by Chasidy Rae Sisk
The collision repair industry grows increasingly complex year after year…and sometimes day by day! From dealing with insurers to educating consumers to enhancing your shop’s abilities through training initiatives, these struggles may seem insurmountable, but with a little knowledge and preparation, shops can tackle the toughest trials and tribulations.
Few individuals understand exactly what shops are facing each day as thoroughly as the leaders of the nation’s most influential associations who graciously shared their thoughts. We discussed some of the most pressing topics shops are facing with AASP/NJ Executive Director Charles Bryant, AASP/MA Executive Director Lucky Papageorg, AASP-MN Executive Director Linden Wicklund and Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) Executive Director Aaron Schulenburg.
While all of these ideas may not work for your shop, we hope that you’ll find at least one idea that will help improve your business moving forward.
New Jersey Automotive: What are some ways shops are working to break free from the insurance industry and gain more control over the repair process and how their consumers are educated? Regarding shops that have updated their business model away from DRP, how has this process been? What have been the obstacles and the benefits to the business and consumers? Will certified shops eventually replace DRPs?
Charles Bryant: More and more shops are getting certified to make repairs – some for many types of vehicles and some for specific types of vehicles. One would be amazed at how much weight the certification means to many consumers. Also, with the certifications comes a wealth of information to assist in explaining to consumers how important the proper repair of their vehicle is to the safety of the occupants of the vehicle, like their family. Yes, in my opinion, shops that are certified will soon no longer need DRP or have to rely on DRP to get customers into their shops.
Lucky Papageorg: Shops have finally said enough is enough. They understand that if they are going to do more than just survive in the future, they must create a customer base who trusts them to do quality repairs. The only way that can be accomplished is through training and having the proper equipment. The only way to be able to afford both of those and have the technicians and the support staff to properly research, document and administer the process is to charge every penny of what it costs and also make an ROI. Shops are taking the time to explain the situation, not just complain about it. When they explain the situation, they are finding more times than not the customer understands and is willing to pay what it takes.
At the same time, shops have realized that the DRP model has outlived any benefits it might have once had. They have learned that if they do not sacrifice the customer relationship, which is at the foundation of ALL successful businesses, to just get more work from an insurer, they can get paid for a quality job and be able to accept the liability for what they do. They do not have to work at a frenetic pace, burning out technicians and cutting corners to satisfy unreasonable time frames imposed by insurers which only leads to more delays and frustration for their customers and technicians. Part of the learning process and realization is that shops must learn to market their strengths and draw the customers to their doors, NOT have them sent to them. Shops have to get past the mindset obstacle that they cannot turn down a job. Many shops have grown to understand the importance of qualifying the customer and their insurer, if one or the other is not willing to pay for proper repairs, that job has to go down the road. The collision industry can no longer subsidize insurers at the expense of their own business and customer.
The bottom line benefit is that the vehicle is properly and safely repaired. The vehicle owner and those who share the roads with them are kept safe. The business benefits because, as they perform proper repairs and educate their customers, the shop’s reputation soars. They are better able to staff and equip their facility in order to continue performing a quality-driven, safe repair which is what the vehicle owner expects. Yes, OEM certification will be the key in the future. We are already far beyond the repair methods of the past. The ever-increasing technology in today’s vehicles, combined with customers’ expectations, leave no room for a seat-of-the-pants repair that merely looks good. There is no room for any repairer who is not following proper repair procedures using the proper equipment. The window is closing quickly for anyone who is not keeping pace. Shops are already realizing the importance of certification. They are also realizing that they cannot be all things to all vehicle owners. They must focus on two or three brands for certification. It is far too costly to do any more than that. Shops do not have to go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken extreme of ‘do one thing and do it right,’ but at the same time, they cannot overextend their capabilities.
Linden Wicklund: There are many loud shops that talk about the benefits of leaving the DRP model behind, but I do find there are just as many that will talk one on one about the benefits of staying with DRPs. It all seems to stem from control and power dynamics. OEM/brand specific certifications seem entirely different than DRP relationships in many ways, but these certifications are another way to navigate control and power.
Aaron Schulenburg: We see more and more members communicating that they are joining SCRS for access to information. As an association leader, it is obviously a rewarding response to know that the information and resources we are producing is what is stimulating new member interest, but it also reinforces this question. Repairers are seeking ways to increase their knowledge and justification for the necessary tasks associated with a repair, because both of those provide greater flexibility and potentially a new, more sustainable business model. More shops seeking out ways in which they can document, justify and articulate the repair process illustrates the shift the industry is going through to focus on comprehensive repair documentation to reinforce comprehensive repair quality. The biggest change driving the shift is the requirements driven by the increase in safety technology, much of which was championed by the insurance industry. This is all a response to more technologically advanced vehicles that require a greater emphasis on repair accuracy and recovery on the tasks being performed. Certified networks simply represent a shift in referral options that focus on reinforcing that adherence to procedure and quality, rather than referral based on cost containment. I think it’s a logical conclusion for many.
NJA: How are shops working to address cycle time concerns?
CB: The recent pandemic that has resulted in the lack of availability of parts combined with the changes that have resulted from the inclusion of AI [artificial intelligence] into the modern vehicles coming into shops today has certainly put the collision industry’s ability to deal with change to the test, and cycle time is one of the biggest obstacles shops are dealing with today; however, history shows that those in the collision industry are like chameleons, and they have learned to deal with things as they come. As an example, look back at the change from body over frame vehicles to unibody vehicles. This change seemed enormous at the time. Now, it was just part of evolution, and I am sure the collision industry will deal with this next evolution as it comes.
LP: Shops are paying more attention to a set repair process from the start. Whenever it is possible, they do a thorough dismantling, analysis of the damage, prepare a blueprint of the repairs and document the process following OEM requirements. They order the parts and do mirror matching when the parts come in. Once EVERYTHING has been identified and received, the actual repair process begins. Starting and stopping repairs and shuffling vehicles in and out of the queue is the death knell if a shop is trying to control cycle time. Shops also must control the ‘mix’ of repairs in order to fill in between major repairs in order to keep the flow going and best utilize specialty areas such as the frame machine and spray booth.
LW: Cycle time no longer is a one-size-fits-all defined thing to be managed. Shops are segmenting the overarching cycle of getting a vehicle through the shop in new ways. The change is figuring out how to track and improve each segment of the cycle. Starting and stopping work based on supplement approval lags has become a major pain point that we are trying to address through legislation. Our existing legislation in MN calls out 15 days to inspect a vehicle that is drivable post-accident, five days for a non-drivable and “promptly” for supplements. Even with that existing language, it is hard to get insurance agencies to send someone out or even respond within those timelines.
AS: It’s a really difficult time to ask that question, as there are so many external factors outside the repair facility’s control adversely affecting the overall length of repair. Parts challenges, workforce shortages, delays and scheduling conflicts that are introduced through unnecessary inspection, approval and supplemental process redundancies can all affect cycle time, length of repair and the time the consumer is without their vehicle.
Part of the due diligence many repairers are doing is trying to be more thoughtful in scheduling and going to greater lengths to address the damage more extensively up front, so all parts can be ordered before cars are rendered inoperable; they are even occasionally finding workarounds to prioritize work in different ways than they have in the past. It becomes less about what comes in Monday vs. Friday and more about what comes in this month vs. next month. Ultimately, every repairer wants the time in process to go down because every shop is carrying more work in process than ever before, and many times that means holding more inventory of parts purchased, which can often affect cash flow. Finding ways to remove obstacles is to the repairer’s benefit.
As an industry, we need to collectively work toward that. The outdated ideology of ‘I can’t see it, so I can’t write it’ only leads to unnecessary delays and extensions, when parts could otherwise be accounted for, ordered and availability determined.
NJA: How is the industry working to better educate consumers and legislators, and what more needs to be done?
CB: Consumers and legislators need to be educated on just how important it is to repair the modern vehicles on the roads today as per manufacturer recommendations and safety related bulletins being put out by the manufacturers of these vehicles. Legislators need to be informed and educated on how insurers currently downplay the importance of such documentation in order to keep from what is required to repair these types of vehicles safely and properly.
LP: Speaking for AASP/MA, we have really stepped up the education process for both consumers and legislators. We have a cable TV show, Auto Sense, on which we discuss – and educate viewers – on the many issues faced in the claims and repair process. We educate our members on how to better speak to their customers and create an ally in the process. We have brought legislators into collision repair facilities as well as vocational schools to show them what it takes to fix today’s vehicles. We put blindspot monitors in their hands. We show them, rather than just explain, what is required to perform quality safe repairs and why. The better educated we are as collision repairers, the better we can educate both our customers and our legislators. This education process can never slow down…it must be at the forefront of every discussion with customers and legislators.
LW: Our organization is working with our members to develop sample and template tools to use during communications with customers, insurance companies and legislators. At the same time, we are working on educating shops about how to adapt to the changing environment. Insurance companies are going to continue to lean into AI and remote workers, which means the documentation shops provide with repair plans needs to stand on its own. The verbal negotiations and baseline knowledge that came out of long-standing relationships between shops and insurance company team members are not coming back. There simply isn’t the workforce to support that old way of doing things, but the burden of this change can’t fully fall to shops.
AS: SCRS has been working hard to create material that makes it easier for the repair facilities in the industry to communicate to consumers about the tasks we perform and the status milestones of the repair process. Collision repairers provided a lot of encouragement to us surrounding our ‘Quick Tips’ series on the SCRSCollision YouTube channel that we’ve been producing with Mike Anderson (Collision Advice) and Danny Gredinberg (Database Enhancement Gateway), and through some of our audience feedback, we started to shift towards consumer-focused topics. I think it’s been a really effective tool, as we’ve watched repair facilities start using these as lobby loops and sharing to their local community pages on social media. It’s important that we create more informed customers who are knowledgeable enough to ask the important questions and to advocate for what they want out of the claims and repair process. We hope these resources help add to that level of comfort for vehicle owners, while also providing the industry a free marketing tool.
NJA: Where are we going as far as the tools needed to perform diagnostics and scans? Are non-OEM-approved tools going to be enough? Where does the insurance industry come into play?
CB: If shop owners plan on staying in business, they must also plan on purchasing the proper equipment needed to repair modern vehicles on the roads today safely and properly. The insurance industry needs to stop playing ‘let’s make a deal’ and pay for repairs at rates that will allow the repair shops to purchase the needed equipment to repair these types of modern vehicles safely and properly.
LP: The tools required are themselves becoming more and more technically sophisticated. They have to keep pace with how today’s vehicles are being constructed, both electronically and structurally. Today’s damaged vehicle could kill a technician who is not properly trained and protected with the proper PPE. If you attempt to perform a welding technique that may have worked less than a decade ago, you could completely destroy the electronics in today’s vehicle.
You could have all the top-of-the-line, most modern equipment available, and it will not be enough if you are putting them in the hands of an inadequately trained technician. Some shops are trying to get by with non-OEM tools, but they have been shown to have their limitations. In some cases, the limitations may be ‘minor,’ but in the overall scheme of things, there is no room for guessing or uncertainty. With proper training and OEM tooling, the uncertainty is all but eliminated.
As has always been the case, insurers forget their place. Collision repairers are the experts in the process. We are the ones who will ultimately be held responsible for the repair if there is a failure, whether it is a minor issue or – worse – a catastrophic one. Insurers took on the responsibility to insure and protect the vehicle owner financially should there be a loss. They continue to attempt to mitigate their financial role in the claims/repair process by whatever means possible. In many cases, they do so without having to justify why. They need to do their job and allow us to do ours.
LW: Scanning and diagnostics is an interesting space for mechanical and collision shops to learn from one another. In the simplest terms, mechanical shops embrace aftermarket offerings since they are often engineered to solve a problem or improve upon the OEM originals, while collision shops are working to restore vehicles to original condition, making OEM parts and procedures the preference. ADAS and the wide array of technologies in new vehicles complicate this space. I have asked shops which codes directly correspond to a fault that impacts safety versus codes that are non-critical, and there doesn’t seem to be any standardization or practical working knowledge that would protect consumer safety. The OEM versus non-OEM debate is actively shaping the business models that will be sustainable in the future.
AS: Consumers should be able to choose a collision repair facility capable of performing quality repairs, in accordance with the specific procedures detailed by the vehicle engineers, with the confidence that all of the specified repairs were performed. They should have the right to choose their repair facility, and independent repair facilities should be able to invest in the training, equipment and skill set development to meet the rigorous demands of sophisticated, modern vehicles, enabling them to present consumers with good options to keep them safe. Those options and capabilities exist today. Scanning and diagnostic work is how we verify with the vehicle that these systems have been restored, and independent repair facilities have the access and ability to use the proper tools to communicate with the vehicle in the manner the engineer intended them to; that is not the consumer’s greatest challenge.
While this expectation is achievable today, it is routinely denied and disregarded in claims practices and objected to in state legislative hearings by many companies in the insurance and aftermarket community – many of the same companies who currently support and champion the right to access vehicle data, campaigning that independent stores need to be protected. What consumers deserve is post-collision vehicle repairs to ensure that their vehicle is repaired to such a standard that, should it be in a subsequent accident, its safety systems will operate the same as the day it left the factory. Well-trained, well-equipped independent repair facilities are not struggling to gain access to collision repair procedures and tools, as much as they struggle with bill payers looking to avoid paying for the associated costs necessary to accomplish the task.
NJA: Looking forward to the industry’s future, what will be the biggest obstacles that shops and associations will need to succeed down the road? What will shops need to do to attract and retain young employees in the future vs. what worked in the past? How big will the EV wave be, and how can shops prepare?
CB: The EV wave is here now, and shops and associations need to rethink and retrain the workers and people dealing with this new type of vehicle because they are here to stay. Shops need to stop playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with insurance companies that refuse to pay for certain operations required to repair technologically advanced vehicles, like scanning the vehicles before making repairs and resetting certain ADAS systems when a vehicle has been in a collision and repaired. In the past, many shops have taken the position that if the insurer doesn’t pay for an operation, they simply will not perform that procedure or operation. If that position is taken on these vehicles, people’s lives will be put in danger.
Collision shops need to stop buckling to insurers that refuse to pay for what is required to perform safe and proper repairs and just say no! Collision shops also need to face the fact that many of the older technicians currently in the industry are not going to be willing to start all over and relearn how to repair these modern type vehicles. As a result, shops will need to bring in young fresh technicians willing to learn how to deal with the highly computerized vehicles equipped with AI already in the vehicles and more to come.
LP: Shops MUST keep pace with technology and remember their role in the claims/repair process. They must not let fear rule their decision-making process. They must remember they are the experts and that the buck stops with them when it comes to safe quality repairs that they can accept the liability for having performed. Associations MUST provide the tools to their members and the industry in the form of education and ongoing support to their members and consumers to guarantee the long-term viability of the collision industry for the decades to come. Collision repair associations must work together to provide the services and benefits that so many other professional associations provide their members. We must model ourselves after exemplary associations representing professionals in the medical, legal and even the insurance industry. We are professionals!
Shops must flick the switch and change their mindset from being fearful of charging what they are worth. Once that is accomplished, we will be able to pay our current truly talented professionals what they are worth. We will then be able to draw new and younger blood into this industry, which is exciting and innovative and becoming more so every day. We must be more involved at the vocational school level. We MUST develop mentoring programs within our own facilities to train and nurture young talent coming out of the vocational schools. All too often, we expect them to hit the ground running as an A or B tech. All we do then is frustrate them and push them to some other industry and vocation.
Repairing EVs is a tidal wave… a tsunami that will wipe out anyone not looking to the future. Actually, the future is here, because if you have not already been keeping pace and staying up-to-date, you are putting yourself in potential danger. If you are a collision repairer and do not recognize an EV or hybrid when it is towed into your facility and do not know the proper handling and storage methods, you could return to a pile of ashes in the morning, and that pile of ashes could include your shop. If it makes it into your repair queue, you have to know how to be sure it will not seriously injure or kill a technician. It will be all about the proper training and knowledge from the get-go, not just the repairs process. Shops must make the decision to learn as much as they can and then make sound decisions with that knowledge. Shops must determine what role they want to play and what types of vehicles they expect to be able to repair in the future, but they cannot wait, they MUST make that decision NOW!
LW: Regarding EV, the biggest factor for shops to consider is not the overall percentage of EVs on the road but the percentage of their existing customers who will be adding an EV to the line-up of cars in their driveway. Customer retention is a key factor in shop success.
The biggest obstacles are staffing and disruptive technologies. Staffing is a problem worldwide and across industries, so focusing on the traditional pipeline that has few entry points will not work. Shops are going to have to restructure positions and check their own assumptions to adapt to and attract the future workforce. The retention rate of new technicians in this industry is very concerning. No matter how hard the industry works to attract talent, it is difficult to make up for 50 percent of new technicians leaving the industry in the first five years.
AS: Our association’s role now, and in the future, is unwavering; it’s to be a source of information, to be a venue for education and to be a voice of advocacy. The issues will adjust and we will adjust with them. Things like the blend study (scrs.com/blendstudy) and our healthcare (scrs.com/healthcare) and 401k solutions (scrs.com/401k) are perfect examples of how we as an organization serve not just the three legs of our mission but the needs of our members. I think they are all indicative of the type of work and effort that lies ahead for us in helping not just our members, but the entire industry, remain vibrant and attractive and an ideal place for people to start and end their careers.
We’ve never had more at stake as far as complexity and challenge, but I also see so many business owners rising to the occasion and championing a new day for the industry. The future looks expansive, specifically for those looking to adapt with it.
Want more? Check out the July 2023 issue of New Jersey Automotive!