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Most of you probably know the classic Johnny Paycheck song, “Take This Job And Shove It,” that came out in the mid-70s.
In the hustle and bustle and daily grind of trying to fill your shop with work, who in their right mind would tell a customer, “I’m turning down your job.”
Believe it or not, there are times when you should refuse a job in order to avoid potential liabilities and a loss in profit. Other times, it would be beneficial to take a stand for your customer and your company with a little tough love. It’s long overdue for repairers to take back their role as the repair professional and stand strong on doing the right things in the right ways for the right people: the real customer.
In a current lawsuit by a group of repairers, in their RICO appeal against major insurers, the court suggested body shops might have a hard time suing insurers for what they (repairers) believe places them in a situation of having to not perform or absorb (eat) the cost of necessary operations an insurer refuses to provide for or underpays. The discussion seemed to suggest shops might wish to look to the customer as the key to the problem of insurers refusing to budge from an insufficient estimate – either through using misrepresentations made to the consumer as the foundation for a RICO case or just simply balance-billing the vehicle owner rather than repairers trying to sue the insurer at all.
It was suggested by the presiding D.C. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas that the allegations indicated the carriers were defrauding “insureds,” not body shops. After all, the insurer doesn’t owe the repairer anything… they owe their policyholder under terms of their policy contract with them.
Consider too that when you prepare an estimate and present it to your customer, this is more than an estimate; it is you and your company placing your reputation on the line.
Let’s look at this a bit deeper. Suppose you write an estimate for the customer’s repair in the amount of $3,600. If you do your job properly, you’ll go over your estimate with them at their vehicle and explain the damage and the what and why of the proposed repair processes you’ve recommended. You do a great job of earning the customer’s trust, and they choose you to repair their vehicle.
Your customer submits a claim to their insurer, who states that your shop is not on their preferred list and refers them to a shop that is. Your customer is adamant about having you perform their repair.
The insurer writes their own rendition of what they wish to pay, which comes to $2,400. You prepare a supplement and, after a re-inspection and lengthy discussion, reach an agreed price of $2,900, which includes the use of alternative parts in place of the factory original replacement parts you had written in your original estimate.
The repair is completed and the customer comes in to pick up their vehicle. You go out with them and show them their repair and your pride in a job well done.
The satisfied customer pays their deductible and signs over the insurance drafts, thanks you and leaves. Halfway home, it dawns on the customer that your initial estimate was $3,600, but after the insurer’s involvement, the final repair was only $2,900…$700 less.
Because you did not explain to the customer why there was difference, you left them to assume that you had attempted to overcharge them with your original repair estimate of $3,600. When the insurer caught you, you ended up repairing the vehicle for nearly 20% less than your original estimate. To make matters worse, the next time they need repair or have the opportunity to refer others, you can understand that they will probably not refer your shop. Adding insult to injury, they will likely take the insurer’s recommendation of their “approved” shop the next time they get in an accident.
Not involving your customer has harmed you, your shop’s reputation and the collision industry. Plus, it has energized the insurer’s efforts to minimize their costs while enhancing their direct-repair program.
Unfortunately, this all could have been avoided had you kept your customer informed throughout the repair, including when the insurer called for alternative parts and failed to provide all the processes that were deemed necessary for a proper and thorough repair to restore the vehicle’s safety, appearance, function and value to the best of reasonable human ability – all of which reduced the original estimated price.
The Only One
So, what can you do to best serve your customer and avoid tarnishing your reputation? Being “the only one” can be a good thing… if it’s for a good reason.
The first step is to fully understand that a repairer has a moral, civic, ethical, professional and legal duty to inform their customer when the level of repair cannot be achieved by following an insurer’s estimate and put aside the fear of upsetting the insurer. Repairers need to make a choice to continue business as usual or take the steps needed for change.
Repairers have the choice to either:
- Understand that their true customer is the party who signs the repair order and that they are responsible to them, not the insurer
- Continue to subsidize their customer’s repair by providing necessary materials and performing procedures that they know to be necessary and appropriate at no charge to the customer to appease the insurer
- Inform and edify their customer and the insurer by explaining the need for recommended and/or mandated procedures and seek payment for underpaid and unpaid procedures, materials and parts from the customer, while suggesting they seek reimbursement from the responsible insurer or the at-fault driver as may be applicable
- Not bother their customer with the details and repair the vehicle the best they can with what they have to work with
If the customer declines to take an active role to ensure their vehicle receives a proper and thorough repair and protect their family’s safety and economic well-being, then you may have to decline the repair (and associated liabilities) and suggest the customer take it elsewhere.
That’s right, you can do this. And when the conditions command it, you should terminate the repair and ask the customer to pay your current bill and have the vehicle removed.
Sound harsh? It is. However, it’s a situation that you did not create. Instead, it was created by an overzealous insurer who refused to provide ample consideration to your customer, and a customer who failed to assert their rights. You, as their chosen repair expert, have merely met your professional and fiduciary duties to your customer by informing them of the issues – just as you would expect your doctor to do, as I’ve discussed previously.
Terminating a Repair
From my experience and shop owners who I’ve consulted over the years, when a repairer decides to terminate a repair, it shows the customer that the repairer’s concerns are not just about the money but their reputation and the potential liabilities they’re not willing to accept. Generally, in these situations, the customer finds that the repairer’s efforts and intentions are indeed honorable and won’t want their vehicle to be repaired elsewhere. Instead, they’ll be compelled to ask the insurer to provide what is necessary for the proper repair of their vehicle. If the insurer refuses, the customer then must make a decision and inform the repairer as to how they wish to have their repair performed.
Should the customer elect to attain a proper and thorough repair and pay the difference, they may then seek recovery from the insurer (or the at-fault party, if applicable) by whatever means necessary. Or, it has been found that many customers simply pay and absorb the price difference, gaining peace of mind knowing they received a safe and proper repair. Should they instead elect to use alternative parts and omit recommended processes (i.e. color matching procedures) to keep their cost down, the repairer may consider performing the repair with certain caveats and even signed liability waivers, or decide that the risks are simply too high and elect to forego the repair.
In the end, the consumer will be made aware of the activities of both the repairer and the insurer and provided the opportunity to make decisions that best fit their needs.
Involving one’s customer is the proper and effective way to conduct business. It’s long overdue for body shops to evolve and become business people with collision repair centers.
Barrett Smith, AAM, is the founder and president of Auto Damage Experts Inc., which has been providing automotive inspection and expert legal services nationwide since 1997. He can be reached at (813) 657-6705 or [email protected].