Most collision repair professionals – the frame guy and the painter all the way through to the manager and the owner – take pride in repairing automobiles correctly for their customers. Not many people in any business are so cold and callused that they can sell a product or service they believe is inferior and still sleep well at night.
But is your finished product as good as it could be?
We all know the guy from the shop down the street who believes his work is the very best, and we’ve all seen the quality of his work and we know better. Thing is, does this tech simply do what he has to do just to get the car out, or does he mistakenly believe he’s doing it right? And what is right?
In an industry overrun by subjective terms, how do you know when you’re doing it right – and then, to complicate matters even further, how do you get paid for it?
Examining Pre-Loss Condition
Complete and thorough collision-damage repair serves to fully restore a vehicle as close as humanly possible to pre-loss condition.
No shop that I know of has robots to repair vehicles (although I do know a lot of techs who feel they’re treated like a machine), so true pre-loss condition isn’t really attainable. While some welders may be able to weld as good as a robot sometimes, their welds simply cannot be as consistent as those made by a machine. Factory corrosion resistance can’t be duplicated in a shop either – shops simply don’t have the ability to “dip” a vehicle. Sure, weld-through-type primers help, but they’re just not the same.
Even the finishes applied aren’t as durable as factory finishes. If you’ve ever seen how the acids, enzymes and proteins from bird droppings etch the paint on a refinished vehicle, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve seen new cars sit on the lot for weeks with droppings on the finish, and the paint is fine once the mess is washed away. (And if it isn’t, a good buffing usually makes it fine.)
Not so with a repainted automobile. I’ve seen the best paints from all manufacturers allow the droppings to etch down to the primer. Of course, there are some exceptions, such as when the factory finish also etches to the substrates, but as a general rule, the factory finish is much more chemically resistant.
Another part of true pre-loss condition, aside from appearance and quality, is performance. But how can anyone be sure a repaired vehicle will perform the same in a subsequent collision? Will a replaced frame rail support the same amount of impact if it sustains another impact? Keep in mind how the frame rail works in conjunction with the adjacent panels and welded parts to distribute the energy away from the occupants. Without actually crash-testing the vehicle in question, no one can be 100 percent certain.
Another aspect to consider is when a panel is repaired with filler rather than replaced. Not many vehicles come from the factory with body filler in the middle of the quarter panel. This alone renders the vehicle something short of true pre-loss condition. This isn’t to say the job wasn’t done right, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent repair. It simply means that the vehicle isn’t truly in pre-loss condition if we use a literal interpretation of the phrase.
To the Best of Our Abilities
Let’s stop concentrating on true pre-loss condition and focus, instead, on restoring a vehicle “as close as humanly possible” to pre-loss condition.
A simple test to accurately determine whether you’re doing the best repair work humanly possible is to ask yourself the following questions:
“Would I do anything differently if there were no outside influence on the repair?”
“If money and time weren’t objects to the vehicle owner, could I do this job any better?”
If you can honestly answer “no” to both questions, you’re probably doing the repairs to the best of your ability. Of course, an exception would be if you lacked knowledge or the equipment to do the repairs properly. And knowledge is much easier to acquire than equipment – unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy. (In which case, why are you in the collision business?)
Most of the larger independent shops and a great number of the smaller ones stay abreast of recommended repair procedures (more on using Technical Service Bulletins later), but dealers certainly have an advantage when it comes to manufacturer-endorsed repair methodologies. Equally difficult for a dealership, however, is trying to get up-to-date training on models made by another manufacturer. Oftentimes, training gets put on the back burner, and the newest information is lacking in the shop. Good technicians can make things work, but is this type of repair really “to the best of human ability”?
What Do Consumers Deserve?
Let’s say you have the newest equipment and training available, you know how to use the equipment and you want to apply the knowledge in your repairs. Is it really worth it?
Whether the vehicle owner is entitled to true “pre-loss condition” or “to the best of human ability” is a question best left to the courts. We can agree, though, that the minimum standard repairers owe the consumer is the latter of the two choices.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone in this business has seen a vehicle that was poorly repaired. Sometimes it’s a buckle that’s still in the rail – possibly the result of someone intending to cheat the consumer. Other times, it’s less serious like 36- or 80-grit sand scratches showing in the finish, possibly the result of a rushed delivery (not enough time to do it right) or possibly a lack of knowledge. In other cases, it’s things like overspray on moldings. Regardless of what and why, the vehicle owner didn’t get the minimum that he deserved.
Proper repairs include de-trimming panels – i.e. removing moldings and emblems. This is necessary to avoid bridging the gap around such items, as well as to ensure adhesion of the finish. I’ve had used car managers bring countless vehicles still under warranty to the body shop and ask me to cover paint that was peeling along the edges of moldings. I’m sorry, but that’s a sure sign someone previously repaired the vehicle improperly – and previous repairs aren’t something covered under the warranty.
Dry overspray in door, hood and trunk jambs is another common problem. Surely everyone knows the paint is going to get into these areas – so why wouldn’t they take measures to keep it out? What about refinishing the inside of a quarter panel or fender? The other, unrepaired side is painted, so why wouldn’t you make the two sides match? Even the most automotive-illiterate consumer can see the difference when both sides are exposed. And even if the interior of the quarter panels is obscured by inner trim and carpeting so it’s not readily visible, isn’t the consumer still entitled to have them match?
It’s obvious that certain things need to be done, but what about those things that are “borderline'”? Some moldings need to be replaced, all trim should be removed and sound deadeners need to be replaced. But what about windshields and quarter panel glass? Does the finished product quality outweigh the risk of breakage? In my opinion, in most cases, yes. Sure, lift tape or “roping” can be used in some cases to get the reveal molding out of the way, but is that just as good of a finished product? Forget about breakage for a minute. Is the overall quality of the job just as good? I don’t think so. Will the lesser repair work? Most likely. But is it as good? No, not really. Advising everyone in advance that breakage may occur is a good idea, although it’s rare that a windshield cracks if removed by someone who’s careful and knows what he’s doing.
Someone’s Got to Pay, Right? Right?
The first thing to do is to explain to the appraiser why you need to do something. Back up your explanation with as much documentation as possible. Not just P-Pages either – if you can get a manufacturer’s position paper on something, use that, too. Also remember that if the same company has paid for something in the past, you stand a much better chance of getting it now. It’s difficult for them to argue that the vehicle in question is different from the one previously repaired – the policy grants the same level of repair on a 1986 Buick Century as it does on a 2002 Cadillac Escalade.
What can you do if the insurance company refuses to pay for these necessary procedures?
Some would say that you simply shouldn’t do anything you’re not compensated for.
Others simply have the production staff do the work for free, claiming that it’s one of the costs of doing business.
There is, however, another – better – way to deal with insurance company refusals (notifying both the customer and the insurer in writing, which we’ll get to a little later), but first, let’s examine these two statements.
4 Statement No. 1: Just don’t do it.
If you don’t do certain things on a customer’s car and he notices, he’ll be upset with you – regardless of who didn’t pay. In the consumer’s mind, you did a poor repair – and many courts would agree since you are the repair expert. You should have known better. The consumer had a reasonable expectation that his vehicle was going to be properly repaired, and if you fail to deliver, you could be held accountable.
4 Statement No. 2: Just do it for free.
Doing it for free as a “cost of doing business” isn’t all that much better.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone asking a grocer to simply “throw in” a bunch of bananas. And I don’t think many plumbers will replace the kitchen faucet when they fix a leaking sink for the same price as repairing the leak alone. Not too many doctors throw in the medication for free when you come in for an office visit. And how often have you heard of a mechanical repair shop giving away the oil and oil filter when you go in for a lube service?
If you refuse to pay for the bananas, you don’t get them.
The plumber would most likely bang his head under the counter from laughing so hard.
The doctor would tell you how important it is for you to take the medication, but I doubt he’d give it away.
And the oil and filter you’d get if the mechanic agreed to give it away would probably be used.
The message here is that nowhere else in the business world does anyone give away things for free, so why should the collision repair industry?
Profits are barely sufficient as it is in this industry – the national average net profit (what you keep after paying the rent/mortgage, salaries, utilities, uniforms, vacations, parts and paint invoices, and any other bills) is somewhere around 4 or 5 percent. How much can you afford to give away?
Besides the lack of profit, I’m not a fan of bearing the burden of “freebies” on the backs of those who are earning the money for you. Your production staff has to eat, too. Too many shops expect their metalmen and painters to do things for free, so it’s no wonder they cut corners here and there. They also have a family to provide for. It’s not right to make them work for free.
Some shop owners also mistakenly think it doesn’t cost them when something is done for free (and that’s bad business if I’ve ever seen it). The time spent giving something away could be much better spent making money (loss No. 1), and it often leads to decreased morale (loss No. 2). And bad morale is often contagious, spreading quickly through the shop.
Know What’s Owed to You
Knowing the P-pages – not only for the system you use, but also for the system used by the insurance company – is essential to getting paid. Most insurance adjusters are decent people. They have a job to do, and they have guidelines they’re supposed to abide by. And sometimes lack of knowledge on their part is blurred into what they believe are the guidelines. Calmly explain what you need to properly repair a vehicle. This is often enough to get those additional items listed on their sheet.
My belief, and this has worked in several situations, is that if something’s not listed as “included” in the P-Pages, it’s not included. There are countless things that are truly not included that aren’t listed in the “Not Included” section. For example, “remove wiring harnesses and harness retainers” isn’t listed in either column when replacing a trunk floor. So you tell me – which column does it belong in? I say it should go in the “Not Included” column.
Pathways, the system I’m most familiar with, clearly lists masking jambs and recessed areas as “Not Included.” How many estimates do insurers generate with that on it? Believe me when I say it’s worth it to include everything on every estimate.
It may take some time and you may continue to give things away as you’ve done before, but making the appraisers you deal with aware that you know what you’re entitled to pays off.
Technical Service Bulletins: Use Them: Get Paid
In the mid- to late-’90s, Pontiac Grand Prixs had quarter glasses that had to be broken. There was no other way to remove them. I’ve seen several people try, bodymen and glassmen alike, but the end result was always the same – busted. It was far more efficient to simply smash the glass with a pick hammer and to continue with the repair. Insurers didn’t like this much at all. And it wasn’t until we got a copy of the General Motors Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) that they believed us.
All manufacturers issue TSBs – and these are another great piece of documentation when it comes to presenting your case for payment to an appraiser.
For example, GM “F” body cars (Camaros and Firebirds) are built in such a way that the quarter panel is an integral part of the structure of the vehicle. This means that a quarter panel should never be sectioned at the belt line (GM says so). How many insurance estimates played on the lack of knowledge on the part of shops by writing to section the quarter panel instead of removing the top finish panel (which is prone to cracking due to the way it’s urethaned in position)? Not only is this not recommended, it’s unsafe. It’s reasons like this why you should never – never – go against the manufacturer’s recommended repair procedures.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Ford issued a repair bulletin regarding the frame rails on some of their pickups. I have no idea how many shops have repaired them – and I can only guess how many are still repairing them – but Ford clearly states that the frame must be replaced if convoluted. An honest insurance rep would inform the shop that the frame can’t be repaired, but what if neither the appraiser nor the shop knows about this? A lack of knowledge can be detrimental.
3 Ways Knowledge Got Me Paid
When I first took a position in a small town, no estimates had “Mask Jambs” on them. The typical response from appraisers was, “No one else charges for that.”
So I’d print the page where the system showed it to be “Not Included” and add that to the copy of the estimate. After about three or four months, I saw it on a competitor’s sheet. One of my estimates must have found its way to the other shop, and they figured, “Hey, if he’s charging for it, we should be too.”
It was only a month or so later that an appraiser who was one of the most adamant about not paying it came into my office. When she handed me her sheet, I nearly fell out of my chair – it had mask jambs on it. A-Hah!
So what did I do then? I asked her about the line I had for “Finesse Sand and Polish.” After a brief discussion, during which I printed the page that said this operation was not included, she took her appraisal back, added it and gave me a revised copy. Granted, this was a smaller market with only about seven other shops in it, but change can be accomplished through persistence.
Another change that took place in that same market revolved around replacing emblems and moldings. One appraiser told me that the other shops in the area simply R&I trim items. Not only is it absurd to R&I a molding (including removal of the old adhesive, cleaning and re-taping) for three-tenths and no material allowance for the tape, but the tape often fails or the molding often gets twisted or distorted. Yet he insisted that the other shops did it that way.
My argument (figuratively speaking since it’s unprofessional and fruitless to yell at an adjuster) was that our customers held us to a higher standard, which is why they chose us in the first place. He stuck to his story, however, telling me he still wouldn’t pay for new moldings – regardless of what the customer expected from us. So I called the vehicle owner while he was in my office and explained the situation to her. Because she didn’t have the money to pay for the molding, she told me to just “do the best you can.”
I thought I was boxed in. Camry moldings don’t simply come off – the adhesive is strong, and the molding is flimsy (it’s only got two thin strips that the tape sticks to) and always distorts when you try to pull it off, no matter how careful you are. So I asked the appraiser to come into the shop while we tried to remove the molding. As the tech was trying to get it off, the appraiser saw how difficult it was and that even when you used as much caution and care as possible while removing it, the molding was still distorted. The result? The appraiser changed his estimate to include the molding. He simply never knew. It was a simple lack of knowledge.
Another thing you can do is show the appraiser where another company – or even the same one they’re writing for – has paid for the same thing previously. If one insurer is paying to mask jambs, they all should pay. Same thing for finesse sanding and polishing after refinishing.
I’ve made copies of insurance estimates that included some of the more-often omitted or denied procedures and kept them in a file by operation. When “V” insurance company says they don’t pay for something, I can pull the file and say that not only did “X” and “Y” pay it, so did “Z.” It’s even more effective when “V” insurance paid it in the past, which sometimes happens. And it sort of sets a precedent that’s hard for them to break. Why? Because the policies are the same and the coverage is equal, so unless they were showing some sort of favoritism, both customers are entitled to similar repairs.
Decisions, Documentation & Deficiencies
Maybe you’ve thought about it and for whatever reason – be it because you have an arrangement with a particular insurance company or the appraiser has been good to you in the past – you decide that you’re going to give something away. And as long as you’ve thought about it and weighed the alternatives and consequences, then it could be considered a business decision. On the other hand, maybe you feel you’ve given enough to a certain insurance company and you’ve had enough – so you’re not going to work for free anymore. This is also a business decision.
In either case, you should document your actions and notify your customer. If it’s going to be a freebie, it should show on the invoice: Mask Jambs – N/C, Finesse Sand and Polish – N/C, Sound Deadening Material – N/C. Whatever it is you decide to give away, keep in mind that you’re giving it to the consumer – not the insurance company. Consumers love freebies, and this can be used as a marketing tool to gain their loyalty. Let them know how nice you are. Show them the appreciation for their business by telling them that even though their insurance company refused to pay for something, you knew it was necessary and gave it to them without charging for it.
If, however, you decide you’re not going to do something for nothing, it’s even more critical that you document your actions. Whatever you do, don’t just not do something! A lot of shops simply don’t perform the procedure if the insurer declines payment.
The third way – and, in my opinion, the best way – to handle an insurer’s refusal to pay is to notify both the customer and the insurer in writing of the deficiencies in the insurer’s appraisal. A “Notice of Deficiencies” (NOD) describing what’s missing, overlooked, omitted, unpaid or underpaid, written in plain English (so the customer can understand it) is your best defense – and offense.
Why? Because this shifts the liability to where it truly belongs – in the lap of the insurer that refused to compensate your shop for an operation or procedure. Certainly, you want to produce the best work possible – but not for free. When the line is drawn and your shop reaches its limit of “giveaways,” notifying the consumer (in writing) clarifies that your shop knew the procedure was required and would have performed the procedure and that it was the insurer’s reluctance to compensate you for the operation that prevented it from being done. Keep in mind that you’re the expert when it comes to collision repairs. Insurers don’t fix cars – they’ve said so several times (in court) and claimed that all the shop needed to do was ask.
Without proper documentation that you requested payment for a service that was necessary, the insurance company can simply deny any knowledge of the necessity of the procedure. While they may pay in the long run, your shop ends up with egg on its face in the eyes of the consumer.
The consumer brought his vehicle to your shop to have it repaired – properly. If he finds something that wasn’t done or wasn’t done properly/completely, whom do you think he’ll blame? His “good neighbor”? The people with “good hands”? No, he’ll hold your shop accountable. Why? Because he expected his vehicle to be repaired properly and completely. If you didn’t do everything required, it’s your fault (whether it is or not), not the insurer’s. Unless of course, you’ve notified the consumer. That’s how your shop can show a consumer that the insurance company denied a portion of the repair and, at the same time, relieve your shop of the liability associated with an incomplete repair.
After You’ve Given Notice
I remember one particular instance where I issued a NOD and the appraiser had a fit. It was a big job, and we’d gone round and round over the repairs. Initially, we were something like $2,400 apart in our estimates. After going over everything, the appraiser conceded about $1,800 of the $2,400. But $600 was still way too much to eat. So I fired off an NOD to the consumer and carbon copied to the insurance company. You’d have thought I ran the guy’s foot over if you could have heard the call from him.
“What do you think you’re doing?! I thought we had this all worked out! I told you I couldn’t pay for that! Why did you send this thing to the customer??!!”
It seems the customer had called his supervisor and was quite upset. She couldn’t understand why they weren’t paying to fully and properly restore her 4Runner to pre-accident condition. She did understand, however, why the procedures were necessary, as well as why we couldn’t do them for free.
It probably took me two or three hours to carefully write up the NOD, explaining every “denied” procedure, but in the end, we got paid, did a thorough repair, earned a lifelong customer and showed an appraiser that we weren’t going to be bullied into doing inferior work or working for free.
The “secret” is to get the customer involved. Simply sending an NOD to an insurer isn’t good enough – they’ve already declined payment, so a written request will most likely be met with the same resistance. But when a consumer calls them, they generally have a different reaction. Even in a company where they have a customer base in the millions, they know the value of customer satisfaction (a lesson many shops should learn, considering we only have access to a small percentage of clients).
For what it’s worth, the next time this particular appraiser came to the shop, he was colder than Buffalo in February, but we got paid for everything on our sheet.
Does issuing a NOD always have a satisfactory outcome? Of course not. Insurers can get pretty upset when you demand to get paid properly and choose to involve the vehicle owner. One appraiser threatened to tell all of his customers that we were difficult to deal with and that they may end up paying more than their deductible.
How can a shop counter steering that results from an appraiser’s hostility at being held accountable? Well, when we wrote an estimate for one of their customers, we explained to the consumer the “how and why” of our “difficultness.” We were more focused on fixing the automobile properly than we were on keeping the insurance company happy. As always, it’s a matter of managing your customers expectations, keeping them involved in the repair process and knowing your margins.
OK, so let’s say you’ve issued the NOD, the insurer still refuses to pay for the procedures and the customer doesn’t want to pay. What now? Well, knowing the rules of the game is the first part. For example, knowing the difference between first- and third-party claims, etc. You need to realize – and make your customer realize – that the insurance company in a first-party claim is obligated to pay the reasonable costs necessary to restore the vehicle to pre-loss condition relative to form, function and appearance. In a third-party claim, the at-fault party (and ultimately their insurer) is under the same obligation. Though most consumers shy away from paying the difference and then submitting the bill to the insurance company involved, if you properly educate them, they can be made to understand what they’re entitled to.
As with the lady with the 4Runner mentioned earlier, one of the best things you can do is to have the customer read his “Contract of Insurance,” stressing that it’s a legally binding contract, not merely a “policy.” Not many people read their policy when they get it; they simply file it away with their other important documents. Since most policy wording is similar throughout a state, having a copy of one on hand doesn’t hurt. Let the customer read what the insurance company has already promised them.
Once the consumer sees, with his own eyes, what you’re talking about, it’s often like a light bulb goes off in his head. “You mean my insurance company is trying to cheat me? Why would they do this?” is a frequent response by an edified consumer. This is one of those “Customer for Life” situations.
At this point, it becomes the consumer’s decision. Of course, you could cave and do the work for free, but then you’d be succumbing to the insurer’s pressure, and you’re no further ahead than you would’ve been without doing any paperwork.
The consumer has two basic choices after an insurers still refuses to pay after you’ve issue a NOD:
1. Pay for the additional repairs (and get reimbursed as guaranteed by his contract of insurance).
2. Decline that portion of the repair.
It’s About the Bottom Line
While some appraisers will strive to meet your bottom line using whatever means necessary like adding time to the repair column to bring their figure closer to the shop’s, most often, the numbers are far enough away from each other that the shop ends up going down its sheet line by line in an effort to get what it needs to be properly compensated to do the job correctly. When this happens, knowing what you’re asking for – and why – is often the difference between getting it and coming up short. P-Page printouts, previous payments for a specific procedure, manufacturers position papers, I-CAR manuals and any other recognized industry literature help immensely. And calmly explaining your position as opposed to being combative helps a lot, too.
Too many shops get hung up on line items – and this can be a huge mistake. If your shop has a 60-line estimate and a bottom line of $6,000, the object is to get the insurance appraiser to write $6,000 – not 60 lines – right? It’s essential that the estimate generated by your shop be as thorough and encompassing as possible. If the insurance appraiser finds a $200 item that was overlooked by your shop, that means your shop is actually looking for a bottom line of $6,200, not $6,000. But if your shop’s sheet is accurate and complete and the insurer’s sheet is for the same amount, who cares what it says on their lines? It really shouldn’t matter to your shop, but it is important that the consumer authorize the repairs listed on your shop’s estimate – and not those on the insurer’s appraisal.
If you and the insurer can’t come to an agreement – when all else fails – let the consumer decide. It’s his vehicle. It’s his money. Your sole position is to advise him and repair his vehicle – not get into a battle with his insurer. And backing up your NOD with credible industry literature for the customer lends credibility to your shop and totally disarms the insurer if they were to tell the consumer you were simply being “greedy.”
Knowing what a proper repair truly is – one that serves to restore the vehicle as close as humanly possible to pre-loss condition – is only half of the equation. Getting paid is the other half. Good business practices, proper management of your customers and thorough documentation can alleviate many of the problems associated with getting paid for a job well done. AWriter Patrick Yurek is the vice president of Collision Consulting LLC (www.CollisionConsulting.com). He has 22 years of industry experience and has held every conceivable position in a collision repair facility from sweeper to management. Among his credits are several PPG certifications and General Motors technical certificates. He was also the president of the General Motors Service and Parts Managers Organization of Western New York. Yurek can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected] or by calling (704) 821-4190.
A Sample Notice of Deficiency
In reviewing the appraisal from XYZ insurance, ABC shop has noted the following deficiencies:
Omitted/Overlooked/Unpaid Labor and Materials to replace sound-deadening material in door. This material is necessary to eliminate the “tinny” sound when the door is closed and reduce the harmonic road noise when driving. Deficiency: Labor – $12; Materials – $10
Omitted/Overlooked/Unpaid Labor and Materials to mask door jambs and recessed areas. This procedure is required to prevent paint overspray from entering the door jambs. If not performed, there will be dry, dull paint in the door openings. Deficiency: Labor – $40; Materials – $12
Omitted/Overlooked/Unpaid Labor and Materials to cover the vehicle to prevent the remaining finish from getting paint overspray on it. This procedure is necessary to prevent the rest of the vehicle that’s not being repaired and refinished from being covered with overspray. Deficiency: Labor – $5; Materials – $5
Omitted/Overlooked/Unpaid Labor and Parts to replace the side moldings. The proper way to refinish doors is to remove all the trim. This is required so the paint does not bridge the gap around the edges of the molding, which would eventually lead to the paint peeling. The moldings on this vehicle cannot be removed, cleaned and re-glued Ð to do so would result in them falling off in the future (we’ve all seen cars driving around with the molding flopping on the sides). These moldings must be replaced to properly repair the vehicle. Deficiency: Labor – $24; Parts – $ 126.35 (including tax)
At ABC we pride ourselves on a first-rate repair and strive to perform all necessary procedures necessary to restore your vehicle as close to pre-loss condition as humanly possible. While you can see the importance of these operations, we cannot afford to give away $234.35. Failure to perform the items listed above will result in an inferior repair, and we may not be able