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Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Estimators

Technicians have enough to worry about, so when they spend a lot of their time checking P-pages and writing their own supplements because the estimator didn’t know everything to ask for, the whole shop suffers.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

The duties of a body shop estimator tend to vary from shop to shop and from geographical area to area. Like many aspects of the collision industry, there are no established procedures or guidelines to follow regarding how estimators work with techs. But no matter what your location, both of these parties should be prepared and know their responsibilities – unless you want to see total dissention in the ranks.

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Unfortunately, it seems that current times have allowed these responsibilities to overlap, causing problems and delays in the repair process. How? Shops are under more pressure than ever to repair vehicles as quickly as possible in the interest of saving money and satisfying the customer on the go. In the rush to keep up with the rush, people tend to pass their duties to others whenever they can. As a result, important tasks are forgotten when everyone involved assumes they’re someone else’s job.

As a shop owner, understanding the dynamics of how your repair team works is more than just helpful in keeping employees happy and productive – it’s essential.

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Let Techs Be Techs
In too many shops these days, technicians are forced to perform duties once handled by the office staff. Because of this, I’ve advised techs to keep a pen and legal pad handy when they disassemble a vehicle, so parts and damage not covered on the preliminary estimate can be noted for supplementation. But many techs these days have to sit down with crash books to make a list of items missed on the estimate, and the list has to be submitted to the office. This becomes quite time consuming and gets in the way of what techs do best: repair cars. It can also cause a great deal of animosity.

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In a well-run shop, techs shouldn’t have to write their own supplements. In fact, what keeps a shop running well is the fact that techs have enough time to repair cars. This is more easily done when the estimator and technician go over the vehicle together to diagnose any additional damage, making a list of all additional parts and labor needed on the supplement. The best estimators remember to read all the footnotes and charge for all the additional procedures necessary to complete a repair. Techs shouldn’t have to go through the P-pages looking for procedures left off the repair order.

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Techs also shouldn’t have to go to a parts department or call to check on a part. Granted, there are times when it’s easier for everyone if the tech carries his own parts to his work area, opens the boxes and checks the parts for accuracy and shipping damage. For the most part, though, it’s better to keep your technicians working on cars while someone else, such as a shop porter or apprentice, tackles the small but important jobs.

As the shop owner, it’s important for you to establish and explain the roles of each employee so conflicts don’t develop. A really good estimator these days is as rare and valuable as a really good metal tech or a really good painter. It’s a difficult search, but finding a good estimator is paramount to your shop’s productivity and profitability.

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Finding the Right Estimator
In recent years, a large portion of the collision industry has partnered with the insurance industry in the interest of filling the parking lot with cars. Many of these shops hire office personnel with more office experience and less shop experience. Many are also hiring estimators for their ability to follow insurance company guidelines instead of hiring those who’ll go to bat to get paid for all the necessary procedures. Too many estimators aren’t trained to stand up to insurance adjusters who refuse to pay for legitimate, necessary procedures. As a result, technicians work for free or cheaply while shop time and equipment usage are given away; this, in turn, makes techs feel their work isn’t valued.

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But shop performance and quality also suffer in this scenario. That’s why techs need all the required jobs listed in the estimate. Good estimators are the foundation for a well-working shop.

The really good estimators apply a wide variety of skills and talents to their job to produce the most profit for the entire team. A good estimator is a teacher, student, translator, arbitrator and even a salesman. Most of all, the estimator must be a good negotiator. All too often, estimators who negotiate prices with insurance companies lack a thorough knowledge and understanding of the repair process. Some also fail to look up P-page procedures that techs need to be paid for. Any overlooked and/or underestimated damages and procedures obviously reduce the possible profit.

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Last year, an insurance adjuster posted an interesting statement on an Internet message board. It said, “Every body shop estimator walks away from the negotiating table leaving nickels and dimes lying on the table. If they don’t know enough to charge for certain items, it’s their loss. I don’t volunteer to pay for anything they don’t ask for.” This statement may seem a bit arrogant to some, but I agree that it’s not up to the insurance industry to educate our estimators. Why should insurance companies offer to pay for a procedure that half the collision industry doesn’t ask about or charge for in the first place?

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The point is, our estimators should know to charge for it!

From a Tech’s Perspective
When you give away free procedures on any repair, you don’t just take away money from the technician and the shop. You also take away some of the down time the tech needs to properly repair the vehicle. If you give away a total of five hours on a repair, you’re likely moving up your delivery deadline by a full day, allowing your technician less time to perform a quality repair. No one likes the amount of time a vehicle is tied up in the shop while it’s repaired, but it’s very important we give our customers a realistic idea of how long a repair will take, along with an explanation of why it takes this long.

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If you make unrealistic promises to your customers, they’ll place unrealistic demands on you and your technicians. A customer who’s told a 30-hour job will be finished Friday afternoon will expect to drive the vehicle home Friday afternoon. But what if it’s actually a 37-hour job because seven hours have been left “on the negotiating table”? Will it still be ready on time? Will your tech still be there Monday?

Too many estimators fail to properly take into account customer expectations, so the techs must hustle and work late to meet those expectations. (How happy would you be working under those conditions?) They make promises to customers without first checking to see that those promises can be kept. Quite often, the result is that a last-minute miracle must be performed to keep the promise made to the customer. Or the vehicle is delivered later than promised to an irritated customer.

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One way your office staff can avoid these problems is to verify with others involved in the repair, including the technicians, that a promise can be kept before it’s made – or you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation.

As the owner, you can help develop good working relationships between estimators and techs by creating a complete list of duties expected of each position. When every employee knows exactly what duties he’s expected to perform, you’ll have less fingerpointing and last-minute blame games.

Likewise, consider trading places. A growing number of companies are using this strategy to install mutual respect among co-workers. If every tech had to spend one week a year in the office while someone in the office worked on cars, we could better understand the skills needed to perform one another’s jobs.

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Write It Correctly
The most important skills a good estimator brings to his job involve organization and communication. Estimators are the communication links between the customer, the insurance company and the technician. Providing these communication links is no easy task, but it can be simplified with a couple of good habits.

On more than one occasion, long-time friend and estimator Leon Seese has said, “A good [estimator] should live by the legal pad.”

Seese keeps a legal pad handy at all times and takes a lot of notes. When I worked with him, he started every morning by folding back the pages of his legal pad to reveal a fresh page. He’d write the date at the top and begin taking notes about things he needed to do and people he needed to speak with. As a shop owner, encourage your estimators to go this extra mile.

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If Seese picked up the phone to call a customer or insurance adjuster to check on a part, he’d write down the time of the phone call and the name of the person he spoke with. He followed this information with notes about the phone conversation or any message he may have left. I’ve also known him to note the time and content of conversations held with metal techs or painters. This has helped him remember to order overlooked parts or hardware and to add those items to a supplement or to touch base with techs to discuss repairs and schedule delivery times.

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Whether they realize it or not, everyone who works with Seese benefits from his method of remembering things. By using his legal pad as a daily “to do” list, he remembers to follow through in situations where many people drop the ball. The notes he takes enable him to improve his efficiency and accuracy. More plainly, the legal pad helps Seese do his job well.

And that’s what it’s all about: doing our jobs. When we all buckle down and make an effort to work well together, that’s when we make a good honest living for a hard day’s work. The techs and the estimator should complement each other, not make the other’s job more difficult. And as the shop owner, it’s your job to ensure that happens.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 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.

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