Getting Back to Business Basics
Although David Palmer may not own Dick’s Collision Center in Hillsboro, Ore., he tackles his job as the shop’s manager with an owner’s perspective. From making sure payment is collected to going the extra mile for customers to developing a business plan for the future, he’s helped to put the collision center back on track.
“None of us here knew much about running a shop, and we needed someone with experience,” says Shannon Inukai, general manager of Dick’s Mackenzie Ford. “David brought us so much more than we expected.” Now, Dick’s Collision Center is increasing revenue, pleasing its customers and building a strong team of employees—all by carefully attending to the basics of business.
One of the most distinctive changes that Palmer brought to the center was simply collecting payment, on time, every time. Inukai says, “He’s just phenomenal at collecting our money. That might sound like it’s a no-brainer, but our three previous managers couldn’t do it. Half the work we did wasn’t paid, and it was a constant battle.”
How Dick’s Does It:
For each insurance company with which you work, get to know the account manager—and his or her procedures and back-up person.
She adds that every year, the dealership would have to write off thousands of dollars of unpaid work, and Inukai and other managers thought that was just business as usual with a body shop. “We assumed it was hard to get paid, and everyone had this issue,” she recalls. “It was very surprising, and wonderful, to find out that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Palmer’s strategies for payment focus mainly on the thorniest area: supplements. First, he set up accounts with insurance companies and got to know their account managers, including garnering information on who to call if a manager is on vacation or out sick. He also learned the specific payment procedure at each company, and he calls every six months to ask if those procedures have changed, especially in the area of accepted parts.
When a car comes in that requires a supplement, he documents all the damage as if he’s working a DRP—which Dick’s doesn’t do—by taking photographs and documenting in detail all the work that needs to be done. His mission, he notes, is to return the car to the customer at preloss condition, or even better, and that’s what he keeps in mind when writing a supplement.
“To get the money, you have to set up the whole system so that it falls in line with the protocol of the insurance company,” he says. “Everything needs to be in place and documented, and that claim number needs to be on every page.”
Palmer is also careful to stick close to what the insurance carrier expects, he adds: “It’s easy to say that since we’ve opened the supplement, let’s go for three hours of labor instead of two, but that’s not going to work, because you’ll get held up with a re-inspection.”
Another major area is to double check that all paperwork has the collision center as the party getting paid—otherwise, the payment might go to the customer. Knowing policies on parts also keeps supplements on track, but in general, the whole process is streamlined with diligent attention to every single supplement.
“If you don’t write it exactly the way you should, it’s just going to sit on someone’s desk,” he says. “If you don’t include a claim number, or you make it too confusing, you know where it’s going to go? Right in the trash.”
Body shop managers need to understand that there’s a human being on the other end of all that documentation, he notes, and the more energy a supplement writer puts into making it easy for that person, the faster and smoother the process will be. He says, “There’s a rainbow of reasons as to why something might get held up, so just make sure that reason isn’t on your end. They won’t tell you if you wrote something incorrectly, and they’ll sit on it if you’ve given them a reason to do so.”
If customers are paying out-of-pocket, some of the same tactics apply: Palmer explains all details of the damage, what will be required, and gives an estimate that accurately reflects what the customer will be paying. He notes, “If you say it’s going to be $1,200, then when they pick up the vehicle, that’s what the cost will be. If, for some reason, the cost will be higher because of hidden damage or some other issue, we call and talk it over with them.”
Palmer’s straightforward strategies have definitely paid off: currently, the shop is fully paid up, with no accounts owing over 30 days.
Every collision center aims for customer satisfaction, but as Palmer learned in his two decades of shop ownership, making customers happy means treating every person as a unique individual, with very specific needs.
For example, if a customer has just been in an accident, and is hopping down from a tow truck, Palmer doesn’t start looking at the car right away—instead, he talks with the person about whether they’re okay or feeling shaken up by what just happened, and often he sends them home and tells them they’ll talk the next day. Sometimes, he drives them home himself.
How Dick’s Does It:
Listen to customers’ stories first, then talk about repairs.
“We make sure they’re not more worried about the car than they are about themselves,” he says. In every situation, he listens to customers for about five minutes, letting them tell their whole story first before he gives any opinions on what types of repairs are needed. He notes, “You don’t know as much about their car as they do, so it pays to listen.”
Many customers are unfamiliar with the claims process, he says, so he walks them through it, in language that they understand, and doesn’t overload them with information. “The worst thing you can do is to make it complicated, or to be condescending,” he says. “You have to figure out what they need, and how you’re going to convey the information so that when they go home, they’ve got it.”
Although the auto group has a shuttle service, Palmer occasionally provides rides. Once, he even went to a customer’s house to do a touch-up, because the customer didn’t want to drive across town to bring in the vehicle. By doing that, after hours, Palmer believes that the next time the customer has damage to her truck, she’ll go the extra distance to use Dick’s.
With a laugh, Palmer mentions that he helps out with car washing as well: “When I sold my business, I thought I wouldn’t have to wash another car. Boy, was I wrong.” But he notes that when his body men see him out there with the hose and pail, they feel like he’s got their backs, and that builds trust.
Because the shop has a small staff—two body men, a painter, an estimator and Palmer—it’s easy to stay on top of jobs. The staff meets every morning at 8:00 a.m. to go over what needs to be done for the day, and Palmer insists that every need, no matter how small, is written down so it can be part of the documentation process.
How Dick’s Does It:
Communicate and participate.
Training helps as well, with the painter attending a refresher course every two years, and the body men keeping their skills sharp with I-CAR instruction.
Palmer focuses, too, on staying in touch with the dealership managers, a transition that was challenging for him at first. He says, “I had to fit myself into their system, and that was something I wasn’t used to. So, I worked to establish regular communication so that problems get solved quickly.”
He regularly sends emails to managers, and if he hasn’t seen them for a few weeks, he stops over just to say hello. “They have to have confidence in me, and for that, I know I have to stay in touch.”
Palmer’s main aim is to treat every car the same, whether it’s 10 years old or has just been purchased, and to repair it in a way that could put it back on the showroom floor.
How Dick’s Does It:
Stick to the basics and plan for efficiency.
To create more structure and long-term planning, he wrote a business plan over the summer that includes a solid mission statement, marketing strategies, and goals. Although he hasn’t had time to implement the types of changes he’d like, he feels that a business plan helps to bring clarity to both his own work and that of everyone at the shop.
“Most body shops don’t have a business plan, they just take care of things as they come up, but I wanted to put into writing what we offer in terms of services and what we hope to achieve in the long run,” he says.
Palmer’s passion for running the shop efficiently, cost-effectively and with solid teamwork may take a good deal of time and effort, but he says it’s worth it, and there isn’t a day that he isn’t happy to drive those 40 miles into work. “There are challenges,” he says. “But it’s part of the fun to keep coming up with solutions.”