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Cropper: The End is in Sight

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As the new year begins in earnest, it’s a relief to think that there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vaccine roll-out is absolutely huge, and though times are especially tough in some places, as I write, it’s hard not to get optimistic about what’s to come as we go from winter to spring and beyond.
As I’ve written in previous columns, I think we’re going to come out of this stronger. Collision repairers navigated the last financial crisis by going lean and mean. This most recent crisis taught us how to use technology to fix cars faster; I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re working in an environment that’s touchless for years to come, and adjusters remain rare sights.
So, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. and there’s also what we’ve been through, and what we have yet to get through, as well. We need to stay on target. We’ve made it this far and we’ve got more to go.

Taking Stock

It’s worth thinking back to right before the pandemic was a real thing—11 months ago. Has it really been nearly a year?
I was ready to open a new shop last spring, doing my second office renovation in three years, and it’s one that no customer has set foot in. In six hours time I went from, “We’re opening in a couple days,” to, “nevermind, our next target date is Dec. 1” 
That’s when we completely rethought how we did business. We made it this far like so many other shops by going contactless, and it wasn’t until last fall that COVID-related issues truly started affecting my employees.
I got my first COVID test in early November, though some of my employees have been tested three to six times—if they weren’t able to get a rapid test that meant four to six days for them out of the office. For some staffers with kids in daycare, anytime there are issues with their childcare, it’s meant they’ve maybe had to take some time off.
Frankly, we were lucky it took half the pandemic to really begin affecting us—three shops and 75 employees—and everyone has just picked up the slack so far, shuffling to fill roles, covering more ground than usual. Still, it’s tough.

Facing the Challenge

On recent Monday mornings, I wake up and I’ve got seven or eight texts saying, “I’m out because of the virus,” and then 10 percent of your staff is gone. It’s been workable, though let me tell you that it gets pretty interesting when your entire accounting department is out all at once.
When that happens, everybody else in the shop is wondering if they were exposed. I remind them I’m not naming names and that they need to continue to operate carefully. I’ve even got people who’ve nearly run through their two weeks of COVID pay—they’re going to need backup plans soon.
Still, we’ve made it this far and we’ll make it through (fortunately there have been few real scares on my staff). There are professionals making guidelines, and it’s our job to follow them. 
I’ve advised my shop leaders to read the mandates, interpret them, and guide people through them, while also saying people need to come to conclusions on their own. I’m an employer, I can’t be the police of the COVID.
In October I finally started getting grilled about what people should expect—”what’s our plan, what’s our plan?” I was asked. We started making departmental plans before it dawned on me: You know what, the government has already done this, we’re just going to continue to follow the mandates.
We’ll follow what the government says, we’ll do what the doctors say. The vaccine will eventually reach everybody, and we’ll roll into the future with smarter and more tech-facing collision repair shops than we had before. I’m excited to see what’s next and to apply what we’ve learned in the last year to my business to improve what we’ve been doing.
For now, we just have to take care with those vehicles and follow the government mandates and if we can do that, we’re as good as we can be. 

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