Shorten the Learning Curve with Estimator School

Oct. 1, 2009
Estimator school is worth the investment—and gives customers confidence in your shop right from the start.

Like many collision repair center owners, Jacquelin Sewell relies on efficient estimators for boosting customer satisfaction and reducing the need for multiple supplements. To tap into the power of accurate estimates, she doesn’t just hope for the best during the hiring process, though: She regularly sends her estimators to school.

Every estimator at the Sewell dealerships body shops attends Vale Training Solutions, an educational facility that supplies hands-on instruction in the nuances of estimating during a two-week intensive course. Sewell says that she’s used Vale for as long as she can remember, and that the training is mandatory. The instruction gives an estimator a sharper eye, which lets them give customers a sound number the first time, she notes.

Sewell herself attended the training in 2008. She says, “You come away with a great understanding of how to write a complete estimate and how to communicate it to your customer.”

Sending an employee to estimator courses requires some investment, both in tuition and in training time, but the benefits outweigh the costs, believes Larry Koffman, owner of Koffman Auto Body in Campbellsport, Wisc. He’s sent two employees to Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton, Wisc., since it features courses like Collision Damage Assessment Training and New Technology for the Damage Appraiser.

While on-the-job training tends to be the norm in the industry, it can be tough for estimators to learn all aspects of the job in a busy shop environment.

One of the employees, a service advisor, worked at Koffman for six months before she went to FVTC. She hadn’t received any automotive training previously. “I was pleasantly surprised when she came back and could run the estimating system,” says Koffman. “It was like getting six months of on-the-job training in just a few days.”

So, what can a body shop expect to come out of estimator training, and why is it worth the investment? Here are some benefits to consider:

1. Consistency: One of the most challenging aspects of estimating is that time is a major factor in terms of efficiency, according to Sewell. A well-trained estimator is able to draw on a methodology that can be repeatable, including using a consistent estimate scoping sequence, understanding unibody structure and communicating to customers in an effective manner.

2. Condensed training timeline: The goal at a school like Vale is providing a program that can give estimators deep knowledge in a short time frame, notes John Purdom, the school’s auto programs director. While on-the-job training tends to be the norm in the industry, it can be tough for estimators to learn all aspects of the job in a busy shop environment. Purdom is regularly surprised to see students, some of whom have been estimators for years, lack training in crucial areas like structural realignment.
“You can learn a lot on the job, but when students come to Vale, they focus on the task from the moment they arrive, without the distractions that are found in the field,” he says. Students attend an initial lecture on the first day, but by the second, they’re writing practice estimates, since Purdom believes that’s the only way to truly learn.

3. Industry-wide knowledge: By the last day of training, students in the Auto Estimatics course have covered automated estimating programs, procedures and sequences, industry repair standards, metal and plastic repairs, early model vehicles, structural realignment, passenger restraint systems, storm damage, hybrid cars, fiber optics and a bevy of other topics.

4. No experience necessary: “Our class delivers a very functional estimator, even if the student has no prior automotive experience,” says Purdom. “Our programs are very hands-on and results-based.” Student estimates are reviewed line-by-line with the instructor, and then estimate tests are taken. The majority of students are new hires who sometimes aren’t familiar with all of a vehicle’s parts, but were hired for all of the characteristics that make for a good estimator: organization, strong communication, attention to detail and good customer service skills.

5. Strong start for a move from other shop areas: Also in classes are managers who’ve come up through the ranks, Purdom notes, and are transferring from working in an office to doing estimating, or owners who have just purchased a body shop and need to learn the business from the ground up.
Bodymen who can no longer do repair work, usually due to an injury, are also frequent attendees, and Purdom has often heard from them that they find estimating more demanding than they would have expected. He says, “They point out that when they disassemble a vehicle for repairs, the damage reveals itself and the next step becomes obvious. As an estimator, we don’t always have the advantage of seeing the car disassembled, so finding the damage can be much more challenging.”

6. Industry connections: Program attendees are a blend of body shop, rental car, government and insurance personnel, so one subtle but beneficial aspect of the course is networking with others in the industry, while learning about standard procedures and materials.

7. Practice in drafting first estimates: Emphasis is put on creating strong initial estimates, since that’s what will be most advantageous for a collision repair center. “Estimators are the front line of any body shop’s business,” says Purdom. “Inclusive and accurate initial estimates greatly reduce the need for multiple supplements, aid cash flow, and cycle time as well.”

8. Broader view of estimating: When Sewell began sending her team to training, two aspects in particular were appealing—safety and ethics. Vale gave her deeper appreciation of how a vehicle’s components contribute to the overall safety of the vehicle. She says, “It allows the estimator to determine whether to repair or replace a part, with the ultimate goal of customer safety in mind.” In terms of ethics, the course emphasizes that the quality of the repair is extremely relevant, Sewell says: “Throwing things together is not an option. The training takes time to show vehicles where shoddy or careless repairs have taken place.”

9. Exposure to a variety of wrecks: Having vehicles with varying degrees of damage is crucial, Purdom notes, so that students can train on a variety of hits. Although most of the dents seen in collision repair shops tend to be light, students are prepared for worst-case scenarios so they feel comfortable assessing heavy damage. About a dozen cars are used for a class, with front, side and rear collision damages, including mechanical, suspension and steering issues.

10. Increased comfort with software: One unique aspect of the training, Purdom says, is use of the “STAR” structural realignment program, a software application and printed guide developed by a Vale graduate. The estimating platform includes illustrations of different types of vehicles, including their “control point” areas. A user marks each control point that he or she feels is misaligned, and assigns a code to the point, as well as repair time estimates.

11. Learning the “language”: Because all structural and frame measuring and correction is based on identification and correction of control point misalignment, the estimator and repair technician need to speak the same language from the beginning, as opposed to using vague descriptions like “sag” and “sway.” STAR provides a more detailed and effective method of communicating structural damage analysis between shop and insurer, as well.

12. Advanced education: For those who have completed the first course or already have some estimator experience, Advanced Auto Estimatics tackles more challenging topics like steering damage analysis, and advanced construction and technologies.

To help estimators keep their skills sharp, online offerings from Vale (currently being refined) include training models that can be used for continuing education. For some students, the models can act as a pre-class lesson to get them up to speed more quickly, Purdom says, particularly for those with no prior experience working in a body shop.

“Cars are continually changing, and that’s a big challenge in our industry,” says Purdom. “We have to stay on top of those changes, so we view our classes as sources of information and resources, and we’re exploring new ways to keep our students informed even after they leave our classrooms.”

For more information, visit Vale Training Solutions (, Fox Valley Technical Institute (, Collision Estimator Training Center of San Diego ( or in Canada, Automotive Training Centres (

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