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A shop manager who chooses quantity over quality may cost you more than a few dollars in comebacks. He may also cost you a few good technicians.
My little side project started, more or less, by accident when I started coming home from what’s now my former job more irritated with each passing week. As has been common in recent years, I was irritated by a rising level of apathy and a decreased level of quality in collision shops – and I was quickly learning that it’s an industry-wide problem. (If you think your techs feel different, think again.) The good news is that this problem can be relatively easy to solve if more of us get involved. As a shop owner, that most definitely includes you.
Sacrificing Quality for Speed
After the recent departure of a good helper, who left to learn another trade, I’d grown somewhat disgusted with the direction this shop had taken. The new manager seemed more interested in making deals and getting on every direct referral list he could find than in producing the quality repairs that produce direct referrals. (If you think techs don’t notice this, you’re wrong.) He started replacing people in the office and in the shop, and suddenly, the entire crew was on a mission to reduce costs while increasing profits. Believe me, it wasn’t a supportive working environment.
High-volume production became a top priority, and everyone who couldn’t produce a minimum number of labor hours per week was weeded out. Hardware and material orders were reduced, and materials were the cheapest around. The highest paid hourly employees were laid off. New technicians were hired at the lowest pay scale in the area, and eight metal techs were squeezed into a building where six would’ve been a bit crowded. And they were hired based on speed, not accuracy. For example, the new techs showed no interest in the digital measuring system the shop had obtained under previous management. In no time at all, the newly acquired, high-production crew was turning out more repaired vehicles per month than the shop had ever seen. Meanwhile, the quality of most repairs declined – something a good manager should’ve been concerned with.
You’re Too Slow!
I learned one Monday morning that I was one of two techs in the shop who wasn’t turning 100-plus-hour weeks. Under the new management, this was a problem, so the two of us were called to the shop manager’s office for the same reason: We were too slow.
When I was paged over the intercom, I went to the manager’s office and received a rude awakening. I closed the door and sat down, while Joe, the new shop manager, leaned back in his big leather chair. (This meeting was already off to a bad start.)
“The dealership owner won’t let me fire you,” he said – getting right to the point. “He says he paid too much for that measuring system just to have it sitting around collecting dust, and you’re the only one who can use it. So, I guess I gotta keep you.” (Thanks for the pep talk, boss.)
Without saying a word, I looked him straight in the eyes.
“The problem is,” he continued, “you’re too slow. Now, your quality has been great. Everything you’ve done has come out real nice. But the petty 70 or 80 hours you’re turning is barely paying for the space you take up in the shop. Try and hustle a little bit, will you?”
“I’ll do what I can.” I said, unsure if I would take his advice. I was never one to compromise the quality of a project in order to finish it fast, so in a 50-hour work week, I felt I was doing good to make 70 or more.
Back out in the shop, I learned from Alan (the other “slow tech”) that his job had been spared because of the quality of his work, his 40-plus years of experience and his 16 years of loyalty to the dealership. He, too, was told he needed to get his weekly production above 100 hours.
It was made clear to both of us that the only reason we kept our jobs was because the dealership owner wouldn’t allow us to be fired for lack of production. We held out hope that the owner had a different outlook than the new manager and that things might change.
But we both learned quickly that nothing would. Alan and I felt the same about the severe decline in the quality of repairs, but our concerns were taken rather lightly when we approached the dealership’s general manager. “I wouldn’t think all these insurance companies would endorse our body shop if the crew was doing such sloppy work as you gentlemen say,” he said, pausing to think for a moment. “Of course, that body shop makes a lot of money as long those insurance companies are happy so we certainly don’t need any bad apples in the bunch. I’ll get down there and have a word with Joe right away. Thank you, gentlemen.” Rising to his feet, he walked us to (and practically pushed us out) the door.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked Alan as we walked across the parking lot back to the body shop.
“I think our backs are covered with bristles from the brush off we just got,” he replied.
I was struck with a lonely feeling knowing that so few people care about the quality of repairs being done in their shops. It’s hard to believe after all the money a business owner invests that he’ll gamble with his reputation by allowing or even encouraging sloppy work. Shop managers all insist that they prefer quality over quantity, but it’s been my experience that very few actually mean it. What’s important to most shop managers is production first and customer satisfaction second. And customer satisfaction, to many, means that if the customer takes the car and doesn’t return to complain, then it’s good enough. My problem is that in most cases, that’s not good enough.
When Alan and I were confronted, I felt like the shop manager assumed I was just a slow tech who was keeping him from making money in a space where someone could be turning out more work. I felt like upper management didn’t care what went on in the body shop as long as it was making money and customers weren’t coming to them with complaints. It’s like too many people in society these days – they only care about things that directly affect them.
I also felt like upper management was more concerned about the numbers than the people who ride in the cars we work on. Numbers are important in business, but the people are far more important to me. I don’t want somebody to be hurt or killed because I wanted to make $100 more the week I worked on their car. I’d rather stand on a street corner begging for loose change than jeopardize human lives.
What’s even more frightening is that so few technicians feel the same way I do. I’d gladly bet you that 50 percent or more of the collision repairmen in the United States (which includes your shop) regularly put human lives at stake. Some don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, while others know the shoddy repairs they do aren’t safe. Some say they don’t get paid enough to do perfect work, while others say it’s not their car and they don’t have to ride in it.
Fuel for Change
Since no one with the authority to do something seemed interested in addressing the problems in the body shop, I came to the conclusion that this was something that would have to fix itself. Of course, no good thing ever happens fast enough for me, so I started thinking of ways to help push it along. I thought long and hard, asking myself, “Who can I tell about the short cuts that take place in body shops? Who can I talk to and get results?”
Like many other techs in similar situations, I wanted to see changes take place in the industry within my lifetime – so the thought of seeking government assistance was out of the question. I wrote letters to the news departments of area TV stations requesting coverage of collision repair basics for the consumer. I outlined information that could be covered and explained ways in which every consumer could be his own watchdog. With my new computer, I began writing essays describing ways the average consumer can recognize the quality – or lack of quality – in the repairs being performed on his car. I submitted the essays to two area newspaper editors, along with a brief letter outlining my background and collision repair training. I never received a single response.
By this time, I was sure about one thing: It’s the consumer who has the final word on everything so it’s ultimately the consumer who has the power to bring change. When the customer complains, the technician takes care of the problem. “The problem is,” I told myself, “the average consumer has no idea what to look for and no idea what to complain about. And no one seems interested in telling them anything.”
That was when I decided someone needed to start telling people what to look for. Someone needed to find a way to make the right information available to the largest possible number of automobile-driving, insurance-buying consumers.
With no idea what I was getting into, I installed one of the many AOL disks I’d received in the mail in the few short months since I’d bought my computer. Up to this point, I never really had much interest in the Internet and didn’t know a lot about it. I’d heard the buzz about the Internet being the future hub of marketing and communication, and one of the guys at the dealership told me about bulletin boards and news groups where hundreds of people might be able to discuss a chosen topic. With this in mind, I decided I’d give the Internet a closer look.
When I logged on to AOL for the first time, I was asked to choose a screen name of up to 10 characters. After thinking for a minute, I typed “Wreckfixer” in the space, along with a password, and before I knew it, I was online with an e-mail address. After a couple evenings of exploration and learning, I got right down to business and started looking for places where consumers might go if they were looking for advice on collision repair. One of the first places to catch my attention was the bulletin boards in AOL’s “Car & Driver” magazine area.
On these boards, I learned anyone could start a category for new discussion. When I browsed the list, I saw a wide variety of automotive-related topics, but none for autobody or collision repair – so I started a new category. I copied two of my previously written essays to posts under my new category and called it a night. By the end of the following week, I’d posted seven essays under the “Autobody Repair” category and had received numerous responses on the bulletin board and through my new e-mail address.
I was answering questions for total strangers about how to choose a body shop, what to do about bad repairs, what to look for on their own recently repaired cars, etc. For the first time, I was using my experience in collision repair to help consumers recognize the difference between good and poor quality repairs. I got a good feeling from the knowledge that a few people were learning to protect themselves and their families by looking for signs of improper repairs. People were proving to me what I’d known for a long time: American consumers are hungry for information. And I was eager to feed more of them.
Within a couple of months, I was averaging 20 to 25 e-mails a week, mostly questions about collision repair or comments about my posts on bulletin boards. With the exception of a few negative e-mails, I promptly responded to all of them with thorough answers to their questions or thanks for their comments. But it still wasn’t enough for me. I had to find ways to contact more people.
Then one evening online, I ran a search for AOL e-mail addresses in my town, and the list that came up included more than 150 addresses. I printed the list and started e-mailing people right away. I knew nothing about e-mail programs and mass-mailing capabilities at the time, so I was sending one e-mail at a time. I contacted 10 people a day, making my way through nearly every name on that list.
One of my e-mails found its way to the roommate of a young man employed in the parts department of the same dealership where I worked. After reading my posts on the “Car & Driver” bulletin boards, the roommate looked up my AOL profile, which, like an idiot, I filled out completely: first and last name, address, occupation, etc. Impressed, the young parts man asked his roommate to print all the posts, and before I had any idea that anyone at my workplace was aware of what I was doing, copies of my posts were circulating all over the dealership. Some of the mechanics and even one of the salesmen offered words of encouragement for what I’d been doing. Alan, of course, was proud of me, but the rest of the body shop people didn’t seem to have a lot of positive things to say about it.
“What do you expect to gain by teaching customers how to nit pick your work?” one bodyman asked.
“I’m not teaching customers how to nit pick my work,” I replied. “I’m teaching customers how to improve my work.”
As I expected, I got less work assigned to me and my work area began to shrink. The jobs I did get were underwritten, and the office staff didn’t seem to push very hard for thorough coverage on my supplements.
I decided to change jobs about 10 minutes before my car stalled on the way home from work one afternoon. After sitting still awhile, I got it started. I drove until it stalled again. I repeated this process for about two hours and finally made it home. The next morning, I had the car towed to the dealership (the one where I worked), where a mechanic I knew and trusted checked it out.
By lunch time, the mechanic informed me that I had “accumulated a significant amount of water” in my fuel tank. He also said there was no possible way I could’ve gotten that much water at the gas pump on a rainy day. Since the car was only a few months old, the dealership replaced the fuel tank and covered the cost of all service on the fuel lines and injection system. They probably rigged a warranty claim to cover the cost, but the general manager knew there was no factory defect in that fuel system. After I got my car back, I rode the bus to work until I found my next job.
A Catalyst for Change
I canceled my AOL account and spent the evenings working on the material in those bulletin board posts. I kept adding and editing material until I had the most information-filled 5,000 words I could come up with. By the time I had my tools settled into a spot in the small independent shop where I was hired, I was in the market for a reliable Internet service provider. And I decided early that I’d carefully select those with whom I’d share my identity.
Back on the Internet, I checked out different providers of free space on the Web. One called Tripod caught my attention, so I registered and received a password that would give me access to the files in my directory. I used the provider’s page editor to create pages where I began posting the material I’d worked on in recent weeks, adding some simple graphics and linking the pages together. At the end of the text on each page is the familiar copyright symbol followed by the name Paul Edwards.
I still try to come up with new material to add to my Web pages from time to time, and I continue to explore avenues of communication between myself and more consumers. I want to contact as many consumers as possible to teach them about the importance of a top-quality collision repair. I don’t do this to feed my ego or for personal gain. My purpose is to protect trusting consumers and their families from what they don’t know – since it’s what they don’t know that could cause them injury or cost them their lives.
It shouldn’t be left up to a government agency to monitor and/or improve quality in collision repair. The industry shows a definite need for more regulation over quality, and what better way to achieve this than by educating the public about what we do? It should be the mission of every quality-conscious collision repairer to educate people everywhere about proper collision repair. Working together, we can create a more educated consumer as well as an increased demand for top-quality collision repairs.
No technician should be put in the position Alan and I were in – trading quantity for quality. The dealership shop lost two genuinely quality-conscious techs when we left because of new management. How many will you lose? A
Scenes from a Butcher Shop
Upset, the dealership owner came to see the car and wanted to know why I wouldn’t allow the car to go back out on the road. I showed him where the frame rail had been cut and not properly repaired, and then I showed him the child restraint seat in the back seat of the car. The child restraint seat was about 3 feet in front of the cut in the frame rail. If this car had been rear ended at 30 mph, the baby would’ve been killed.
But at least the guy fixed the car quickly and the shop made good money on it, right?
With the trunk interior removed, you can see where the floor is still bent, the lights and wiring are painted, and there’s way too much seam sealer built up in the corners. With that much seam sealer, you can safely assume something nasty is hidden underneath.
In the left photo, you can see where holes were slotted to allow installation and alignment of the rear bumper.
In the right photo you can see that instead of cutting spot welds at the factory seam 3 inches away, this repairman chose to saw straight through the tail light pocket and then offered up this poor excuse for a butt weld.
In the top left and right photos, you’ll notice the right rail wasn’t properly repaired. A closer look at the right reveals a tear in the metal where the rail was kinked.
The bottom photos show where the left rail was “sectioned.” Five poor-quality welds attach the rail section to the floor, but the rail section isn’t attached to the rail itself in any way. After the bumper was removed, the rail section came out of the car with just one swing of a two-pound hammer.
You may also notice the shims that had to be used to compensate for an improperly positioned rail section.
The Bottom Line
A: “Change jobs,” says Bailey. “If you go to the top of the chain of command and get no results, it’s obvious that they value the numbers and the money more than their reputation around town. If I could have gotten the press interested, I would’ve shown the whole town what goes on, but I sometimes wonder if I would’ve had to move out of town to find a job after that.
“Butchers don’t want to change this industry because standing up for what’s right also means doing your job right. And doing your job right would mean a cut in pay for a lot of bodymen because the life-threatening shortcuts they take save them time and increase the size of their paychecks.
“What’s really sickening is that the number of techs who’d prefer to do nothing but first-class quality repairs are badly outnumbered by the techs who like the idea that they can butcher cars and make more money because they’re fast.”
Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.
Photos courtesy of Paul Bailey.