Tuesday, 30 November 2004 09:00

The constancy of change and the costs of appeasement

Written by Dick Strom

The collision repair industry is no stranger to change - precious little of it benefitting us. But though change is inevitable, even necessary, we each may have more sway than we realize in whether it bruises us, buries us, or benefits us. 

Active Image

Over our 30 years of shop ownership many things have changed, one of the most pronounced being that of consumer expectations. Driving the ever-heightened expectations of consumers is the expensive purchase price of today's vehicles - computer-controlled to the point that they practically drive themselves.

Many folks consider their air-conditioned, surround sound, ergonomic-seated vehicle to be their "supreme comfort zone" - a place where they can get away from the world, work, and family for a few moments of mental yoga. This partially explains why many today revere their vehicle, and heaven help the repairer who can't return it to its former glory.

Changes in business paperwork

Business paperwork is another area that has made quantum changes. Thirty years into collision and mechanical repairs, we recently had a commercial document shredding company turn every scrap of paperwork from our first 20 years into confetti. Before we went into business - around the time Khrushchev was banging his shoe on the U.N. podium promising his Russia would "bury" us, it was being predicted we would one day bury ourselves in our own paperwork.

Looking over our flatbed truck, stacked several file boxes high with old proprietary documents I was feeding to the shredders, "being buried in paperwork" isn't much of a stretch. Commercial shredding was the only way we could be certain the credit card numbers and personal information of our many past customers was completely destroyed. But, in between handing the shredders another box, I had time to pull a few dusty files and reminisce over how business has changed.

I was reminded that during our first few years, working by myself, I kept all my paperwork in a small box. My "office" was a slanted board attached to the shop wall, next to a rotary-dial phone. No fax, no internet connection (no internet!), no copier machine, no multiple phone lines, no digital imaging, no computerized estimating system - just pens, general forms, carbon paper, and gut instinct. I kept in memory the phone numbers of all part suppliers, insurers, and others with whom I dealt.

Today, our 900 sq. ft. office (the size of my entire shop back then) is getting cramped. Of necessity, descriptions of repairs back then were kept to a minimum; what 30 years ago would have been described in a brief hand-written line, in today's "right to know" environment might take five or more lines to describe.

More business - more paperwork

As business multiplied, exponentially so did its paperwork: When we opened our doors in 1974, this filled only one small box. Last year it filled 14 large file boxes, plus who knows how much computerized information.

Whereas 30 years ago "lumping" facts and figures was common (one old file listed the whole repair simply as "Straighten and paint right rear quarter… $200 including tax"), in today's complicated repairs, file folders are often more than an inch thick with exacting descriptions of all work performed, back and forth correspondence, frame machine and wheel alignment printouts, and the like. Because of the drastic increase in legal, ethical, and technological issues surrounding repairing today's highly computerized vehicles, shops can't be too exact in describing repairs performed and procedures used.

Digging through another musty box of files, I came upon my wife's first attempt at computerizing our shop paperwork (basically, fill-in-the-lines spreadsheets). Though incredibly simple, I still remember astonished looks on the faces of customers and insurance representatives when presented with a totally comprehensible estimate. Readable estimates, like readable doctor's prescriptions, were a novelty in that age when, though a college degree wasn't a prerequisite, stamina, drive, ingenuity, and a burning desire to fix cars, were.

Unlike many well-educated shop owners today who have no passion whatsoever for the trade other than its profitability, for many of us money was secondary as long as we could fix cars and support our family. And the simple book work involved consumed only a small portion of our workday. Though much paperwork today is conducted and saved in computer files, it's still "paperwork," it's still time-consuming, exacting, and storing and properly disposing of it is still a monumental, burdensome, increasingly expensive task. Yet, who would deny the advantages of being able to reproduce computerized P&L statements, estimates, work orders, plus compute year-end tax totals simply by touching a few keys. Priceless!

Shop and insurer expectations

An area of change that often negatively impacts shop owners and techs is that of shop and insurer expectations. Experienced collision tech and industry writer Paul Bailey recently related in his article, The Trap (part 2), in the 10/04 CCRE Collision Watchdog, this growing problem to which insurers expect shops and their technicians to adapt. Bailey relates, from a tech's viewpoint, how it feels to be "boxed-in" to this occupation - a view that few shop owners have considered, but that all should.


Stated Bailey, "After a decade of collision work you realize things have changed; sometime while you weren't paying attention, insurers took more and more control of your paychecks. You find yourself working harder and harder to get the cars done faster, but it's never fast enough to satisfy the boss [who is under pressure from insurers].You go in to work earlier and stay later. Then its Saturdays. Then, some Sunday afternoons. You'd like to change jobs, but doing so would mean going without a paycheck for a week, which you can't afford until your tax return next spring. But even if you did, the next job won't be any better; it may be different, but no better.

"You've had 'opportunities' to work in the office, but don't have any interest in fighting with insurance rats. You definitely have no interest in working for insurers, who will chew you out for writing legitimate sheets that pay techs properly for their hard work. You'd like to start over in another trade, but doing so would require a substantial cut in pay for a couple years, which you can't afford. You've never felt so stuck in all your life - like Michael Douglas in the movie Falling Down.

I'm running as fast as I can

"You've jumped through hoops, and when they held the hoops higher, you jumped through them again. Then they brought out smaller hoops and you jumped through them, and they held the smaller hoops higher, and you jumped again and made it through again. But now you're worn out and the 'master' is standing there holding a size-four wedding band higher than you ever cared to jump. He's got a big grin on his face and he's saying, 'Come on, doggie, come on!'You look up at that little bitty tiny hoop that you know you couldn't squeeze through even if it was on the ground and generously greased, but you have to do what you have to do, so you're actually going to give it your best shot.

"Though you try, you can't force yourself to pretend you're excited about it because in your mind a voice you once recognized as your conscience is yelling, 'Are you out of your mind?'

"You ask yourself what happened, and the answer comes to you: One group got together and stuck to one agenda, while each party making up the other group stuck to his/her own individual agenda. As a result, the organized group that stuck together has been easily able to establish and maintain manipulative control of the scattered group.

"When insurers offered super volume deals in exchange for discounts, many shop owners bid against each other to get those volumes of work without having to get off their lazy duffs and run their shops like businesses. In the process, shop owners sold us out. They sold our skills for a discount in exchange for the promise of a lot more work for us to do at discounted prices - more work for less money.

"Yet, we technicians are as guilty as are these shop owners in that we all sat back and kept our mouths shut through all those bidding wars. We allowed it because we fell for the promise of massive volumes of work, as did these shop owners.

"When we do complain, we do it with other techs in the shop, or on internet message boards. How many shop crews are getting together and sitting down with the office staff to seriously confront them about our shrinking paychecks? Instead, some techs have chosen to leave the industry, while others have chosen to shortcut the repair process. And then there are those of us whose conscience won't allow us to take shortcuts; we're stuck right here until we can get far enough ahead to walk away from the collision industry. Are you ready to get yourself out of the trap?"

Cost of appeasement

A sobering, point-blank comment emailed to me from a well-respected collision professional concerning the costs of appeasement brings this whole matter to a head. He wrote, "The many shops I speak to each week are tired and frustrated, and either losing money each day or struggling to remain marginally profitable. Most, including myself, are heavily addicted to the DRP-drug, and the pusher keeps raising the price each day. Most of us little by little sold our souls to the devil, and he is now knocking on our doors looking to collect.

"As an example, I have one insurer which forces a parts discount, re-inspects every repair three times, and requires a phone call and detailed explanations for any supplement over $300! Our state association has a board filled with bright professionals, but the relationships to which we shops have committed ourselves paralyze us when we contemplate taking a more aggressive stand on these issues."

As the playwright said, "Things are seldom what they seem… Skim milk masquerades as cream." Insurers, fishing for suckers, may promise you the world, but all their hooks have barbs… Every stinking one of them!

Again, not all changes are for the better. It behooves us to take an active part in the changes that affect our future. Change is inevitable, but it is to our detriment only when we allow it to be.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e- mail: moderncol@qwest.net