Friday, 27 February 2009 06:57

Esperson --- Tools of the Trade

Written by Dan Esperson

Often during the week I take at least part of a day to visit collision shops in my neck of the woods. I guess I just get homesick, so to speak. I like to keep my hand on the pulse and observe the many innovative ways in which collision shops have adapted to the changing times… the technologies and processes within their respective environments.

    The visits usually allow me to develop strategies and offer suggestions to my employer, as well as to give me some insights for writing articles such as this. While the current economic times have been a bit dreary for most of us, I have the great fortune of living in a part of the country that offers “white gold” (you know—snow?) for five to six months out of the year. Consequently, the collision businesses I have been visiting have been operating with a steady influx of economic opportunity, and in some cases backlogged schedules. Job security, I would say.

    Before I invade the shops, I usually place a phone call to the shop managers and ask them if I can stop by to visit. Now that’s if I can even get them on the phone, as they have been up to their necks with the good fortunes of a busy shop. With luck, they usually allow me the pleasure of stopping by.

    Lately, when talking to the shop managers on the phone, I have found a fascinating similarity. For some reason—and not by me leading the conversation—they speak about an obstacle they are facing with a vehicle that involves some new or cutting edge technology or exotic repair practice that they have never seen before. Now keep in mind that the vast majority of these managers I talk to are tenured collision industry professionals, and their favorite toys of choice when they were younger were probably a DA (dual action sander) in one hand and a stick or oxy-acetylene welder in the other.

    These folks are usually the ones who, when attending a collision function of some sort, silence the room when they speak and are held in high regard by their peers.

    I tend to cling to these folks for advice, ideas and industry knowledge. I was once taught to “learn from the wisest of my profession” and this has always served me well.

    As I drive up to the shop I like to circle around the parking lot and the building to see just what is going on. This allows me to picture the activities taking place within the shop. In the past few years what I have been seeing in the parking lots is pretty amazing. I still remember a time when Ford® F150s, Chevy® Silverados and the occasional Honda® Civic® dominated the shops’ parking lots and the approach to writing a sheet was pretty consistent across the board. Yea, OK, there was the occasional popped air bag or check engine light on, but that wasn’t something I really needed to be too concerned with because I would just sublet that repair anyway, right?

    Fast forward to 2009. What I see in my parking lot travels now are Volvos, Audis, BMWs, massive amounts of Toyotas and Hondas, a lone domestic SUV, or a grocery getter—you know—the minivan. And I even see this new thing with four wheels that will light you up if you aren’t careful—the Hybrid.

    After parking my GMC® pickup, I climb out and scan the mass of crunched up metal and take a closer look at these exotic masterpieces of electronics, safety devices and space-age materials. I try to envision just how I would write the sheet now.
    Where do I even start? Are the basic theories of frame sectioning or replacement, repair vs. replace, LKQ vs. new, partial or full replacement still the qualifiers of building a proper repair plan and producing a quality product? I’ll leave all that up to you to decide, but unfortunately, I already know the answer as many of you probably do too.

    Now the fun begins. Into the shop I go. I usually find my manager friend racing around the shop or tucked inside his office on the phone. When I finally get him to put the brakes on for a moment, I ask if he can “give me the tour,” so to speak.
    I like to talk to the estimators first. They are, in my eyes, the first line of defense. This is where the tone is set for all the good, or in some cases not so good, things to come for the vehicle repair cycle.

As I look into the focused, and sometime glassy, eyes of the estimators, I ask them just how they will approach the conglomeration of twisted steel that’s out back, and what theory of repair planning they will take. The reactions I get range from hands thrown in the air (and unfortunately this seems to be the case more and more) to a detailed plan of attack, substantiated with proper repair documentation, planning and thought. WOW, this guy gets it!

I like to quiz, or pick on, the latter group, as these folks usually seem to keep up with the latest industry practices and current tools of the trade, allowing them to excel in their positions and take a professional approach to developing a proper repair methodology.

    OK, let’s see where the hammer hits the dolly—the shop. Away to the back end we go, and to my delight a smiling technician greets me with a handshake and a  “How are ya?”

    “Good,” I say, “How’s it going?”

    I just opened the door for a very stimulating dialogue that usually goes something like this:

    I ask, “So what kind of challenges are you facing on vehicle repairs these days?”

The answers, while different, usually fall into a couple of patterns:

    1. “No problem, I’ve been doing this for many years and I usually just figure it out based on my experience.”

    2. “Are you kiddin’ me? There’s no way I can keep up anymore. “Without some kind of up-to-date repair reference and the latest tool to fix these things, I’m stuck.”

    I like the second answer the best. I like to pick on or quiz the latter group. These folks usually keep up with the latest industry practices and tools of the trade, which allows them to excel in their positions. They take a professional approach to developing a proper repair practice.

    My day usually ends in the managers office talking about his day in the life. The conversation sometimes revolves around hunting, fishing or some other escape factor to sooth the tension and frustrations of the busy day.

    As the conversations progress, we always end up back to where the manager expresses concerns regarding vehicle repair and the business challenges that they face each and every day. They speak about how the evolution of vehicles is handing them and their staffs a whole new set of challenges.

    As I listen and empathize, the manager often says something like this, “If I can’t provide my people with proper repair procedures from a reliable source and modern equipment and tools to perform these complex repairs, all our futures may be in jeopardy.”

    The tools of the trade have changed. The days of the stick welder are dwindling, if not gone. Automobile manufacturers today are building sophisticated, safe, environmentally favorable, fuel efficient vehicles. They are here to stay, and they will only become more and more complex. Are we ready?

    Generic repair practices are steadily giving way to vehicle-specific repair methodologies, tools and procedures. What was once Detroit iron on four wheels is now, a conglomeration of electronics, space-age materials and enhanced safety systems. The parking lots are filling with machines from far off lands.

    We all must take a step back, look outside the box, so to speak, and ask ourselves, “Are we doing all we can to provide our staff, the best tools possible to perform at the required level?”

    If so, I applaud you. I do know this about this Industry.

    We need these tools of the trade.

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