Jason D. Jacques, owner of Classy Car Paint and Body repair shop in Brevard, N.C., had a serious problem: Sixty to 70 percent of vehicle owners who used to come to his shop for repairs had stopped coming.
It didn’t take long for Jacques to realize those customers were all insured by Nationwide Insurance. Up until October 2001, Nationwide customers often went to Jacques’ shop for estimates before heading to Nationwide’s drive-in claims office. There, they’d be written an estimate and asked to go to the local Ford dealership. But since vehicle owners usually came to him first, Jacques was able to inform them of their rights and retain their business.
A few months ago, however, Nationwide began requiring all of its insureds to go directly to the Ford dealership for their estimates – which brought work at Jacques’ shop to a screaming halt. In fact, since that time, Jacques has seen only one customer insured by Nationwide.
“All of the sudden, I didn’t see any more Nationwide jobs, and I thought, “We have got to do something because this is way too crooked,'” says Jacques. “I’m not even getting the opportunity to compete. … I’m not seeing these people at all.”
Jacques contacted other shop owners and managers in the area and found that they were having the same problem. Though they knew it wouldn’t be easy, Jacques and other local repairers were ready to take action and to form their own association. An Internet search for information on how to start an association led Jacques to the North Carolina Auto Body Association, already in existence. (I can’t help but say here: For the love of God, don’t wait for the bomb to drop before you investigate your state association. Even if business is good, your membership and participation may be of help to other shop owners whose businesses aren’t doing well. And, if and when your business hits hard times, you can benefit from the help of the other members. It goes both ways. You give – and you get.) Curious about what the association was doing to address the steering situation in North Carolina, Jacques rounded up area shop owners for a March meeting.
Twenty-five shops were represented at the meeting, which also included the association and some state and local politicians. On the agenda for discussion: House Bill 13, which became a North Carolina law April 1, 2002, and requires insurance companies to inform vehicle owners that they have the right to choose the shop that repairs their vehicle.
“The best they could do was HB 13,” says Jacques. “Insurers will be fined $2,000 if they get caught breaking the rule. It’s more or less baloney when you consider that $2,000 is pocket change to large insurance companies, but it’s a small step in the right direction. You’re not gonna whip ’em all in one big punch. It’s going take [a lot of] little ones.”
Jacques also learned at the meeting that shop owners need to inform their customers about their rights because, says Jacques, “the insurance company knows how to use words that sound real good to the average person who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Problem is, Jacques can’t explain rights to people who aren’t coming to his shop, so he and other local shop owners needed a strategy. And, thanks to the meeting, they got one.
Someone at the meeting suggested that Jacques – and the other local shop owners – look through accident reports at the local police stations on a weekly basis. After all, the reports are public record, so anyone can look at them.
“I’ll specifically target Nationwide customers and send them information by mail,” says Jacques. “I’m not going to get to see them [unless they learn] that they don’t have to go where Nationwide tells them.”
Writer Cheryl McMullen is associate editor of BodyShop Business.