Renewing the Passion - BodyShop Business

Renewing the Passion

People who've been writing bids, banging sheet metal and shooting color for most of their lives can end up indifferent and disgruntled. The "trickle down effect" may be just what you need to rekindle their love of the industry.

Relationships come in many forms, whether it be with a spouse, an ex, a friend or a co-worker. People also have a relationship with their chosen careers.

Graduates from college, trade schools and even the self-taught are always excited and readily anticipate the time when they can put their newfound skills and talents to work – to feel that positive satisfaction of a job well-done and the economic rewards that follow.

Remember when we first started learning the basics of collision repair? Cleaning cars, wet and dry sanding, helping veteran techs, masking and emptying trash cans were fun for a while and opened up the way to more challenging aspects of our chosen path.

As the years progressed – as did our knowledge of vehicle restoration – we enjoyed learning more and more about the changes in procedures and anticipated using these skills to satisfy our desire to succeed and increase our worth and value.

The problems began to arise when complacency set in and that desire began to wane. What was once a career is now just a job, and the rewards were not to our expectations.

Something was lost along the way.

How can we rekindle the passion we once had?

Careers Are Like Marriages
I’ve been married more than 20 years to the same wonderful woman. I still remember the first time we met, our first kiss, the day I proposed, our little apartment, our first house, having our daughter, and all the good and bad that comes with a long-term commitment.

We’d share our ideas and dreams together, talk about our jobs over dinner, spend time with friends and families, and do just about everything young people in love do.

But through the years, things did start to change. We sometimes took each other for granted, felt our needs were more important and unknowingly allowed the flame of passion to whither to a smoldering ash.

What was once excited anticipation became a mundane routine. That’s when we started asking, “Is that all there is?” and “Are there changes to be made in my life?” Something had to be done to re-ignite the fires that attracted us to each other in the first place.

Of course, we both changed as we aged and matured. Our dreams were different than they were many years back. The little free time we had was being eaten up with child rearing and home maintenance and repairs, and our bodies just didn’t respond like they used to thanks to the physical and mental stresses of everyday living. Sure, we still loved each other, but the time had come to again fall in love with each other.

So I tried what I thought would kick start the sentiments I wanted to reinvent in our relationship. I tried everything from Grafenberg to Gucci to rekindle what I thought we’d want out of this relationship.

But it was only when I realized that I had to look at myself first – and correct my attitudes and actions that got me to where I was at this stage in my life – that any positive transformation could occur.

Seeing this, my wife saw that my desire to renew the passion was for real and not just mere words. Reflecting my attitude became her aspiration.

I have to admit that we’re still a work in progress, but the changes are wonderful and have helped to restore what we once had with each other. We’re now more responsive to each other’s needs and realize the importance of communication and shared responsibilities. Now I happily anticipate being with my wife after a hard day at work, and she feels the same about me.

The Realities of Our Trade
There are far more seasoned repairers employed at shops today than there are novices. Our industry doesn’t attract newcomers like it used to, so the majority of shop owners out there have to deal with the attitudes of people who’ve been banging sheet metal and shooting color for a good portion of their productive lives.

I’m sure there are employees out there who have that drive and desire to continue their careers in collision repair, but I also see, hear and read about how unhappy many techs are at this point in their chosen occupation.

Poor estimates, physically demanding labor, bad management, abusive shop owners, etc., are just a few of the negative comments heard about this industry today. And these are all honest truths conveyed by people involved in the actual repairs.

But to tell you the truth, these comments are no different than the comments made years and years ago by the same people we replaced on the front lines – after they changed jobs, retired or died.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the early days of body repair, it didn’t take much training to repair cars. People were fixing wrecks in their garages and on the street. Anyone could hang up a sign and open a body shop.

Today, however, we as an industry have grown to a true profession and are expected to produce a quality product for the motoring public. Training, equipment and knowledge are more important now for us than it was in the past. The work we do is more involved now, and the satisfaction of a job well-done should be deeper and stronger. But in many cases, it’s not.

So what do we do about this?

Start in the Front Office
During the Reagan administration, an economic program was instituted called the “trickle down effect.” In essence, the rewards of economic stimulus and growth given to businesses would, in effect, flow down the corporate ladder, and everyone involved directly and indirectly shared in the results of this policy.

In certain ways, you – the shop owner – have the ability and option to use this theory to improve the attitudes of the people working for you. And since everything starts up front with your office people, let’s start there.

Most shop owners are usually involved in day-to-day activities just by their very presence but have a hands-off policy, allowing their writers and managers to do their tasks as they were instructed to do. But the responsibilities of the front-office people are getting more and more demanding with the requirements of different insurance company direct-repair policies (if the shop’s on DRPs), the complexities of today’s vehicles and the fickle expectations of the modern consumer.

Thank God that we as an industry upgraded to computers, printers, faxes and the Internet. (I still remember carbon-copy estimates.) But the stress of handling adjusters, customers and technicians (as well as some of you fire-breathing shop owners) can take its toll on your people who deal with the public.

How can their passion be restored so that the drive into work isn’t filled with dread? Let’s take a look at a few ways:

  • Let there be light – Adequate lighting is important not only to see what you’re doing, but to wake up the senses. I’ve worked in caves, so I know this to be true.

  • Be positive and upbeat – Do you – the owner – come in every morning with a smile and a genuine positive attitude? A good mood is infectious and gets your people started on good footing. Not everyone is a morning person, so the initial contact with them can set the tone for the day. Discussing personal lives is alright as long as it doesn’t bring home life problems into the office. Leave your personal problems at home and expect your people to do the same.

    Be positive and upbeat. Set the tone. Be the example you want them to reflect.

  • Hire team players – Are your writers and support staff team players? Are they willing to help each other out without complaining that someone isn’t pulling his weight? Man’s inherent nature is competitive and in the business world, a knife in the back is more prevalent than a pat on one. Guys (and women too) will allow someone else to falter, only if to look better themselves. This defeats the purpose of a team effort. You as an owner should encourage assisting one another and handling problem people one on one in a private setting.

  • Train people – Have all your employees who have direct contact with the customer (and even adjusters) been trained to smile when others come into your place of business and to treat them like they deserve to be treated? Or do they treat them like a number at a supermarket deli. NEXT!

    Also, do they smile when they talk on the phone? (It’s true that a smile can be heard over a phone line.)

    Granted, there are a lot of gloomy Guses out there in estimator land, but here’s one way to get them to see it your way. I’ve been in recovery for alcoholism for more than 12 years, and they taught me many ways to handle life’s stressful situations. One of the best lines I heard while I was in my early days of sobriety was, “Fake it till you make it.”

    Even if you or they don’t want to smile and be nice, do it anyway. Eventually, you’ll both get used to it, and it’ll become second nature to you. The residual effect could very well be that your office staff will treat their fellow workers better and with more respect as well. Try it … it does work.

    Training and updating skills also are an important asset for your staff. People have a tendency to get set in their ways and to resist change. Also, some older professionals have a difficult time comprehending the complexities of today’s office equipment and software. A little patience and maybe some extra guidance might help them to ease into their transition to the modern world. (I still have problems with my VCR. Thank God for my 8 year old!) But I can tell you this, once we get it, we won’t forget it. And this reduces our stress level, making work a pleasure again.

  • Have fun – Don’t forget that humor goes a long way in making someone feel uplifted. Like they say, “Laughter is the best medicine” – as long as you’re not making someone the target of the joke. Have fun and encourage others around you to do the same. Just remember that some folks are offended by off-color comments and racial and/or ethnic humor. Know your audience (as most comedians say).

Let’s Talk Techs
Many of today’s repairers are veterans with years or even decades of experience in the field. And they thought that after establishing themselves in this industry, they could lay back and coast on their skills to carry them to financial security.

A funny thing happened on the way to Nirvana.

What they learned was less relevant, and change was the only constant they had to look forward to. New techniques, unique designs, creative engineering – all of these situations guaranteed that if we depend on what we learned in the past, we’ll limit our value to a prospective employer and affect our future earning capacity.

So now we techs are faced with re-learning new procedures and are expected to replace outdated tools and equipment to meet the repair needs of today and beyond.

Not only that, but I’m sure just about every bodyman and painter feels the squeeze placed upon the entire industry by insurance companies and competitor shops.

I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, and I’ve seen the changes and gone through the tough times of re-training, re-learning and re-tooling. And you know what? It’s demanding, it’s physically and mentally draining, and it’s tough to make ends meet at times. But I still love working with my hands and admiring my finished product.

Unfortunately, burnout is a reality when it comes to the working professionals behind the front office. So what can you do to prevent this from happening or to decrease the pressure that causes it?

The front office and/or support people need to show those who perform the magic on those mangled messes that their talents are appreciated. I know a lot of techs are saying, “Just pay me more, and I’ll be happy.” The sad reality is that bottom lines just won’t allow many owners to grant that wish. So then what?

Some of the ideas I suggested for your front office can work for your production area as well.

  • Provide a clean, well-lit, organized and well-supplied shop – This goes a long way to show your commitment to your repair team. Notice I said, “repair team.” Even flat-rate techs will eventually need help at times. Are you encouraging all of your techs to be there when they’re needed by one of their fellow repairers?

  • Ensure that writers respect techs – Are your writers treating your techs with the respect that they deserve? Most bodymen agree that there’s nothing worse than some desk jockey coming into their space telling them how to do something. The business is tough enough to work in. Don’t let petty bull crap cause unneeded tension in an already stressful situation.

  • Consider flex time – I still feel that the happiest shops are the ones that allow flex time for their employees. Giving that choice to your workers can brighten anyone’s attitude. A lot of old-timers enjoy the smaller, more subtle things in life, and a little extra time doing those things can increase that positive mental attitude we’re talking about.

  • Compliment techs – We techs always hear when we do something wrong, whether real or perceived, but how many times have any of your front office staff complimented a tech for a job well done? I know that we’re expected to do our best at all times, but hearing, “Hey, good job,” does go a long way to show that someone appreciates our talents and skills.

Other items like air-conditioned lunchrooms, lockers and maybe even a table and chairs outside for those warm days are little perks that make employees feel good about working for you. Discussing this with your guys can give you some suggestions about how you can add some escape to their workday.

The Bottom Line
The reasons we lose the passion for our work isn’t the work itself or our desire to do it. The talents we developed through years of hard work and training are what are keeping us doing what we love to do. There’s great satisfaction in succeeding in something that we’re good at. We all have a skill that we’re proud of.

The problems are outside of the realm of our abilities. The income we hoped for isn’t realized. We might have to work longer to feed our families. There’s pressure to produce more in less time. These seem to be the factors that dim the flames of passion for the thing we love to do best: repair damaged vehicles. And some of these things won’t be rectified any time soon (if at all).

With the years and money we’ve invested in this profession, we’re a vital cog in the machinery of this industry. Doctors are quitting their jobs and opening up sandwich shops, software writers are losing their jobs to overseas companies and corporations are downsizing their workforce, forcing thousands of college-educated professionals into an already crowded marketplace. It seems like we’re lucky that we have skills that can keep food on our table.

The best way to renew the passion is to start with you. Go into your workplace with the attitude that you’re going to do the best you can with what you got. Be appreciative of your employer if he’s treating you well and showing you that he’s doing everything possible to improve your situation. If necessary, change jobs if your work environment isn’t what you want to be exposed to eight to 10 hours a day.

Upgrade your skills to feel better about yourself. Laugh when you need to. Scream if you have to. And treat others with the respect you’d want from them.

Don’t let outside factors affect your passion for using your talents. If you enjoy your work, stay where you are. And if you’re staying, enjoy your work.

Writer Henry Netter has worked in the collision repair industry for more than 40 years, is an ASE Master Certified Collision/Refinish Technician and works at Auto Star Collision in Warminster, Pa.

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