Business was humming along and no one saw it coming: a pandemic unlike any that anyone has seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918, and one so widespread and contagious it would shut down practically all business operations in every sector, not to mention interpersonal contact between human beings and normal daily life.
Fortunately, the government deemed auto repair “essential,” so shops could stay open and keep working, albeit with a heightened sense of safety for customers and employees involving the wearing of personal protective gear, adhering to social distancing and holding video chats with customers and insurers where applicable. But shops saw their business cut by 40% to 60%. However, not all choose to view it as doom and gloom; with lower car counts and more downtime, many shops saw an opportunity to push the reset button, reevaluate their business operations, scrutinize their processes and procedures to see if they could be improved and clean up the inside and outside of their facilities – knowing that when things return back to normal, miles driven is going to explode and the shops that were able to tough it out will be able to reap the benefits.
Some shops even committed to keeping all of their employees on full-time, despite knowing that the coronavirus was going to deal them a vicious
“We held a meeting at each location, and you could feel the tension,” Darcie Dingman, marketing and human resources director of Dingman’s Collision Centers in Omaha, Nebr., said on April 10. “We were able to let our employees know that we truly care about them and that we are not laying anyone off and that they are guaranteed a full-time paycheck. With little traffic on the streets during this pandemic, we are definitely feeling it as a business. We are considered an ‘essential business’ during this time, and we know how essential each of our employees are to us. In times like these, you have to come together, and we know we will get through this together. This is a tough time for so many right now, and we hope we have eased some of the uncertainty that we know our employees were feeling.”
Social Media Success
For Jeanne Silver, owner of CARSTAR Mundelein in Mundelein, Ill., business was down 30% for the first half of April. Being located in a shelter-in-place state, driving traffic was way down. She said they have not been able to do much to make up for the loss of business, except offer mechanical services as well, but demand is down there too.
“In addition, we have experienced one instance where an adjuster has been telling customers not to take their vehicles in for repairs during the shutdown,” Silver said. “This may be the case with more insurers. People who would have normally stopped in for repairs have been holding off to wait and see what happens economically. It is possible that more people are doing photo estimating through insurer apps and cashing out as well.”
For the most part, though, Silver said customers have not been afraid to come in.
“Out of all of the customers we have dealt with, only one or two were hesitant to come in. We have a small staff with few people on site right now, so there is very limited contact with customers. We are all wearing masks and gloves now. One of our customers took out a bottle of disinfectant and sprayed our detailer with it before she took her paperwork and keys from him outside. He was not too happy with the disinfectant shower!”
Silver has let the public know her shop is still open via social media and a big sign in their lot. One thing they did that was a huge success was a “Guess the Estimate” contest on their Facebook page, which reached 7,500 people in two days. They received 260 guesses and awarded four restaurant gift cards to the top four.
“It was the most successful post we have ever had on Facebook, and it not only brought awareness to many people but led us to help one winner who was unemployed and could really use the gift card,” Silver said.
Silver has not had to lay off any employees to date; however, techs were put “on call” in late April, with two people in the office to handle scheduling.
“One thing we are telling our customers is, in order to minimize trips to the shop, they should drop their keys in the drop box, sign an authorization and we will handle the rest,” Silver said. “They seem to appreciate the simplicity of the repair process this way, as well as consideration for their well-being through limited to no contact.”
Silver believes that once things are back to normal, her shop will be able to ramp back up quickly due to their small, nimble staff.
“I think there will be opportunities for the shops that survive. Driving habits will change as fewer people will want to take public transportation, and all of those owners who deferred repairs may decide to finally do them. Vacations will be driving vacations in the U.S.
“It is going to take a while for shops to do ‘business as usual’ if people are still afraid of venturing out too often, or if social distancing continues as the norm. We are in uncharted territory, and the toll that this disease has taken on the economy will determine how quickly it rebounds. We know all Americans are suffering right now, but we are a strong people and will get through this together.”
Helping Front-Line Workers
Ron Perretta, owner of Professionals Auto Body in Altoona, Pa., saw his business nosedive 55%. Despite that, he decided to give discounts to health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.
Perretta has added pickup and delivery service and increased marketing and advertising to a different demographic at specific times to try to offset the loss of business. Through social media, TV, radio, a local newspaper, press releases and bulk emails, he has let the public know that Professionals Auto Body remains open for business. And he has found they are not scared to do in-person visits.
“Actually, it’s the opposite,” Perretta said. “It’s hard for people to get used to having to do business the way we have to today. We are having to be direct with people and explain we want to keep everyone safe, but there have been no issues so far.”
Before the staff at Professionals Auto Body enter a vehicle, it’s wiped down inside, and anything they would touch on the outside is also wiped down. Then, the vehicle is moved into one of the estimating bays, and an ozone generator is placed inside the vehicle and the vehicle is aired out afterward. Other safety procedures include:
- Customers are only allowed at the door; Professionals has every other area they could go to blocked off.
- Approximately every hour, lobby counters, front office doors, seats and pens are wiped down.
- After the vehicle is repaired, the ozone generator is placed in the vehicle again for a post-cleansing.
- The office staff is not allowed to be close with customers, and technicians aren’t allowed to mingle among each other; they have to keep their distance.
Perretta has had to lay off employees, but he said before he did this, he made sure they were going to make as much money being off as they would have working. He is also covering their health insurance until they’re back at work.
“We haven’t missed a beat yet, and it’s only because of systems, processes and procedures that are in place regardless of the situation,” Perretta said. “And we will continue to enhance all of them.”
Michael Giarrizzo, president and CEO of DCR Systems in Mentor, Ohio, only saw a 20% to 25% reduction in business but locked their doors the first day Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued the stay-at-home order.
“We shut all of our stores in Ohio, and even in the other states,” Giarrizzo said. “We locked our doors to the outside and made a full commitment to do business with customers and insurers in a contactless and touchless way. We’ve got a unique electronic and digital claims portal that really helps to facilitate that.”
Giarrizzo asked about 20% of his staff of 125 to take a voluntary layoff. Most who did had a spouse with a respiratory condition or were at the twilight of their careers or just didn’t feel comfortable working during the virus.
“The last thing that we wanted to do is have them be in the workplace and not be comfortable,” he said.
Like other shops, with the downturn in business, Giarrizzo and his staff have found time to refine and perfect their business practices.
“We’ve done so many things to get better at what we do, from refining some of our standard work and standard operating practices to working in this claims portal and making it so robust and complete with all the evidence needed to settle the claim,” Giarrizzo said. “Then, doing some really unique different things as far as how we reach out to our customer base. We’ve got a tremendous social media platform, and we’ve utilized local news to tell the community about our contactless way.”
Fewer cars coming in has meant the DCR Systems staff has had the time to make sure all of their equipment’s maintenance is up to date and any repairs needed are completed. Beyond that, Giarrizzo is pushing the creativity of his workforce on areas they want to improve.
“We’re a process-driven environment, so essentially the vehicle goes through a series of steps and flows through the process,” Giarrizzo said. “Everybody’s involved in that; the process is theirs. So, any piece or part of it is fair game for somebody throwing their hand up and saying, ‘Hey, we’d be better served if we changed that around and we move that over here or labeled that area or painted that area.’ Those action plans become even more of an emphasis because we have the time to do it, and a lot of this stuff needed to be done or was overdue to be done.”
Giarrizzo does have a positive outlook and believes business will come roaring back some day, but he also believes the collision industry might be forever changed.
“Offering touchless or contactless service is something we’ll continue to do,” he said. “I don’t expect this to be a light switch at all. It’s one thing to get the virus under control, but then the fear factor has to get under control, and that’s probably only going to come after we have a solid vaccine and treatment. So, we expect that people will be doing business in a very similar way for a long time, maybe forever.
“Maybe the improvements are so great that they strip out so much unnecessary activity and waste out of the process, and consequently customers are better served and insurers are better served in the shops. We really look at the bright side of a time like this and ask, ‘What can we do to improve? What can we do to be better coming out the other side?’ And I can’t say enough about our people. They’ve done an amazing job. There’s been zero thought of surrender with this pandemic.”
Comments from our Facebook Followers on the Productive Things They’ve Been Doing with their COVID-19 Downtime
- We did some much-needed remodeling and shop maintenance.
- We organized the shop and cleaned everything (booths, floors, equipment).
- We repainted the office completely and got all new furniture for it, and the shop got a full power wash.
- We worked out the ‘kinks’ in our processes.
- Our employees are working together and helping each other more; it’s more about what we can accomplish together now, getting vehicles in and out of the shop as quickly and safely as possible.
- We expanded to seven days a week to service our community, and our team has been fully dedicated and positive about the change.