-verbal communication message over the phone as it is in person. Sentence structure, tone of voice and pauses in speech all send out either positive or negative image projections about your business.

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The Power of Selling
Many people believe that you’re either born a great salesperson or you’re not — but I disagree. Selling is a skill that can be acquired. Great salespeople discipline themselves to follow successful sales traits, and estimators can be taught to be great salespeople by following a set of steps with every customer. These steps should be designed to deliver approved estimates from the customer to your shop, and the steps we recommend are:

• Friendly meeting and greeting.

• Listen and learn.

• Sell features, advantages and benefits.

• Ask for the business.

• Follow up.

If you have pre-defined steps your estimators must take with every customer and you make sure these steps are followed consistently, your estimators will be successful in selling. We suggest you develop the steps you want followed in your business and review them with your employees through role playing. Role playing demonstrates to your employees exactly how you want each step performed and allows you an opportunity to coach them.

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The Power of Negotiating
Negotiating is the next step in the process. Remember that once the customer decides to do business with your company, other obstacles will still — most likely — have to be dealt with (deductibles, parts types, etc.). Getting agreement on these issues will require that the estimator negotiate with the customer and, in many cases, with the insurance company.

The key to successful negotiating is to develop a win/win strategy for all parties involved. A win/win strategy requires that you assess every situation differently. For example, if a shop has a policy of not paying for loaner cars, regardless of the situation, this policy would effectively negate any possibility of an estimator being able to negotiate for a job by providing a loaner car for one day. A win/win strategy utilizes this premise: Is it good for the customer, the insurance company and your shop? This type of strategy allows the estimator to assess the situation, review the merits for each party and make a decision to give out a loaner only when it meets the test, i.e. when it’s good for all parties involved.

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The Power of Tracking
Tracking is the final element of a successful sales program. We can’t expect every customer to make a buying decision at the point of first contact. Many times, the customer has to check with the insurance company or another individual before a buying decision can be made. Also, the customer may want or need to compare the estimate from your shop with other shops before deciding. Failure to follow up will almost certainly assure your shop of losing the job. Many times, shop owners are hesitant to follow up for fear of losing a customer. My fear is that if you don’t follow up, you will almost certainly not get the job. My advice to those who are fearful of following up on a potential job is this: Follow up with that customer until he has the vehicle repaired or gets rid of it!

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To follow up, you need a system for logging estimates. Our system logs the customer’s name, phone number(s), insurance company, type of repair, total price, date written, date(s) followed up and date sold. We recap all of this data monthly to give us a measure of the estimator’s job performance. Our target is for the estimator to close (sell) 70 percent of all the estimates written. Tracking estimates in this manner also provides excellent insight into how many days, on average, it takes to close an estimate; which insurance companies are and aren’t doing business with you; and the dollar amount you’re doing for each insurance company.

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Able to Leap Sales Obstacles in a Single Bound …

Super Estimators aren’t born; they’re created.

Being a Super Estimator requires that an individual utilize his natural talents, as well as constantly practice and hone some unnatural skills. Because some of these skills don’t come naturally, the transformation from a mild-mannered, mediocre estimator into a Super Estimator won’t happen overnight. But, once it does happen, your estimator’s closing ratios — along with your business — will really take off.

Writer Larry Edwards is president of Edwards & Associates Consulting, Inc., located in Charlotte, N.C. Edwards can be reached at (800) 979-9904.

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