Sunday, 31 July 2005 10:00

Collision repairers: the good ole days not coming back

Written by Janet Chaney

The best of times and the worst of times. It depends on who you talk to. History repeats itself and it continues to repeat itself in the collision repair business. In fact, the only thing that collision repairers can be assured of - is change. There is no crystal ball to see the future. The collision repair shops that will prevail into the future will have to be the best at what they do.

Today's automobile manufacturers are in fierce competition to sell cars. Years ago, entire families would only drive Fords and the neighbors down the street would only drive Chevrolets. The Hatfields and McCoys. Today, customer loyalty isn't what it used to be. The Toyota pick-up truck is hot on the heels of surpassing the American top selling Ford F-150.

To compete on this new global scale, automobile manufacturers are working to "excite the imagination" of today's buyer. The car is sexier and safer, and a whole new car to repair. The collision repair industry is at the end of this whip of technological change. The burden of responsibility to properly and safely repair any automobile is squarely set on the shoulders of the collision repairer.

Too many shops

It is generally agreed that the collision repair business is at least 50% over capacity. That means there are twice as many shops as needed to repair the volume of repairable cars. This industry, right now, is all about change. Blame can be cast, anger can be vented, but the undeniable fact is that business is changing. Change can be all about choices. Are collision repairers going to choose to ride the top of this curve or not? The most difficult part of this change is that one cannot see - or maybe will not look at - where the future is headed.

Leading collision repairers in the United States are responding to change with the fierce dedication that brought them into this business. The extreme business conditions and different policies and procedures from insurance companies and higher customer expectations have created a moving and dynamic business target to hit. In Lou Gertsner's book about IBM, "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?" he describes re-engineering as difficult, boring and painful. "It's like starting a fire on your head and putting it out with a hammer," he writes. Re-engineering is painful and expensive. The fact is the collision repair industry is having to re-engineer too often and at an alarming pace.

In this whirl of change, the collision industry does have one constant. Doing the job right! No one wants an improper repair. Sadly there are some shops that just can not or will not do it right. They create an on-going challenge to those that do - both shops and insurers. But it is impossible for insurers and repairers to monitor these bad business practices. Admittedly some insurance companies don't have a pulse on the problem. There is no "repair inspector" - similar to a building inspector on a construction site. There is no universal licensing for collision repair shops.

Elements of a proper repair

However, the shops that are committed to their customers are doing many things right. There are several essential elements that good shops follow to ensure the proper repair of a vehicle.

Structural integrity ensures that the structure of the vehicle is repaired according to vehicle manufacturer specifications and in the manner the manufacturer recommends. For example, Mercedes-Benz certifies repair shops, requiring them to use a dedicated fixture bench, such as Celette. The dedicated bench and fixtures themselves guarantee structural integrity in the repair.

Safety ensures that vehicle safety is not compromised. Some safety factors are ABS brakes, SRS (supplemental restraint systems), and frame and suspension repair. Once again, these repairs need to be made according to the vehicle manufacturer's recommendations, and ensure that safety is never compromised.

Fit and Finish - it is critical that proper repair parts are utilized to ensure the accurate fit and finish to a repair.

Invisible Repair - proper refinish techniques and products need to be utilized to restore the proper color match. The invisible repair, when all the repair components are completed, ensures that the vehicle appears as if it was never in an accident at all.

Vehicle Manufacturer Information - this process is critical to the repair of today's automobile. Most of this information is available on the manufacturers' web sites. It is information that shops have to access on their own. It is not available through estimating databases. Typically collision repair shops that access this information and follow these repair principles are I-CAR Gold Class shops and are involved in the industry and community.

Another tool progressive shops are using to benchmark their performance to the insurance industry is Key Perfor-mance Indicators. KPIs are used to benchmark performance in a collision repair facility. Definable KPIs are cycle time, LKQ usage, and aftermarket part usage among others.

How is the industry monitoring good repairs? What are industry standards? The most basic standard for a collision repair shop is the proper repair of the automobile. That is not a subjective or changeable goal. Repairing a damaged car to manufacturer's specifications has to be the core competency of today's collision repair shop. Estimators must be trained to ask for reimbursement for required procedures and produce the documentation to prove their necessity. Industry standards should be set in each shop that puts meaning into the words of their written warranty.

Simple business objectives

Today's collision repair business objectives are simple. Keep the work coming to the door and do the proper repair. Current business climate is moving at a break-neck pace. Hundreds of hard decisions are made every day. Decisions for the future require knowledge, dedication and resolve. The shops that are waiting for the good old days to come back better find another use for their buildings.

The automobile manufacturers are setting the pace for change. Those in the collision repair business who make the choice to be better than anyone else will stay on the leading edge of their industry.

The compelling message for today's collision repairer is: Be Better, Be More Efficient and Be Able To Adapt To Anything!

Janet Chaney has served in many facets of the collision repair industry. She is now looking after the best interests of her clients from Cave Creek, Arizona. E-mail her at janet_chaney@earthlink.net.