5 steps to optimizing estimating systems

May 2, 2022
Knowing your needs and finding your weaknesses among recommendations.

If you spend any time creating or managing spreadsheets, odds are you’re familiar with Excel. Excel could be called the “king of financial spreadsheets,” with hundreds of millions of users worldwide and the ability to take care of everything number-related from data entry, financial analysis and modeling to time management, charting and graphing. Because Excel is designed for a range of customers – beginners to intermediate and then to experts – it provides a range of tools and options designed to meet a number of data management needs. 

This means that there’s plenty for users to learn about Excel. Even those who have used the program for years often uncover new options for organizing their data. Hundreds of tutorials exist online to educate Excel users. Some organizations even keep Excel experts on board to ensure workers get quick solutions for any Excel questions.  

Imagine if your business depended heavily on a software program like Excel how much you would stand to gain if you had the best understanding available.  

Actually, you do. Your shop, like every shop, depends heavily on software to produce quick and accurate customer estimates and perform a number of other tasks, such as accessing parts options and locating OEM repairs. And yet, can you honestly say your estimators are familiar with every function and operation of your estimating system? If they aren’t, your business isn’t efficiently producing the most accurate estimates possible. That’s a big problem, since the products of inaccurate estimates are longer cycle times, delays, issues with parts acquisitions and losses in productivity.

Use the following tips to get the most out of your estimating systems and work at peak efficiency, productivity and profitably.  

Step 1: Know your needs.

Making the most of your estimating products begins with selecting ones that best benefit your business based on your needs and market, including the number of vehicles you see in a month (including those with owners looking only for an estimate), which brands and models come through your doors and whether you’re in a Direct Repair Program (DRP) or OEM certification program. For the latter, of course you will require specific products. Typically, you’ll be choosing from the big three information providers – Mitchell, CCC, and Audatex – though there are several smaller companies in the market you may want to talk to (for example, Web-Est and Auto Repair Invoice).  

When deciding which one or multiple products you should consider, consultant Asher Connolly recommends going beyond sale pamphlets and websites. Instead, reach out directly to vendors to discover what each can do for you.

“Investing in an estimating product is a lot like deciding what paint company you want to do business with,” he says. “You have a number of excellent choices, but each is a bit different, and cost differences can be dramatic.” 

Connolly notes that even if you have been working with a specific information provider for some time, it never hurts to check what the rest of the market has to offer. Also, estimators must have input on which product(s) is selected. 

“The industry as a whole has an issue with shops investing in products their employees don’t like or have little ‘buy-in,’ so they either end up not using them or making poor use of them," Connolly says. “The goal is finding the product that best helps your business, which means looking close at every product, all the bells and whistles, what you can expect in the way of support and upgrades, and what your estimators prefer." 

Whichever direction you take, Connolly says shops should never make the mistake of writing an estimate on their own instead of using a software product. He says, “Years ago, you had some people suggesting shops go back to this practice to avoid giving in to the demands of insurers or sharing their data. It was ridiculous then and plain dangerous today, with all the safety systems and other concerns in play.” 

2. Find your weaknesses.

How could your employees make better use of their estimating tools? You’ll need to do some investigation to answer this question, though Connolly says these answers can be uncovered quickly if you do some coordination between your estimating software companies and your staff. He suggests asking your vendors to audit your staff to determine how well your estimators know and use their products. They’re usually well acquainted with the issues your staff are having. 

Craig Stevens, manager of delivery solutions for CCC Automotive Services Group, says shops frequently are victims of working in an industry bereft in employee turnover and movement.

"Often I’ve worked hard to make sure an estimator knows how to use our software only to find when I check back later that the person is no longer with the shop or has moved to another position,” he explains. “A lot of times, the only training the new estimator received was a short course from the previous estimator, who may have only pointed out certain functions and not said anything about all the other things the product can do.” 

In short, there are a number of estimators working in the industry, perhaps at your shop, who have never been fully trained on one of your most important tools, costing you work and losses in efficiency that could have been avoided by simply using estimating tools as they were intended to be.  

3. Pinpoint overlooked options and functions that make the biggest impacts.

What functions could you be overlooking? Jack Rozint, SVP, sales and service, repair for Mitchell International, says one of the most common is easy access to OEM repair steps. He says Mitchell’s system is designed to better integrate OEM repairs to give estimators a clearer, more accurate idea of the work and parts necessary to perform safe, thorough repairs.

“As the estimator is writing up the estimate, they can click on a bookmark and see the OEM repair procedures,” Rozint explains. “This way, as industry expert Mike Anderson says, you can save yourself two hours of time researching a repair database.” 

Rozint adds that today’s cars are so technologically advanced that estimators need to understand OEM repairs or risk making a costly mistake in the estimate. Having those repair steps immediately at hand helps greatly reduce those mistakes.  

Rozint also notes that Mitchell’s product also incorporates diagnostics into the repair as it takes any pre-repair scans and checks them for codes that indicate a need for repair. It indicates this to the estimator and provides the OEM repair steps here as well.

“Again, you’re getting all that information up front while you work on the estimate, which greatly reduces any chance you’re overlooking something or making mistakes,” says Rozint. 

Stevens says overlooked but significant important software functions sometimes can be as simple as not using the calendar incorporated in CCC’s system.

“You’ll have customers going to Google Calendar and others to schedule work and do other things when the calendar is already there in the system.”  

Those are just three examples. Considering all the tasks that estimating software provides, the incredible amount of data it tracks and organizes, and the way each product operates, your staff could be missing multiple opportunities to build efficiency and accuracy.  

4. Work with your vendor whenever possible. 

"After finding your shop’s estimating weaknesses, you’ll have to put together a plan to address them. Fortunately, here again, the software estimating company can provide plenty of help. In fact, most hope you to reach for assistance.

“We want our customers to be successful,” says Stevens. “We’re structured for customer service. It’s what we do.” 

Gaining their assistance is more important than ever since estimating products are designed to operate on multiple platforms – PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones – and be as user-friendly as possible so multiple shop personnel can use them. 

Stevens notes, for example, that CCC’s product can be picked up by office staff to perform estimates on light jobs, freeing up estimators to focus on more challenging repairs. You’ll want all these people to fully understand the capabilities of the estimating product. 

5. Train, train and train.

That means lots of training and, better yet, regimented, required training for everyone performing estimates.  

Training, though, can take time away from an estimator’s busy workday. Information providers have responded by making training more accessible. Rozint says Mitchell offers a plethora of training and other resources online via video, allowing estimators and others to receive education at their ease and their desks (he notes that video training has proven especially popular – and effective – due to COVID restrictions. Information providers also provide other offerings, such as on-site training. I-CAR provides a number of training courses, Rozint and Stevens recommend. 

You will want your estimators to train regularly to stay current with all their products. Considering these products receive regular, automated updates, along with roll outs of new options designed to help your operation run even smoother, you will want your estimators tuned into all the options and information available at their fingertips. 

The bottom line is that estimating companies are working very hard to offer better solutions that, when used as recommended, create accurate estimates every time. You need to do your part by investing in better estimators. Together, you’ll help pave a digital highway that helps everyone involved in a repair – shops, vendors, insurers and customers. 

About the Author

Tim Sramcik

Tim Sramcik began writing for ABRN over 20 years ago. He has produced numerous news, technical and feature articles covering virtually every aspect of the collision repair market. In 2004, the American Society of Business Publication Editors recognized his work with two awards. Srmcik also has written extensively for Motor Ageand Aftermarket Business. Connect with Sramcik on LinkedIn and see more of his work on Muck Rack. 

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