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In a State Over Allstate

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Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for more than 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling called BodyShop Schedule Pro, for subletting towing called Tow Bill Helper and for printing estimates in dollars called Dollars & Sense. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.

ermarket parts as possible, and if there’s any question or disagreement, “See us in court!”

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I have a database of more than 50 insurers that I dealt with last year. We’re near a naval base and get people with insurance companies from every corner of the country. Without a doubt, Allstate is the most difficult insurer I deal with.

And I’m an easy guy to get along with. I’ve never thrown an appraiser out of my shop. I’ve never banned an appraiser from coming to my shop. I’ve never raised my voice to an appraiser, adjuster or any other insurance employee.

But every time a customer mentions the “A” word or one of their appraisers pulls into my parking lot, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. Here’s the typical scenario when most insurance appraisers come to my shop:

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The appraiser walks into the front office. My assistant and the appraiser exchange pleasantries. I walk out to the front office to greet the appraiser. We exchange pleasantries, laugh, joke around, talk about the state of the industry or our families, hobbies, indiscretions, whatever. I hand the appraiser a copy of my estimate, we walk out to the vehicle, the appraiser checks my information on my estimate to make sure everything is correct, takes a few photos while we’re still shooting the doo doo and then leaves.

Usually I get a fax a few hours later with his estimate that’s very close to mine. Sometimes they write the estimate at my shop, something they’re required to do by law, but I usually let them fax it to me later. Either way, the whole process usually takes 15 or 20 minutes.

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Now here’s the typical scenario when an Allstate appraiser comes to my shop:

The appraiser walks into the front office with a cloud of icy air in tow. Some polite small talk is exchanged. I greet the appraiser with a copy of my estimate. We walk out to the vehicle together. The appraiser glances at my estimate and then puts it in his hand under the notebook computer, where its completeness and accuracy won’t interfere with the appraiser’s mission. The appraiser then tells me he’s all set and will be in to see me when he’s finished.

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I have lunch. I test drive a car. I solve a bunch of life-altering problems in the shop. I write a few estimates. I negotiate a few claims over the phone.

Anywhere from one to three hours later, the Allstate appraiser emerges from his mobile office, estimate in hand, looking years older than when I last saw him. With a perfectly straight face, he hands me his estimate while he stutters through an explanation of the LKQ and A/M parts, depreciation, old damage, betterment, procedures they aren’t allowed to pay for, etc.

Again, he does this with a perfectly serious, straight face.

I look at his bottom line, and what a freaking surprise! It’s about half of what I wrote for on the same vehicle, the same damage.

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I promptly hand it back to him and tell him that I’ve never believed in fairy tales and I’m not about to start now. Then I get the explanations.

“But I gave you what you asked for here. And I even gave you this over here. My computer says blah, blah, blah…”

Phooey! How do they put it on the Sopranos? “Forget about it!”

The appraiser leaves without an agreed price and calls the customer to explain what a bad guy I am, how we’re the most expensive shop in the entire galaxy and how they can get their vehicle fixed at one of Allstate’s PRO shops for his estimate amount.

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Unfortunately for the Allstate appraiser, I’ve already prepared my customers for the torturous ordeal, and they’re always amazed at just how accurate I am with my predictions. It’s at about this point when my customer realizes that he may not be in such “good hands” after all. The insurance company referral list I include with every one of my estimates (showing my recommended auto insurers) now comes in handy.

Fortunately for me, most of my customers are pretty sophisticated and not hurting for money. I only lose about half of my Allstate customers. The other half pay the difference and have us repair their car anyway. Or, if they’re the claimant, they contact their own insurance company and let them deal with Allstate.

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Why does it have to be like this, Allstate? What’s your problem?

A few months ago, I wrote an article for BodyShop Business explaining how Southeastern Connecticut was making progress getting paid a fair labor rate. Well, that progress is still active.

Almost every insurance company is now paying us anywhere from $4 to $10 more per labor hour. There are still a few holdouts, but for the most part, those holdouts take care of us on content.

Allstate, however, wants to give it to us both ways. And I DO NOT take it both ways. So lately I’ve been filing complaints against Allstate and their appraisers with the Connecticut Department of Insurance. Yeah, I know. This is about as useful as asking Bill Clinton for help promoting family values and honesty.

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But here in Connecticut, we have this little regulation that forbids licensed appraisers from using pre-determined guidelines to influence their appraisals. It’s against the law for them to be influenced by any party when writing an estimate.

In other words, if Allstate tells their appraisers they can’t pay for buffing and the appraiser blindly follows this order, the appraiser is breaking the law. Unfortunately, the insurance department won’t enforce this regulation, and the appraisers get around this regulation by saying they personally don’t feel the procedure is needed or they believe the labor rate is fair.

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How can you disprove someone’s thoughts?

It’s also against the law for an appraiser to use deceptive or unfair business practices to manipulate the market. And this is something that can be proven if it happens. You either did something, or you didn’t do something. You either broke the law, or you didn’t break the law. The insurance department should have no problem taking action against a company or person who violated this law. Uh-huh, and I’ll vote for Al Sharpton, too.On April 3, 2003, an Allstate appraiser visited my shop to write an estimate on one vehicle and to negotiate an estimate on another vehicle. She actually did a pretty good job on content, but when it came time to talk about the labor rate, she wouldn’t budge. It was the same worn out mantra, “I get agreed prices with every other shop in the area at $42. You’re the only shop asking for more.”

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I didn’t argue with her. I told her I wouldn’t accept such a paltry sum. She told me she wouldn’t pay any more than the $42 she offered. She left me a copy of each estimate with the words, “No agreed price due to labor rate difference” on each.

I immediately filed a separate complaint on each claim with the Connecticut Department of Insurance. They’d recently released a memo to every insurance company doing business in Connecticut explaining that it’s unacceptable to use one labor rate for all areas of the state as a blanket policy. Every claim had to be handled individually, and all aspects of the repair and repair shop had to be taken into consideration when negotiating a claim.

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Most insurance companies have heeded this warning. Not Allstate. Mobilize the army of lawyers and prepare for war!

The very next day, April 4th, I get a phone call from the body shop manager at a dealership down the street from our shop. He called to inform me that this same appraiser had just told him that she gets agreed prices at $42 per hour with me all the time.

Read that sentence again.

I was dumbfounded.

This appraiser was lying to the shop manager down the street in order to manipulate him into accepting a substandard labor rate. Unfortunately for her, this manager had just received, from me, a copy of my latest area labor rate survey. He knew what I was charging. It was public information required by law to be posted in our office. How could this appraiser be so stupid or so arrogant to try such a stunt?

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Busted!

I’d caught an Allstate appraiser red-handed in a clear violation of her appraiser’s license. And this was just one day after she left my shop without an agreed price on two claims, so it definitely didn’t slip her mind.

This was a calculated attempt at falsely controlling the market. She was trying to trick a shop manager into accepting a low rate by lying about other shops accepting that rate. Then she’d have a shop that really was accepting this insulting rate. Before you know it, everyone is working at that rate, afraid to lose business to their competition who, they were told, worked cheap.

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This is extortion, racketeering, Mafia-type behavior. Using artificial market pressure to pressure the market. What a concept!

Any reasonable person would believe that such behavior would be taken seriously by the state insurance department. After all, their reason for existence, aside from bleeding us of our tax dollars, is to protect the public from the power of the insurance industry. I filed a complaint and waited for news of an investigation. I had fantasies of seeing headlines, “Allstate Appraiser Busted for Manipulating Market. Attorney General Considers RICO Prosecution.”

I daydreamed about sitting on the set of 60 Minutes across from Ed Bradley. “Enough about Allstate Ed. Please explain to your audience why in the hell a grown man your age with a head of gray hair is wearing an earring?”

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I was sorely disappointed. Two weeks went by without a response from the insurance company or a call from CBS.

I called the insurance department and asked what was going on with my complaint. They couldn’t find it. Could I fax it again?

I comply.

Another week goes by and no word. I call again.

“I’ve reviewed your complaint,” he says. “But we really can’t do anything about the labor rate. It’s determined by the market.”

“What are you talking about? My complaint isn’t about the labor rate. It’s about an appraiser being caught red-handed lying to manipulate the market. That’s my complaint.”

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He seemed annoyed. “Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to suspend her license?”

“Hell yes! Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?!”

He asked me to hold on. I could smell the burning flesh of his hand. This was a hot potato, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He returned and told me that he had to pass the file on to his boss. His boss would get back to me.

A week later, I called to talk to his boss. He never got the file.

“Can you fax me a copy of your complaint?”

Another week goes by. I call again to check the status of my complaint. Boss man gets on the phone and tells me he gave the file back to the original associate examiner. The examiner was out and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.

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I let another couple of days go by and called again. The original examiner told me that he mailed the offending Allstate appraiser a copy of my complaint and was awaiting her response.

Two weeks later, I got a letter from the insurance department along with a copy of the appraiser’s response. She denied the charges.

The letter from the associate examiner said he’s reviewed her response and it appears to be correct. They were closing the file, and he apologized for not being able to act on the complaint.What the #@!*???

I called the examiner at the insurance department, and I could tell I was really imposing on him. He was annoyed. He told me I hadn’t supplied proof. The damn fool! I told him I’d send him a signed affidavit if he wanted it, but he never asked for it.

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I went on a tirade accusing the insurance department of being a watchdog for the insurance companies instead of protecting consumers. He strongly disagreed. Go figure.I got the signed affidavit from the shop manager who told me about the appraiser lying to him and sent it, along with a response to the appraiser’s response, to the insurance department examiner assigned to the case. I’m not expecting any results, but I am enjoying myself.

So why doesn’t the Connecticut Department of Insurance take action against Allstate? With all the Web sites devoted to Allstate victims and horror stories, all the attorneys who complain about dealing with Allstate, all the body shops who complain about dealing with Allstate, all the Allstate insureds and claimants who complain about dealing with Allstate, one would think we’d have the attention of insurance departments across this country.

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Does the fact that many employees in the Connecticut Insurance Department are ex-insurance company employees have anything to do with it? Connecticut’s insurance commissioner was an insurance executive. The supervisor of the associate examiners worked for an insurance company. What are the chances that they still have friends working at these insurance companies? Does the fact that Connecticut is the insurance capital of the world have any bearing on the politics and policies of the state department of insurance?

And what is Allstate’s problem? Why do they have to be so difficult?

I talked with a couple of ex-Allstate appraisers to find out what goes on in that company that turns their appraisers into such. well, you fill in the blank.

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Can you say “re-inspector”? As far as things go in Connecticut, the re-inspector who follows the appraiser is like the air that follows flatulence.

Allstate’s appraisers are worried about being written up by the re-inspectors who watch their every move. This fear serves as the motivation for chiseling down their repair estimates.

One ex-appraiser told me: “Management is careful not to tell appraisers how to write their estimates. They know that violates the Connecticut law.”

But the re-inspectors are trained to mold their appraisers’ behavior. According to one ex-appraiser I talked with, the re-inspectors are relentless. They’re given incentives to find problems with appraisers’ estimates. Too much time here. Why did you write to replace this part? Why didn’t you offer an appearance allowance on this?

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An ex-appraiser told me, “They want real time. An hour for an hour dent.” And they’ll find a problem on most estimates. These overages, along with the appraisers’ severity rates or their average estimate dollar amount, strongly influence appraiser raises and promotions.

The behavior modification that Allstate appraisers go through, I believe, is what caused the female appraiser mentioned earlier to lie to that shop manager. She was doing what she could to keep her marketplace rates as low as possible to keep her average estimate as low as possible. I doubt that anyone in Allstate told her to lie. I believe she was just trying to survive in the company.

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Why would anyone work for this company? Well, many won’t. In Connecticut, Allstate was having so much trouble hiring appraisers that they obtained a list of every licensed appraiser in the state and sent each one a letter asking them to contact Allstate for an interview. I opened mine during dinner one night, and a few seconds later, I had mashed potatoes shooting from my nose. I about died of laughter.

A running joke I have with many appraisers I deal with goes like this: They’ll come into my office looking haggard and disgusted and complain about their job. They’ll ask me if I’ve heard of any insurance companies looking for an appraiser. I say, “Sure! Allstate is looking.”

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We both get a good laugh.I contacted several people who now work for Allstate and asked them if I could interview them for this article. I got the same response from everyone. And as you can see, there are no quotes here from current Allstate employees. One of the supervisors, who I know pretty well, told me that he’d get back to me with the phone number for their public relations department. I’m still waiting.

Allstate remains the tough nut to crack here in Connecticut. Still, I’m fighting back with some success.

Just like Allstate “suggests” that people take their damaged vehicles to one of their PRO shops, I “suggest” to all my customers that they buy insurance from one of the companies on my list of the better insurance companies in the area. A referral list is printed on every one of my estimates, and there are a pile of them in our sales department.

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I’m dealing with Allstate less and less these days. This is probably due to a combination of Allstate steering their customers away from our shop, and our shop showing their customers my referral list. Whatever the cause, it’s made me and my customers happy and has increased my shop’s gross profits.

Oh, and for all you Allstate appraisers out there in this great country of ours, all I can say is, “Poor bastards. I feel your pain.”

Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling called BodyShop Schedule Pro. For more information on the software, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.

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