They’ve been bombarded with news stories about shops ripping off unsuspecting consumers and about sting operations that round up shop owners and managers and send them to jail, along with insurance adjusters, who helped them steal money from insurers and consumers.
Consumers have heard practically all bad news about us over the years.
It makes sense, then, that the average consumer has no idea whom to trust after he’s been in an accident since we, as an industry, have yet to teach them what they need to know about the services we provide.
Collision repair is like dentistry. We provide a service that others cannot. But people do not and will not shop for those services until they absolutely have to. And when they do have to go shopping for paint and body repairs, they’re leery and confused. Leery because of our industry’s "reputation." Confused, in part, because they never seem to take the time to learn more about their cars. But, realistically, how many of us take time to learn everything we need to know about things we hope we’ll never need?
It’s our job as an industry to educate the public about what we do. Unfortunately, most body shop owners, managers and estimators aren’t doing this very well, if at all.
I can easily understand why some shop owners wouldn’t want their customers to know much about collision repair. An educated consumer can look over a hacked repair and spot flaws. An educated consumer might also spot flawed repairs on vehicles in front of the shop awaiting delivery and decide not to take the car to that shop.
I think this is one of the reasons so little information about collision repair is made available to the public. Many in the collision industry won’t admit that they really don’t want their customers to know a first-class repair from a mediocre or even a downright frightening excuse for a repair.
All that being said, I’d like to tell you about a little experiment I recently conducted in order to show the wide variety of bids one might get on the same collision damage. A friend of mine was in an accident, and his 1996 Toyota Camry sustained some bad damage to its right side. He wanted to get his vehicle repaired and asked me what I’d charge to do it. I agreed to do the repair in exchange for his permission to publish photos of his vehicle, along with the five written estimates from the shops of my choice. The five shops we visited were:
- A $99 paint-job place.
- A shop that advertises light cosmetic repairs at low prices on local TV stations.
- An independently owned collision repair shop.
- A diminished value (DV) assessment shop.
- A dealership shop.
Why did I perform this little experiment, you ask? Because I wanted to give shop owners a better idea of what consumers go through when shopping for something they know very little about. I think when the average consumer shops for our services, he’s confused by the huge disparity between the highest and lowest bid. He’s also confused by the vagueness of one estimate and the detail of another. The one thing all shops have in common, however, is the promise of top-quality, professional repairs.
A shortage of customer trust and potential techs is plaguing our industry. One thing that would help is better estimating. But better estimating means more than just writing a fully detailed sheet. It also means taking the time to explain the details to the customer.
5 Bids, 5 Drastically Different Bottom Lines
I expected to see a variety of diagnoses and a wide range of prices for the repair of this damage – and that’s exactly what I got. With a bottom price of just over $500 and a top price of over 4 grand, I can easily understand why consumers aren’t sure where to go.
How does one know if the $500 repair is going to be a hack job? On the other hand, how’s a shopper to know if the $4,000 bid is a rip off? After all, the other guy said he could do it for $500, so why does it cost so much more to do "a proper repair" at this shop? These are the kinds of questions that are on the minds of thousands of collision repair customers every day. And our failure as an industry to provide accurate, detailed answers to these questions has created a confused and easily misled customer base for all of us.
I do have to say that the man at the DV shop who wrote the 4K+ estimate did take the time to thoroughly explain what would be done to the vehicle and why it needed to be done that way. He also attached his business card to the estimate and suggested that we call if we think of any other questions. This shop also had literature available to help educate customers in many areas of collision repair, from legal issues to the actual repair process.
The lady at the dealership also offered to explain anything her potential customer was concerned about. Like the other writer, she attached a business card to her estimate with the same offer – to call anytime with questions or to schedule an appointment to drop off the vehicle.
The independent shop estimator offered some explanation, too, but just not as detailed. However, the light-hit shop and the $99 paint-job shop
didn’t. In fact, the $99 paint-job shop bid offered little more than a handwritten sheet saying, "Repair Car – $500" and a promise that the repair could be completed in two to three days.
I know, I know. You’re impatient. Let’s talk estimating …
Shop No. 1: $99 Paint-Job Shop
Shop No. 1: $99 Paint-Job Shop with a $521.09 Bid
The office at this $99 paint-job shop was dirty and smelled of mildew, and two steel folding chairs were the only chairs in the office. (Every other shop we visited had a clean, organized office with comfortable seats and TVs, too.)
This was the first place we shopped for an estimate and turned out to be the lowest bidder – coming in at $521.09. The handwritten estimate was written to repair the right front door, the right rear door and right dogleg for a total of $220. The "paint & trim" cost was $100. The estimate didn’t specify what portion of the car would be painted, whether adjacent panels would be blended, etc.
At this point, I was wondering where this company buys materials and what kind of money they pay their hired help. Even if the body man and painter get half the labor, I can’t imagine anyone spending much time on this repair for this price.
Lastly, the cost of replacing the rearview mirror was $160 – with no indication of whether the part would be OEM, aftermarket, new or used.
Many consumers have no idea how many variables are left wide open on an estimate like this. Most likely, window moldings and door handles won’t be removed. Only the damaged outer panels will be repaired, and the repair will be very rushed and probably very flawed, as well. Materials used will be the cheapest available, as will the rearview mirror – although a used OEM mirror wouldn’t be a bad choice if it’s a fully functioning part. The trouble is, many consumers don’t know to ask about this kind of stuff.
Shop No. 2: Light-Hit Shop
Shop No. 2: Light-Hit Shop with a $1,992.76 Bid
The light-hit shop had the most comfortable couches I ever almost fell asleep on. But this is beside the point.
Our second estimate, although handwritten, was reasonably legible and more specific. Each part to be replaced was listed individually with a part price, and labor operations were listed below with their individual prices.
The estimate specified an OEM door skin and side moldings, and the labor amounts appeared to be a bit more realistic. Even after the discount offered in the follow-up letter (schedule an appointment within 10 days and get a 10 percent discount on the labor portion of the bill), this was still the third most expensive estimate, coming to nearly 2 grand including taxes. At $1,435 in total labor, I find it a little easier to believe that techs would take the time to do a nice repair.
Still, this estimate leaves open several opportunities for misunderstanding. Will the belt moldings, front door handle, lamps, etc., be removed or masked? Will adjacent panels be blended? Will the inside of the rear door frame and adjacent doorjamb area be painted? Hmm …
Shop No. 3: Independent Collision Repair Shop
Shop No. 3: Independent Collision Repair Shop with a $1,702.73 Bid
Here we received our first computer-generated estimate. Though it was a lower bid than the one the light-hit shop wrote, it was much more detailed than the estimates we received from the first two shops.
The independent charged less to repair the front door and wrote to refinish the side moldings instead of replacing them. The estimator also offered some explanation about the bid, such as the outer door would just include the outside panel and not the whole door.
The independent charged less than other shops for the repair of the quarter panel but didn’t specify whether the door frame area would be refinished. I can only assume the blend would be a solvent blend in the quarter since there’s no mention of the roof or opposite quarter. (There’s no break line between the roof and quarter, which made this car perfect for this project.)
Of course, the average consumer isn’t aware that the blend must go to the nearest break in the panel, which in this case would include the roof and opposite quarter panel. And without this knowledge, the average consumer won’t question the longevity or durability of a solvent blend in the sail panel.
I wonder how many painters blend and clearcoat the roof and opposite quarter panel when there’s no break between the roof and the quarter panel they’re painting? More importantly, I wonder how many shop owners are charging for this procedure and explaining to their customers why it must be done this way.
It’s also worth noting that the independent shop contacted my friend (the potential customer) the following week by phone, offering to schedule an appointment to drop off the car for repairs.
Shop No. 4: DV Shop
Shop No. 4: DV Shop with a Bid of $4,073.50
The fourth estimate was written at a DV assessment facility and was the most thoroughly detailed estimate of the five.
With a keen eye, this estimator studied each panel, took notes and thoroughly inspected the damage, the doorjambs and the door frames. He walked around the entire vehicle and explained why he’d charge refinish labor for the roof and opposite quarter. He also explained that the windshield and back glass would have to be removed for this procedure and that their respective moldings would be destroyed in the removal process.
This estimate clearly covers items that most estimators don’t even consider when inspecting and diagnosing collision-damaged vehicles. This estimate also demonstrates the level of inaccuracy in our industry’s estimating process. The estimating systems are designed to produce estimates like this for every vehicle, yet estimators across the country are leaving procedures out of the sheets they write. And everything you leave out of your estimate is a cause for misunderstanding. Is the shop simply not charging for that procedure, or will the procedure not be performed at all?
Shop No. 5: Dealership Shop
Shop No 5: Dealership Shop with Bid of $3,405.26
The fifth and final estimate came from a dealership body shop. Not quite as thorough as the DV shop’s bid, this estimate is still an outstanding assessment of the procedures necessary to properly repair this car.
Like the previous estimator, the lady at the dealership explained the blending process as well as the removal of the glass. She opened doors and carefully examined the damage. She also wrote to replace belt moldings on both right doors and the upper window molding, explaining that these parts are factory installed with plastic clips and nearly always break upon removal. The estimator pointed out that if the moldings could be reused, the money would be refunded.
Written Estimates for Shops 1-5
My Two Cents
While many estimators will say the last two shops were overcharging or "nickel and diming" the job, this is really what more estimates need to look like. When I look over these last two sheets, I see procedures that quality-conscious techs are performing all the time, even though their employers aren’t charging for those items. However, I also see procedures that a lot of techs wouldn’t bother to perform at all on any job. As one collision tech once told me: "The only problem I got with a sheet like that is you’re kinda obligated to do all that petty [stuff]."
As I mentioned earlier, however, thoroughly written sheets like these prompt questions in the minds of the consumers reading them. Customers who compare a four-page estimate to a one-page estimate for the same repair can’t help but wonder why one shop charges for all these things and the other doesn’t.
Of course, the writer at the lower-priced shop will tell the customer that the higher-priced shop won’t do a better repair. But if the writer of the higher estimate has done a good job explaining his estimate to the potential customer, the customer will more easily recognize the difference between the two estimates.
A trend toward more thoroughly written sheets might also help the industry generate some interest among potential entry-level candidates. I know it would generate some interest among veteran techs.
One of the first things a young tech learns when he starts earning flat rate or commission pay is that a lot of procedures in the estimating books never show up on shop estimates. And that drives many of them away before they ever gain much experience in this field. Many of the young techs feel like they’re getting ripped off – and their feelings are justified.
Why Write Thorough Estimates?
Here we have an industry that has trouble gaining and maintaining the trust of its potential consumer base and its potential workforce – a mistrust fueled by the improper use of estimating systems. If more shops were writing complete estimates and getting their techs paid for every procedure, wouldn’t the competition be based more solely on quality craftsmanship?
The problem is that people don’t know about their cars. Consumers have learned the difference between good quality and poor quality foods, products and other services, but even when they try, they have a hard time obtaining valid, reliable information about collision repairs. Very little information is available to the general public about automotive body repair and painting. To make matters worse, everybody in the business is promising top-quality repairs.
So when one shop charges $500 and another charges several thousand for the same thing and both are promising top quality, what’s an uninformed consumer to do? Especially if the neighbor had $3,500 worth of work done that looks terrible.
This industry is changing fast. Anybody who wants to stay in it had better learn how to get their techs paid good money and stop hiring techs who won’t do everything on the estimate.
Complete estimates with clear, thorough explanations for what has to be done – and why – are the secrets to gaining and maintaining the trust of the American consumer. But we all have to work together – as an industry – to accomplish this. And we can’t give up when change doesn’t happen in a day or a week or a year. If we’re to have any chance of succeeding, we need to educate the masses and strive for quality throughout our entire careers.
Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 19 years, and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy. Bailey can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]