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So you know how to fix a smashed up car. You can make a T-boned wreck look like it just rolled off the assembly line. You can match paint colors like Van Gogh. As a shop owner or operator trying to grow your business and improve your bottom line, cars are the least of your worries.

Your concerns have more to do with that talented but arrogant technician who’s come in late three days in a row. Or getting zoning approval to build your next new location. Or trying to figure out why, no matter what you try, your bottom line is as flat as an open can of Coca-Cola left out in the rain.

Enter the leagues of consultants who are ready to exchange your hard-earned dollars for their vast wisdom. But exactly who are they—and what do they do? At up to $750 per day plus expenses for one-on-one consulting, it’s good to know what you can expect before you start writing checks—and what they’ll expect from you.

THE FIVE W’S OF COLLISION REPAIR CONSULTING

WHAT: How does consulting work?

Sam Carubba, CEO and president of Sam Carubba’s Autovision Collision Center Consulting in Buffalo, N.Y., has been in the business for 31 years. He has a one-on-one consulting system that he says works to help owners build their businesses and improve their bottom lines—and it’s fairly typical of how other consultants might operate.

“In some cases a day or two of a consultant’s time can have significant impact if the shop owner is committed to implementing change. If there is no commitment, do not waste your time or money.”
—Lou Dilisio, President, Automotive Collision Consulting Inc.

The first thing he does as a first contact with a new client is to send a survey to all the employees in the shop to assess their experiences working there. He guarantees confidentiality, and he requests that they fill the surveys out individually and not together in a group. The findings just from this initial survey are often startling, he says.

“The last client I had, not one of the responses read the same,” he says. “Everyone had a different idea or opinion about what was taking place and where the shop was going. I realized there was a severe lack of communication. [Upper-level management] thought everyone was working toward the same goal, but they weren’t relaying those expectations.”

The second step is that Carubba meets with every employee in the company. “I interview everyone from the floor sweeper to the president of the company, one-on-one,” he says. Usually during that step, he finds that people are unclear as to their job expectations. “There usually aren’t clear guidelines as to who’s responsible for what and who’s going to be held accountable.”

After helping the owner-operator clarify his communication strategy, Carubba works with the shop on their books.

Carubba usually works with a shop owner for three or four days on-site. Afterwards, he stays in close communication with his clients to make sure they’re implementing the changes they’d worked on together. He reviews their books once a month to make sure they’re staying on track financially, and he’s available to offer advice about everything from employee issues to insurance company problems to material expenses.

“I’m basically a 24-hour sounding board,” says Carubba, whose clients contact him almost every day.

WHY: Is consulting right for you?

A quick fix isn’t what a consultant offers. The best use of a consultant is something like what Carubba did when his paint department needed updating. He called in a consultant who helped him look at his processes, where he was wasting material, and how he could do things more efficiently.

“He brought a lot of things to light,” Carubba says of the experience. “I had to swallow my pride. It made me realize that sometimes you’re so into your operations that you can’t see what’s really going on.”

There are lots of reasons an owner or operator might call on a consultant, like a tough market, personnel issues, facility design and quality issues, says Tony Passwater, president of AEII, a consultancy in Indianapolis, Ind. But the most important factor in hiring a consultant is your own willingness to change.

“Collision centers will only save money or improve productivity if they are willing and able to implement what the consultant recommends,” says Bernie Blickenstaff, president of Collision Management Services Inc. in Reisterstown, Md. “They must assume the primary responsibility for making and maintaining improvements. The consultant cannot be there every day to watch over the process.”

Blickenstaff says that returns a shop owner realizes after hiring a consultant or taking some training are predicated on four specific things: willingness to listen and make changes, commitment to begin doing things differently, ability to train and delegate to other staff members, and willingness and ability to “work on the business, not work in it.”

If there’s no willingness to learn and make changes, then consulting at any level will not be worth it, says Lou DiLisio, president of Automotive Collision Consulting Inc. in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “In some cases a day or two of a consultant’s time can have significant impact if the shop owner is committed to implementing change,” says DiLisio. “If there is no commitment, do not waste your time or money.”

WHEN: Call ahead—or wait for an emergency?

Unfortunately, most shop owners call in a consultant after a crisis has already happened, say industry experts. “The shop owner is mostly often motivated by some adverse occurrence or crisis [like] financial loss, loss of a key employee, loss of a DRP or a change in business situation [like] growth [or a] need to expand,” says Blickenstaff.

But it’s best to contact a consultant well before a disastrous event or downward cycle starts to happen, says Dave Dunn, owner of Masters School of Autobody Management and of Dave’s Autobody in Galesburg, Ill.

“It’s not about putting out fires to solve dilemmas,” says Dunn, whose school—an alternative to one-on-one consulting—runs a five-day intensive class for shop owners and operators to improve their business acumen and their bottom line. “It’s about taking a more expansive approach. It’s about being a life-long learner.”

If you’re planning to open another shop, call in the consultant at the beginning of the process, not when you find out you’ll need to seek a zoning variance to build on your planned spot. If you’re having personnel problems, make the call when you start to sense things aren’t right, not on the day you realize you’ll have to let your key person go.

WHO: Who you gonna call?

Some consultants specialize, but most can help you with any aspect of your business. The most important thing to look for in a consultant—whether they work on-site or via phone or email—is someone who’s still in the industry, says Carubba. While most consultants have been in the industry at some time in their lives, it’s key that they continue to have hands-on experience in a body shop. “They really start to lose touch after three, four years,” Carubba says of consultants who stop working in a shop.

Especially if a consultant seems to offer a good price, it’s important to ask questions to make sure there are no hidden costs. “Be very careful to not settle on a consultant because the price is right,” DiLisio says. “As in collision estimating, unfortunately there are consultants that offer a ‘visible damage quote’ only and often times the supplemental process is [financially] devastating once the process has begun.”

WHERE: How do you find the right consultant?

While an Internet search offers a lot of options for consultants, and classes, the best way to find the right person is word-of-mouth. Shop owners should ask around and get references from trusted friends and colleagues in the industry, says DiLisio.

It’s also good to try to get a consultant who is geographically close, since you usually have to cover travel and accomodation costs, DiLisio says, adding that “this should not be done if the local consultant doesn’t bring the resources needed to the project.”

REAPING THE REWARDS

The biggest benefit a consultant can bring is objectivity, Blickenstaff says. “We are not immersed in the day-to-day circumstances, issues or constraints. We are not wedded to ‘this is the way we have always done it,’ or other thought-limiting constraints.”

The best indication of whether a relationship with a consultant would help your business is your own willingness to take direction and make some changes, says Passwater. “I have worked with clients who have increased their sales by $500,000 or more in 12 months, I have implemented systems to [improve] sales, parts, and production. I have worked [with] lean principles, industrialized process and personnel issues,” says Passwater. But, he adds, “I have also worked with shop owners that did not make the necessary changes and they went out of business.”

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