Rising to the Estimator’s Challenge

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Matt Thornton, owner of Parks Royal Body Works in Boise, Idaho, echoes much of the collision repair industry when he says, “The biggest stumbling block to getting your car fixed is dealing with the insurance companies.” 

For customers, insurance policies are inundated with confusing lingo and hidden caveats. Someone who has just experienced a traumatic accident is focused on keeping themselves safe and their vehicle in working condition—not the details of their deductible. That can mean that body shop employees can be left having to explain the ins and outs of insurance policies to customers—especially as insurance companies have less contact with policyholders throughout the claim process. 

“I believe it’s the source of a lot of grief,” Thornton says.

FenderBender spoke with Thornton, his estimator, and his insurance agent in order to understand the gaps in communication when it comes to insurance policies during the repair process, who can fill those gaps, and how. Doing so can improve customers’ experiences and save shops time. 


Whose Line is it Anyway?

Thornton says he and his employees often find themselves running between insurers and customers trying to explain who pays for what. He calls the situation “The Bermuda Triangle of payments.” 

Understanding insurance policy language can be an uphill battle, Thornton says, due to the different types of coverages, inconsistent lingo, and so on. Once you understand the process well enough to relay it to your customer, he says, then more trouble can arrive. 

“[The customer’s] car may be half done, but then you have to ask the customer to pay what the insurers left, which becomes a difficult conversation,” Thornton says. 

Shops can often be left as the bearers of that frustrating news because they have the most up-to-date information about a customer’s repair, says Nate Lowry, an insurance agent at Northwest Insurance Brokers, who works with Thornton. 

“As the insurance agent, we don’t have any real record with what’s going on with the car, we don’t get daily updates. … We’ll make the occasional call to the shop on behalf of the customer, but that is just providing a service,” says Lowry, pointing out such calls aren’t standard procedure for insurance agents.  

There’s the rub—the payment process hinges on the state of the repair process. Insurers don’t have complete information about the progress of repairs, while shop employees may not realize that they’re best positioned to explain what’s happening to customers.


Filling the Gap

Ultimately, Thornton says, it comes down to a shop’s estimator to educate customers. 

Estimators are among the first to see a vehicle, and one of the only people in the shop who may speak with insurance companies directly. 

“We spend a lot more time than we used to educating the customer before and during the repair,” says Thornton. “We try to get them involved and keep them in the loop.”

Kyle Dehaas, an estimator at Parks Royal Body Works, says he understands the insurance side of the industry pretty well, saying with a laugh, “[because] I have been in the industry for 25 years.”

Dehaas says customers often don’t know how the claims process works because they go through it so infrequently. That’s why he does his best to explain it in plain terms, which often means abandoning insurance industry jargon. He says he skips phrases like “appearance allowance” and “betterment” when talking to customers. 

“What we really should do is coach them through it and explain in a diplomatic way,” says Dehaas, noting he works to set expectations by explaining who pays and why, a detail that can be lost when customers talk to their insurer.

“We’ve always had the need to set expectations, but now it’s even harder because you have to be careful how you explain,” he says, “or else they won’t believe you, because of what the claims agent has said, but failed to explain.” 


Terms to Know How to Explain:

With the help of shop owner Matt Thornton, one of his estimators, Kyle Dehaas, and Nate Lowry, an insurance agent, FenderBender compiled a brief list of terms used by insurance companies that shop workers, especially estimators, should know how to explain to customers.

Appearance allowance: Dehaas says this refers to when there is damage to a vehicle that may cross over to pre-existing damage.


Betterment: This refers to “wear and tear,” as Dehaas puts it, such as a worn tire or a wearable suspension component. 

Not-at-fault-loss: This type of claim means a driver is not responsible for the collision that has occurred, but Lowry notes it still means the driver is responsible for the deductible up front, though some shops will cover the deductible and collect it from customers later.

Property damage liability coverage: Coverage for an incident in which the driver is responsible for damaging someone else’s property. 


Supplements: Insurance providers and shops may issue funds to cover repairs before all of a vehicle’s damage has been discovered. When additional funds are needed to cover damages, shops write supplement claims to be reimbursed by insurance companies, depending on a driver’s policy. 


Delegating to Estimators 

Some insurance companies will send their own estimators to inspect a vehicle after it has suffered a collision. But Lowry says that’s becoming increasingly rare due to the effects of COVID-19. 

That’s why it’s important to trust and train your shop’s estimators to provide accurate and comprehensive information to your customers throughout repairs.

Thornton says that having estimators who keep customers up to speed throughout the repair process can help avoid “the cascade of phone calls on the last day the car is in the shop,” saving time and headache. 

Another way to avoid confusion is to work with insurance companies to get as much information as possible. He says it’s important for estimators to ask insurers a variety of “what if” questions, which can help answer future customer questions.

Such active questioning, Thornton says, leads to more robust answers and less customer confusion down the road.

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