Hitting Your Mark: Accurate Estimators - BodyShop Business

Hitting Your Mark: Accurate Estimators

Writing an accurate estimate takes precision and skill. Are your estimators up to the challenge? With knowledgeable and personable estimators leading your team, your shop will win customers and score profits.

The man who wrote estimates in between pulling frames and painting panels has been replaced in today’s body shops by a technically oriented, well-trained estimator who can make or break a shop’s bottom line.

The ability to survive in the autobody industry requires a shop owner to examine and re-examine shop operating methods — including the estimating process — to improve the overall business. And the role of an estimator is critical. He or she must not only be thorough, personable and knowledgeable, but also ethical and trustworthy. Your shop’s profits are in his or her hands. Being "burned" on a job that calls for a detailed estimate to be adequately paid by an insurance company is one thing. Waiting for the hangman to show up at your door because a consumer called the district attorney and accused you of fraud is something else entirely.

Your shop’s goal should be to earn a legitimate profit by constructing estimates that are absolutely accurate; acceptable by industry standards, vehicle owners and insurers; and reflect profit margins that are translatable into shop overhead, technician compensation and support personnel costs and other expenses.

Take Center Stage
While researching this article, I discovered that many collision repair shops still designate a corner of the shop that’s difficult to maneuver in and hard to reach to look over collision-damaged vehicles.

Is this the kind of image you want to display to potential customers? I should think not.

Your estimating area is one of the most important areas in the entire shop. As such, it should be well-lit, equipped with a lift or other portable lifting devices, provide easy access to and from the customer lounge and, quite frankly, impress the heck out of anyone who sees it.

The area should also allow for adequate space to move around the vehicle. Your estimator should have ample room to maneuver around the damage — with the customer in tow — and to step back to get an overall view or to highlight a specific area with a light pen. It’s important to include the customer in the process because a good bit of information can be learned from open dialog as you both look over the crumpled sheet metal and busted plastic.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
The professional demeanor of the first person a customer deals with in any meaningful way should always be that of a confidant. That is, your estimator must establish himself as ready to help the car owner understand the repair process, the need to replace various parts and the operations required to return his vehicle to pre-accident condition. The expertise and professional knowledge your estimator displays should equal that of the top technical representative in the shop. If your estimator isn’t one of your most knowledgeable employees, invest in education and training to bring him or her up to speed.

Virtually all of the experts I spoke with said experienced estimators are easy to lose to another facility. So grooming more than one qualified estimator is a good idea. They also mentioned that estimators must be adept at dealing with people. Unfortunately, technical experts don’t always possess great people skills. If you intend to groom your own estimator from a technician you currently employ, look for someone with a personality that appeals to customers.

The Task at Hand
The objectives of an estimator should include the following:

1. Be able to explain to the customer — in layman’s terms — how the estimate was calculated.

2. Decipher the estimate for the vehicle owner, e.g. explain abbreviations, acronyms, etc.

3. Describe the repair methods used to write the estimate. Give the customer a quick run-down on bend, twist, sag, misalignment or any other technical terms. Sometimes drawings or props can be the best way to short-cut this operation.

4. Advise the customer of the shop’s flat-rate scale, including any variations that might require a more complex skill level (e.g. jobs such as frame or unibody measuring and straightening).

5. Be upfront when you feel a point in the estimate may be in question. For example, let the customer know if the condition of a component, such as the vehicle computer, isn’t tested because of limitations on vehicle operation or collision damage itself.

6. Apply a rough time estimate to the job. Make allowances for work stoppage caused by equipment busy times or other tie-ups. Being realistic here can save you a lot of explaining down the road.

7. Concentrate on helping the customer understand the difference between direct and indirect damage. Inform the customer of the procedures used to locate and repair any "hidden" indirect damage. Also advise him or her of the possible need for a supplement, which may arise as the job progresses.

8. Go through steering and suspension quick checks used to identify problem areas. Build the customer’s confidence by showing your knowledge in these mechanical areas.

9. Offer to supply copies of the final estimate to more than just the customer and the insurance company. If a second or third opinion is offered, and can be seen by the customer as a gesture of honesty and good will.

10. Thank the customer for considering your establishment. Offer vehicle loan or rental services when you can. Also, pull out those customer-satisfaction statistics you’ve worked so hard to earn and use them to sell the job.

Get to Work
A viable estimate starts with a good physical inspection of the vehicle. While there are probably hundreds of checklists to guide an estimator through the procedure, I’ve compiled a list of 10 points to get you started.

1. Check door alignment. Look for doors with gaps, rub marks or striker-to-latch interference problems.

2. Examine the fit of panels and enclosures. Observe gaps and height variations that reflect a shift in the shape of the enclosure or a distortion in the structure itself.

3. Test for door, hood, deck lid and other exterior and interior devices that don’t move smoothly, appear to be sprung or require extra force to operate.

4. Pay attention to panel or roof line ripples that occur away from the obvious damage track. This type of secondary damage can mean serious structure or unibody work is required.

5. Look for cracked seam sealers or stressed, cracked or extruded paint, which translates into induced force that’s surely affected the metal grain structure.

6. Scrutinize the interior for upholstery damage, stains on rugs, vinyl distortion or other damage including inoperative accessories (radio, seat belts, etc.).

7. Look for damage from previous accidents. Make detailed notes of any repair procedures that appear to be substandard.

8. Take the time to remove grillwork, panels or any other components that may hide damage.

9. Look for fluid leaks on the ground. Also look for the overfilling of gear-boxes, etc., which may indicate internal damage or seal failures caused by the collision, water immersion or a rollover.

10. Carefully note and write down the angle of impact, areas of direct damage and other indicators of non-direct or towing/vehicle handling damage. Don’t forget to include obvious limitations on the repair that may require a waiver by the customer or insurance company (e.g. severely sagged springs caused by trailer towing rather than the accident).

Dissecting the Electronic Estimate
An electronic estimate is, without a doubt, the best way to continually offer quality service to customers and insurance companies on any volume scale. "[Since the shop started using an electronic estimating system], I’ve seldom had more than a minor part number error," says Larry Moehl of The AutoWorks in Forsyth, Mo. "I made more errors when I was on a manual system."

The user must have some basic computer skills, but all of the newest systems are designed around Windows-based programs that use a point-and click-mouse or light pen assistance.

The variety of pull-down windows in electronic estimating systems is almost endless. Imagine reading a service manual, then folding over the next page to view supplemental text or a related picture or diagram, then folding over the next page … Viewing all this information simultaneously is made easier with the Windows concept.

In addition, pull-down menus can "hyperlink" you to other areas of the estimate that the program thinks you should see at the time you actually need to see them. On-screen help can be plugged in with these menus, and if all or part of your database is remote, you can link almost instantly via modem to the area you’re going to be using. With the advent of mass storage, especially CD-ROM technology, outdated off-site data transfer is all but eliminated. On a tiny disk, shops now have updated labor times, new part cataloging, used parts and salvage yard cataloging, etc.

When using any of the electronic estimating systems on the market, you can enter a given vehicle identification number and the year, and make, engine, body, suspension, tire size, paint and other vehicle-specific information will automatically appear on the estimate. These items also can be entered manually in the database to be recalled if the vehicle is brought back to the shop for future repairs.

All of the shop owners I spoke with agreed that familiarity with your particular electronic estimating system is the key to writing a complete estimate.

In addition, Moehl says the direct access that electronic estimating programs provide to insurers is a plus. "The insurance company protocol is pre-programmed into my system, which saves time, reduces our administrative load and keeps things moving at a better pace," he says.

The estimate in any given situation is designed to ensure repair costs don’t exceed the total insured value of a vehicle when an insurer is responsible to pay for repairs. All of the main electronic systems on the market will "auto-monitor" this and flag the screen if the cost of repairs totals the value of the vehicle.

Along those lines, your shop also must know when not to write an estimate. For example, if a previously damaged vehicle can’t be restored to safe or workable condition by repairing only the damage from the most recent accident, don’t write an estimate. If you do, you’ll bargain yourself into bankruptcy.

Winning the Estimate Game
As a shop owner, your goal should be to deliver honest and complete estimates for every repairable vehicle that enters your shop. To do that, you need a knowledgeable estimator you can trust to do a thorough job and to display the kind of service that turns vehicle owners into customers.

Your entire business revolves around the estimate. It’s the blueprint for any repair and the basis for your shop’s bottom line. So whether you choose to write estimates manually or with the aid of an electronic system, provide your estimators with the right tools, enroll them in training courses and give them ample space to work. Your business and your customers will both benefit.

Writer Bob Leone, a retired shop owner and contributing editor to BodyShop Business, is ASE Three-Way Master Certified and is completing qualifications as a post-secondary automotive instructor in the vocational-school system in Missouri.

Collision Estimating Guides
If you’re still not sold on the electronic wizardry of the high-tech world, you’ll need estimating guides that are kept current (for parts pricing at least quarterly). Your guides should also include:
1. An illustrated parts breakdown.
2. Clear and concise parts descriptions with illustrations by name and OE number.
3. Current flat-rate times.
4. Definitive parts listings by item or by assembly cost per unit.
5. Footnotes and appendixes explaining any special information, abbreviations, etc., required to use the manuals.

Electronic Supplementing
Adding on to an estimate already logged with an insurance company involves little more than re-establishing the sequence number and date of the original transaction.

After arrangements have been made via telephone, fax or e-mail, the corresponding supplement can be handled by using a "damage entry" format. This updates the original estimate with new price information, including details on new parts costs if they’ve changed, and indicates with a marker if the price has gone up or down. Other columns of the estimate may contain a check or indicate "yes" if the column has been affected by the new supplement. Also, a "new or other damage detected" entry will show up as a separate field in the body of the estimate. Add or delete options will be available whenever this key-line set is present.

Modified or updated labor rates will appear as each new damage entry is accepted by the system. If a corresponding labor operation is re-calculated, it will be noted in the final report section of the document. In addition, any modifications of the original labor rate will be added into the body of the supplement, as well as kept for historical significance in the report section of the document.

Refinish amendments will show up as the total difference between the materials calculated in the original estimate and those now required. This is ordinarily figured by multiplying the total refinish hours (rate 4) by the paint material wage rate. Paint material can then be shown for all damage entry differences.

An "other" category shows all of the remaining differences between the previous estimate and the supplement. Items may include tax, transportation and freight, special mark-up, etc.

Finally, a new or supplement total will provide the total net difference in the revision. The sum of the other items in the "total" column should equal this figure.

A Sampling of Estimates
As part of the research for this article, I asked three shops to provide electronic estimates on a damaged 1999 Pontiac GrandAm SE. With the help of a friend, I also manually wrote an estimate using the latest crash guides. The electronic estimates took anywhere from seven and a half minutes to nine minutes to complete. My handwritten estimate, however, took 50 minutes to complete, was harder to read and looked less professional.

According to BodyShop Business’ 2000 Industry Profile:

• Shops write an average of 24.8 estimates per week (18 is the median*).
• On average, shops convert 67 percent of written estimates into actual jobs.
• The median sales per month per estimator is $25,000.
*The median is the middle figure (50 percent responded higher, 50 percent responded lower).

The Automotive Service Association (ASA) has compiled a reference guide of "not included" items for all three electronic estimating systems. To request a copy, call ASA at (800) 272-7467, ext. 240. The guide is available for free to ASA members and for $5 to non-members.

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