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Who’s the Expert?

We’re the collision repair experts yet we allow insurers to dictate how repairs are done and let them pay us a mere pittance for it. The potential result is my biggest fear: an industry full of unqualified technicians

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

Who’s the collision repair expert at your facility? Is it the writer who’s never turned a wrench but has been estimating collision damage for 20 years? Is it the estimator who works for an outside entity and whose main interest is in getting the repair done fast and cheap?

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Or is it the guy who’s going to repair the vehicle?

Granted, this industry certainly has a number of collision repair experts who work-ed hard and saved for years before risking everything to open a shop. And there certainly are plenty of shop owners who spent their entire lives in their parents’ body shops and then took over the business when they retired. But when the technician disassembles a vehicle for a complete diagnosis, who makes the decision whether to repair or replace a damaged part? Who decides what a particular repair should pay?

I’ve worked in or visited dozens of different body shops over the past 20 years and I’ve noticed an increase in the percentage of the typical shop office staff that has little or no hands-on collision repair experience. And I’m certainly not one to say that those with minimal hands-on experience can’t write estimates.

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Women who didn’t have brothers or fathers or other family members working in automotive fields write some of the best estimates I’ve ever seen. I guess some would call it ironic, but I’m not the least bit surprised to see better estimates written by women than I’ve seen by a lot of men. It’s been my experience that women tend to apply themselves to an office job more aggressively than the average man. The few women I’ve worked with in the shops also had a tendency to do complete repairs more thoroughly than their male counterparts.

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The women I’ve worked with, as well as the good men, have always made a habit of reviewing estimates and communicating with me about supplements before contacting customers or insurers. Frame repair times, sheet metal repair times and other judgment items should be thoroughly discussed and agreed upon between the office staff and the repair staff before any supplement is submitted. But when that discussion takes place, who ultimately has the final say about how the repair should be done?

Body Shop as ER?
When you think about it, we provide the same service for cars that the hospital emergency room provides for people. Someone has an accident and is injured, and they go to the emergency room to get the damage repaired. When you’re at the emergency room, it always seems to be a doctor who has the final say about your condition. The people who examine you and treat your injuries are the ones who determine the extent of your injuries and decide what the best treatment will be. These decisions aren’t left up to the accountants or the insurers, although they sometimes think they have the authority to step in at the hospital, just as they do in the body shop.

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The bottom line is, the person who’ll perform the procedures necessary to repair a damaged human body or a vehicle should ultimately have the authority to determine how he’ll go about his job. When you go to the hospital, you rely on the doctor’s word, but at the car ER, the “surgeons” don’t seem to have much say at all. Too many shops these days are still relying on what the insurers will “allow” them to charge for the services they provide. Granted, there’s a growing number of shops that have chosen to be the exception to this unspoken rule, but when will the rest of the collision repair industry stop caving under insurer pressure and start demanding what their best quality techs feel is a fair price for their work?

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Hospitals will bill you to death and then bill your surviving family members for everything your insurer refused to cover, but this practice is still virtually unheard of in the collision repair business. For years, it’s completely baffled me that shop owners won’t just write a complete and thorough estimate and cover every detail and then use a yellow highlight pen to mark each item on the sheet that the insurer refuses to pay. Show it to the customer and explain that you can do those things or leave them out, but if the procedures are performed, somebody has to cover the cost. But shop owners won’t do this in fear of running off customers.

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Talk but No Action
The non-profit organization known as the hospital billed me $6 for two aspirin and they kept billing me, adding interest, until I paid them. My employer, the body shop owner who went into business to make a profit, won’t ask a customer to either call his insurer or pay for the items the adjuster refused to cover. The point? Many of the collision repair industry’s top “surgeons” are disgruntled over compensation and working conditions while our industry collectively funds fleets of limos and private jets for the insurers. Insurers continue to rake in billions in profits and our industry can’t even generate a serious interest in our trade among recruitable young people.

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The cream of the crop of collision repair experts is losing interest in providing their services for the mere pittance that the insurers expect them to believe is all they’re worth. And the industry can forget about regenerating any interest as long as the majority won’t stand up to the insurers. Why give away hundreds of dollars worth of materials when you could show a profit on the materials and use some of that money for more deserving needs?

My biggest fear about leaving the collision repair industry someday lies in the fact that years after I’m out, I’ll have an accident and the few remaining people in this line of work won’t be qualified to repair my vehicle. I won’t trust very many people to work on my car, and whomever does work on my car will have to deal with me checking back every day. I’d be the customer from hell. “Let me show you a couple of spots you need to re-weld, boy,” or “Get that rat-tail bit away from my car, kid. You’re not gonna slot any holes; you’re gonna put the car back on the frame machine.”

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What does it say about this industry when probably one-third of us wouldn’t allow the other two-thirds of the industry to perform major repairs on our vehicles? To a lot of folks, this may seem like an ego problem among techs, but it’s not. It’s more like a state-of-the-industry kind of problem. The problem is that there aren’t many true collision repair experts left in the business. And more of them are leaving all the time.

Shortcuts Abound These days, the demand for production, the push for better cycle times, etc., has made it more tempting to techs to take that unnoticeable shortcut. We find it easier to justify cutting the quarter panel just inside the edge of the doorjamb rather than removing the interior and installing the complete panel. We don’t think twice about floor-pulling that minor tweak out of the end of a frame rail even though you wrote setup, measure, pull and align, etc. Some of the best techs I’ve known are rushing through jobs that they’d have been more meticulous about a few years ago. Why? A) They need the money. B) The boss wants the car done. C) The customer is in a hurry to get the car back. Or how about answer D): all of the above. And then there’s insurer pressure.

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It doesn’t help matters much when the majority of the industry caters more to the fast bodyman than to the meticulous craftsperson. The 140-hour-a-week guy is making the company good money, but one out of four of his customers comes back the following week with complaints. Meanwhile, the 70-hour tech has maybe a half dozen customer complaints a year, but he’s shoved in the corner and gets whatever leftovers are available after the high producers are loaded with work. With such a large portion of the industry conducting business in this manner, how can we as an industry expect top quality techs to stick around? How can we expect to motivate young apprentices to provide the best quality services possible when mediocrity pays so much better?

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It has become fashionable to be fast, and the demands of a pushy, self-absorbed society along with corporate pressure and interference are slowly removing the skilled craftsperson from the workplace. Be it collision repairman, plumber, carpenter or anybody else, it’s the skilled craftsperson who refuses to produce mediocrity in a hurry who struggles to make ends meet. Meanwhile, he sees the lifestyles of the indifferent and wonders to himself, “Why do I bother trying to do everything right when I could make more money ignoring the details?”
Hacksters aren’t leaving in droves, mainly because this industry caters to their ability to get the cars out the door. Hacks can make a good living nearly anywhere. Most of the departing techs are quality-conscious repair technicians who take a great deal of pride in what they do. They’d rather not do this at all than use methods they feel are wrong in order to compensate for things they didn’t get paid to do. What many people haven’t considered is that most of the departing techs are among the industry’s top collision repair experts.

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Watch for PRI
Something many shop owners need to seriously consider is the number of top-notch techs who might leave the repair sector to venture into some sort of post-repair inspection (PRI) or watchdog service. More and more quality-conscious techs are looking into PRI as a way to make a living with the knowledge they’ve acquired without all the hassles of working in the typical American body shop. If and when a larger portion of this industry’s workforce makes the transition from collision repair tech to post-repair inspector, will the remaining repairers be able to withstand the scrutiny of the growing PRI industry?

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Think about it for a minute. Suppose you’ve got a tech who isn’t quite as fast as the others, but everything he does is of impeccable quality. Now suppose this tech leaves to start his own PRI business. If one of your customers contacts this PRI service for an inspection or some sort of consumer assistance, will the repairs of your fastest hot rod suffice under the trained eye of a former collision repair technician? If some of your customers refused to accept their vehicle until the repairs were approved by their hired collision repair expert, how would that affect your business? Would post-repair inspectors refer customers to your shop, or would they recommend your competition?

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The PRI industry is growing, and I certainly expect it to continue growing at an increasing rate. And I expect part of that continuing growth to result in increased evaporation of the already shallow technician pool. Any shop owner who isn’t putting forth a serious effort to recruit, train and retain the most talented craftspeople available in his area could pay dearly in the long run.

The time has come for top shops to seriously concentrate on getting top techs employed, compensated and comfortable. Get their input about repair procedures as well as shop operations and equipment. Use their input to help them make you more money. Most of all, take the best care of the best techs that you possibly can. In order to be the best collision repair facility in the area, you have to have the best techs in the area, and you have to pay them top dollar for everything they do. Otherwise, some of them may be standing in some of your customers’ driveways next year, inspecting the work of your top
producers.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy. Send all hate mail (and compliments) to [email protected].

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