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Revolutionary ideas come out of nowhere sometimes. Other times they walk right by, and the one who’s paying attention — the person with an inkling there may be a better way — will reach out, grab it and grow it, just to see how grand it really can be.

An idea that’s sweeping the collision repair industry now was hatched seven years ago by an autobody technician while sitting on a milk crate during a break with co-workers outside a Detroit-area shop. They were watching passers-by, one of whom held a digital camera. Then a picture came to Dave Henderson’s mind that soon came into sharp focus.

He’d been working at Art Moran Pontiac for 16 years and tinkering with the burgeoning Internet for the past few. Sitting on the milk crate that day in March 2000, the self-appointed “computer geek” decided to build a Web site that would let customers see their repairs online. His co-workers laughed. People would “freak,” they said, at the sight of the discolored and dismembered condition to which vehicles are reduced sometimes before being restored to pre-accident form.

General Manager Eric Pluff was on his side, though. Henderson, the technician, already had been leading company meetings, writing a company newspaper and keeping the collision shop up to date with computerized estimating and networking. But now, Henderson, the entrepreneur, took advantage of his boss’s faith (and a few months’ leave of absence) to develop his idea. He emerged that fall with AutoWatch, which would become the anchor of a corporation called See Progress. It’s composed of AutoWatch and a sister company in Phoenix called New Home Watch, which lets homebuyers see the development of their home’s construction.

Pluff was an instant fan of the consumer-friendly idea, which let vehicle owners not only see their cars in the repair progress but also allows them to email the person in charge with a single click. “I thought that it, first and foremost, was a great communication tool,” recalls Pluff. “I can’t tell you how many times a day we go out to write an estimate, or inspect a vehicle, or go over a repair with an estimator or technician, and we get paged away for phone calls.”

He continues: “And of course we don’t want customers sitting on hold, so we prioritize our phone calls over whatever it is we’re doing at any given moment. So we would find ourselves being drawn away from what it is we’re supposed to be doing, which is diagnosing and assisting in the repair of vehicles, in order to communicate with our customers.”

For this reason, Pluff became Henderson’s willing guinea pig, watching with anticipation as Henderson took photos every day of every vehicle in the shop, sent emails to himself at home and uploaded the images onto Art Moran Pontiac’s Web site. Almost immediately, customers began visiting the Web site and clicking on their cars. And the volume of status calls, which Henderson says last an average of about six minutes apiece, began to drop.

“This probably frees up 30 to 40 percent of your day,” says Pluff. “We actually created more time taking a few minutes to take pictures and uploading them to the Web site.” Art Moran Pontiac has been using the increasingly simple-to-use AutoWatch ever since.

“I make it a point to let my customers know that when they drop off, of course you can always call me, but, I have this tool here where you can actually see the vehicle as it’s being repaired and you can always send me an email,” Pluff says. “And I check my email continuously throughout the day, but it’s nice to know that when I get a minute, I can sit down and respond to that email at my leisure but still communicate to my customer.”

Crude Start

AutoWatch has come a long way since its beginnings as a one-man operation. With only himself, a laptop and a car, Henderson has been known to make an eight-hour road trip at a moment’s notice to set up and train a new client, or to lend support for an existing client with problems or concerns. Before long his nephew, Gordon Henderson, joined the operation, taking primary responsibility for the business’s technology and becoming a partner in See Progress, Inc.

As more shops have gone online and customer satisfaction has jumped at AutoWatch collision centers, upwards of 2,500 shops are on the program today, including many that have been with it since its “crude start,” Henderson says. Several insurance companies are running pilot programs; E-surance has embraced it; and Nationwide Insurance is rolling it out across the country as a requirement for their preferred repairers.

Progress has included moving from a hand-written to an automated tracking system, with bar codes on every car allowing AutoWatch staff to process hundreds of photos from any number of shops. This automation lets shops merge the system with computerized estimating and management systems, and easily track vehicles, monitor cycle time and see where bottlenecks or stalls occur in the process.

A recent poll reveals that the number one thing customers want is to be informed about their claim, Henderson says. “Here’s a tool that will increase your CSI [customer service index] because you can communicate with customers on a regular basis. It’s there any time they want it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can email a shop at two o’clock in the morning if they like. They’ll get a response the next day, of course, but at least they have access.”

And so far, customers have retained their composures, too.

“We still battle with people who say that customers are going to freak out,” Henderson says. “But we’ve never had that happen — we’ve never had a body shop tell us that a customer freaked when they saw their car torn apart. They enjoy watching it. It’s a very visual thing.”

In fact, customer amazement has given many people a new appreciation for autobody technicians. “They say, ‘You guys are masters! You’re craftsmen!’ That’s the idea,” says Henderson. “This is a valid industry where you’ve got to have some knowledge, skills and abilities. They’ll understand better why it took seven days and why it cost $12,000 — look at what we did. It’s good for the industry.”

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