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Creating a Tablet-Oriented Shop

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DeLee Powell likes to say that her family’s shop, Baker’s Collision Repair Specialists in Mansfield, Ohio, stays at the “cutting edge, while avoiding the bleeding edge” in terms of technology.

“What I mean is that we want to be using the best and newest technology that’s proven to help make our jobs easier and improve the experience for the customer,” she says. “We invest heavily in things if we can see the advantages. We avoid things that are iffy or unproven.”

It didn’t take long for Powell to be convinced of the benefits of using a tablet computer in her shop.

Attending a 20 Group meeting for her paint supplier in December of 2012, Powell and the other shop owners were given a demonstration of how the devices could be used in a shop setting. A representative from CCC Information Services showed all of the features on a new iPad 2, including the company’s new mobile application for its shop management system.

“It was one of those things that, because I was out of the shop and not working, I was able to actually really take a hard look at it,” she says. “The more we played around with it and the more I looked into it, it just seemed like a no-brainer.”

Baker’s Collision has used tablets in its facility since the day Powell returned from the conference. Powell and her sons, Chris and Charlie, who assist in running day-to-day operations, say that tablet computers are a simple, inexpensive way to improve efficiency throughout the repair process. Powell says the devices have helped shave cycle time, leading to a 12.5 percent revenue jump in 2013.

The Powells explained how they implemented the devices into their shops, and how any repair center can easily do the same.

Start with the Benefits

Powell says it wasn’t until she clearly understood how the devices improved workflow that tablets became a feasible idea for her business.

“Like I said, we want cutting edge technology that’s proven to work,” she says. “That’s why you need to see the benefit before even considering it.”

The many uses of a tablet are likely being accomplished by a number of different people or devices in your shop already, she says. The difference is that, with a tablet, you’re able to accomplish all the tasks with the freedom of mobility that the tablet allows. That leads to huge savings in time.

As Chris points out, Baker’s Collision isn’t a small shop. It’s body shop is 18,500 square feet (the business also has a service department), and having the ability to check emails or access the management system from anywhere in the shop saves time every day. The devices can be taken on test drives or into the parking lot. They can be in the front seat of the vehicle with the technician, or can be in the customer’s hands in the lobby.

“An obvious benefit is the perception that customers have when they see the devices being used,” Powell says. “There’s a wow factor to it, in that they aren’t usually expecting a body shop to be using the latest technology.”

The Uses

Any tablet device has the ability to run hundreds of mobile applications that allow it to have very similar functionality to a laptop computer. For shop use, the vast majority of features and apps won’t be applicable, Powell says.

There are, however, a select set of features that Powell and her team have found useful in her shop:

Shop Management Integration. The Powells run the mobile CCC One platform on the device and can access repair orders or make notes about jobs from anywhere in the shop with the new information updating in real time for everyone else in the shop. A number of other companies have similar mobile options. The applications are free if you are already a user of the software.

Estimate Writing. The shop management applications allow for mobile estimating. Estimators are able to bring the tablet to the vehicle and create an estimate right there with one-time data entry. There’s no transcribing notes or walking back and forth.

Photos. The Powells have used AutoWatch, which allows them to update customers with photos of the repair process, for the past several years. With the AutoWatch mobile app and the photo-taking capabilities of the iPad, her staff is able to snap photos with the tablet and upload the photos instantly to AutoWatch. Dropping the old camera and upload process cuts roughly an hour every day from her staff’s workload. Also, her staff is able to take photos that can be immediately uploaded to the management system or emailed to insurers, customers or vendors when needed. “And the pictures are very high quality, better than the camera we were using,” Powell says.

Integration with email, documents, contacts, etc. The Baker’s Collision staff is able to access email, customer contact information and any documents on the company’s cloud server through the mobile device. That allows for quick response to customer inquiries and quick lookup of information anywhere in the building, Chris says.

VIN Scanner. In both the CCC One and Mitchell apps, a technician can scan the barcode or QR code on a vehicle and its information will automatically populate into the system. No time wasted for lookup, transcribing or walking back and forth between the vehicle and a computer.

The Setup

In order for a tablet to be effective, they need to be able to access data. That means either a wireless Internet connection or access to a mobile 3G or LTE network.

The Powells elected to do both. They have a WiFi system in the shop with multiple routers at various points. That way, there is no break in the coverage when someone is walking from one area to another. They used a high-speed cable Internet provider for some time, Powell says, but weren’t overly satisfied with the performance. They switched to a T1 line, a connection through a fiber optic line that allows data to travel at 1.544 megabits per second, on average. It also tends to be more reliable, Powell says.

The 3G and LTE network then serves two purposes: a backup plan if the Internet does happen to go out, and an option for taking the devices along on test drives or in any other instance where the staff leaves the shop.

Bottom line, Powell says, if you don’t have the setup to support the devices functionality, then they won’t be worth the relatively small investment you must make.

Choosing the Right Tablet

There are dozens of options when it comes to choosing a tablet for your shop, and many factors to consider. For the most part, the major players in the tablet industry will have similar functionality in terms of use in your business. The main differences are usually in the level of definition in the screen, additional features like USB ports or snap-on keyboards, and, of course, price.

The Powells chose the iPad 2 as their go-to for a simple reason: The shop’s management system application from CCC One was first available on the Apple device. Also, Powell had experience with the device having already owned an original iPad, and the majority of her staff was familiar with Apple’s iOS operating system from having their own iPhones.

Other options, like the Microsoft Surface, Samsung Galaxy, Google Nexus, Kindle Fire and Dell Venue (each with multiple versions), are very similar to the various Apple products, but Powell says another added bonus was the iPad’s ability to sync with her staff’s phones.

The iPad 2 comes in around $300 depending on the retailer, any specials or your mobile service provider. The Surface is closer to $1,000, and the majority of the  rest fall somewhere in the middle.

Overall, she says the price, availability of applications and ease of use were the biggest factors. The rest, including determining how many to purchase, will be by how you plan to use the device.

The Implementation

Now for the easy part, at least in theory. Powell says the learning curve is incredibly low on the iPads she has for her staff. Most people have experience with a smartphone, she says, and there is essentially no difference in terms of interface.

The applications are very similar to the desktop version you’ll already be using, and all of the tasks the tablet will be used for are already being completed in the shop, just in a different way.

Powell says to still focus on implementation the same way you would with other tools or processes: strong communication with staff, a review of the correlating standard operating procedures, and a flexible attitude to be able to tweak and make adjustments as you go.

“It’s just about picking up time here and there, making our systems that much smoother and allowing our staff to not waste time with unnecessary tasks that can slow them down,” Powell says. “It’s a small thing that makes a very big difference.”  

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