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Take Time to Teach

“I’ve been in this industry for 27 years, but the joy is going away every day I have to justify why I’m charging for this, why I’m replacing that, etc. Usually I’m explaining all this to some college kid who’s working at an insurance company. Everyone needs educated. How can we educate our customers about their rights, our techs regarding quality and safety, and insurance reps, who usually don’t understand the repair process?” – Rick LaFountain, owner, The Finishing Touch Auto Body and Refinishing Center, Otsego, Mich.

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Where are you in what seems to be three categories of shops in America? Are you in control of your business, being controlled or losing control? It’s natural to be discouraged when your life’s work has resulted in owning a business that seems controlled by others. Unfortunately, such negative conditions continue because repairers fail to do anything but complain.

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How do we address this crippling condition called discouragement? How can you restore the joy of ownership and pride of workmanship?

In part, by using your knowledge to educate others. Specifically, adjusters, customers and your own technicians.

Educating Adjusters
During the past 30 years, the technical knowledge of auto adjusters has greatly diminished. There was a time when an auto claims adjuster needed collision repair experience. These days, however, it seems that many insurers prefer to hire adjusters with little to no automotive knowledge to do the estimating.

And it’s easier for this non-technical person to rely on crash books as the absolute in determining damage repair costs. But crash books don’t list pre-disassembly pulls, time to remove a door decal, etc. These are necessary repair procedures, yet are rarely included on an insurance estimate.

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This is why it’s so important for shops to prepare their own complete estimate on every job. Failing to write your own estimate allows a young, unqualified insurance representative to set low repair costs on damages you’re expected to repair.

This is also why it’s wise to spend a limited amount of time discussing collision repair estimates with insurance adjusters and appraisers. Why only a limited amount of time? Because while you’re educating them, you’re not being productive – but they’re still getting paid.

While many are good, decent people, this doesn’t change the fact that these adjusters are sent out to do a job they’re not qualified to do. And many have limited authority and strict guidelines to adhere to. The fact is, it’s wishful thinking to hope that by simply being nice to an adjuster and spending an hour talking to him that you’ll get a fairer estimate. I don’t say this to be mean. I say this because they have a job to do, and you have a shop to run.

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Treat adjusters with courtesy and respect, but determine damage and repair cost based on your knowledge and experience. Adjusters have been trained to try to get cost reductions even if your estimate is right on the money, no pun intended. When negotiations are necessary, do it from your estimate, not the adjuster’s. Your job is to write a proper estimate that will stand up, even in court, and make proper repairs.

Ask insurance representatives for their qualifications in the field of auto collision repair and estimating so you know who you’re dealing with – and whether or not it’s necessary to educate them. Unfortunately, adjusters with some knowledge often present the same resistance as the unqualified ones. Many know what’s right for a proper repair, but they’re restrained by company guidelines.

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For example, manufacturers recommend a pre-pull prior to teardown of a hard hit. An experienced adjuster may know that’s right, but if he writes it, he may well be called on the carpet for it. Many insurers don’t want to pay fair auto repair costs.

Getting the right repair information to an adjuster, not degrading or making an enemy out of him and still ensuring a fair profit for yourself can sometimes be very difficult. How can you accomplish all this? For one thing, document differences you have with adjusters by supplying information supporting your position. Then share a copy – preferably with pictures – to the adjuster and the vehicle owner.

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For example, for pre-teardown pulls, make a copy from the car manufacturer’s manual where the procedure is recommended. For rails that need replaced, prepare a file with I-CAR information on the subject. If the disagreement is paint costs, share the cost of the product from five years ago and the cost today by making invoice copies to support your position.

By addressing estimating and repair disputes like this with insurers, you support what’s required for the job using an outside and totally verifiable source. And it can be done without offending or making an enemy of anyone – including the inexperienced adjuster. I know. I’ve done it.

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An adjuster for a major insurer came into a South Florida shop and insisted on paying for a full body clip, top and tail. I supplied the shop with documentation from Florida’s DMV regarding clipping, which was delivered to the adjuster. Several days later, the adjuster came back to the shop and re-wrote the repair with all new parts. In fact, he wrote it for a few dollars more than the shop had written.

The power of documentation over argumentation wins almost every time. Perhaps we can’t “educate” inexperienced adjusters – because our time is limited – but we can supply information that will help to teach them about the repair process.

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Educating Technicians
There are ways to inspire and motivate employees – changing them from people who just show up every day to people with a spirit of pride and accomplishment in all they do. Part of the challenge for owners and managers is to not only develop each employee as an individual, but also as a team member.

I’m convinced the majority of technicians produce at a level well below their potential, often because of what’s referred to as “malicious obedience” – a term used to describe someone who does what he’s told, even if he knows the result will be counter productive. It’s the product of resentment.

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Unfortunately, many shop owners and managers haven’t had formal training in the areas of training and motivation. Psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind.” But if an owner or manager doesn’t make a commitment to be a vital part in the training and development of his employees, it won’t happen.

Management needs a plan – and some determination. Other industries have witnessed great value in human resources education and training, but the collision industry as a whole hasn’t yet recognized that value. And this training is good for technicians and for owners and managers.

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This sort of training helps managers recognize negative employees whose bad attitudes affect quality and productivity. Money alone doesn’t create a positive employee. An employee needs to know he’s valued as a significant, vital part of the team. Getting into an employee’s head – and heart – will produce far better work than simply throwing money at him.

For example, a few years ago the owner of a high-quality shop noticed his head detail person acting careless, causing a decrease in quality and production. He called the detailer into his office, shut the door and first addressed his concerns about the obvious deterioration in the detailer’s performance. The owner told him the work he was currently producing wasn’t as good as what he was capable of. The owner then explained the importance of the detailer’s job, saying that he was the final person to go over the complete car before the customer saw it. The owner told the detailer the job was so important that he’d decided to change the detailer’s work title to quality-control inspector. No pay increase was discussed, yet the employee left the office feeling several feet taller than when he walked in. And the employee began catching things and fixing them before customers saw their cars. He was later given a deserved pay increase.

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Do you see how this type of management can work for your shop? Motivating your employees, explaining how important their positions are in the total process and praising their work bring out the best and create a winning attitude.

Educating Vehicle Owners
The opportunity to build a relationship starts the moment a customer enters your facility. In a positive and professional manner, explain to consumers about their rights, responsibilities and reasonable expectations. The more positive the better. If and when consumers ask a question relating to repair procedures, answer it with documentation supplied by vehicle manufacturers and, if state laws apply, copies of that too. Go to insurer Web sites and print what those say about their claims-handling policy. Let your customer form opinions based on material supporting your personal desire to perform the best possible repair – one that preserves the vehicle’s safety and value.

Laws relating to auto insurance claims differ from state to state. Know and understand the laws in your state, so you can use them when dealing with customers and potential customers. But use only the laws that relate specifically to that consumer’s claim. Then answer questions that pertain to the customer’s specific claim. Address questions about preferred shops from a positive position, explaining to the consumer that the final decision regarding who repairs his vehicle is up to him.

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Cars don’t decide who repairs them. People do. Informed consumers make proper decisions. This is why collision repairers who deal with customers must be conscious of the fact that they’re really salespeople.

What is a salesperson? A teacher, a listener and a friend. And a salesperson needs to look like a salesperson, act like a salesperson and talk like a salesperson. The salesperson who listens to the customer will have the opportunity to build a relationship based on the customer’s primary concerns. As I deal with consumers day in and day out, I hear, “You’re the first person who really listened to me!” These consumers have been to shops and spoken to insurers. And no one listened. That sends the message to consumers that they’re not important.

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Why would a consumer choose your shop if you make him feel unimportant? You must decide to make customers feel appreciated, or you, too, will be lumped among those whom consumers think are just out to make money.

Focus on the person first and foremost. Let the person ask as many questions as he wants, listen intently and respond with clear, complete answers. You should also advise customers that they can call any time with questions. This relationship building is stronger than any insurer program or act of steering.

The appearance of your salespersons – estimators or managers – is also important. Making eye contact during conversations is critical, and body language speaks louder than words. A good salesperson convinces the customer that he’s there to solve problems, not create them. “This is our only business, and we strive daily to do it better than anyone.” “Serving you is why we’re here. Let us use our expertise to get your vehicle repaired as promptly and as completely as possible.” If a salesperson isn’t perceived as caring and helpful, that person shouldn’t be dealing with the public!

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Knowledge Is Power
Repairers have a great opportunity to continue the positive trends we’re beginning to see across the nation. Insurers saying “no” to claims often doesn’t mean “no.” It often means “not now.” But being educated can turn that “not now” into a “yes.”

For example, Progressive told a man named Jerome they wouldn’t pay for his twisted radiator, and the shop couldn’t convince Progressive to allow for it. I advised Jerome to go to his dealer and get a statement relating to his new car warranty. The dealer reported the warranty would be void if the radiator was left in and failed, and Progressive paid for the radiator based on that dealer information.

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If and when a shop or consumer brings the correct supportive information to the insurer, the “no” becomes a “yes.” I have many cases on file where the insurer and insurance department both supported the insurer no pay, only to have the decision reversed by credible claims input.

“Need to know” auto claims information for shop owners hasn’t been readily available in the past, but Web sites like autobodyforum.com and autobodyaccess.com are helping to fill this void. And the more you know about proper claims processes and auto adjustments, the more you can assist your customers, teach your techs and educate young insurance adjusters. All of which will pay off by making your shop more successful.

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Writer Peter Bartlett has worked as a collision repair technician, claims supervisor, I-CAR instructor, consultant, trainer and author during the last 40 years and is a supporter of the Coalition for Collision Repair Equality (CCRE).

At a South Florida shop, an insurance adjuster insisted on paying for a full body clip, top and tail. I supplied the shop with documentation from Florida’s DMV regarding clipping, which was delivered to the adjuster. Several days later, the adjuster came back to the shop and re-wrote the repair with all new parts. In fact, he wrote it for a few dollars more than the shop had written. The power of documentation over argumentation wins almost every time.

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