Invest in Mobile Estimating Tools

Sept. 1, 2010
Thanks to the iPad, there’s a mobile tech boom underway, and it could help your shop become more accurate, efficient and impressive.

Mobile estimating isn’t exactly new: Estimators have long been known to show up in driveways or parking lots at the driver’s request to document a vehicle’s damage. Things got a bit fancier when mobile estimating went digital and handheld computing tablets freed up staff from running back and forth, shop floor to back office. Now, thanks to the iPad, wireless mobile estimating stands to get a lot more attention in the industry.

On-the-go estimating is already getting a workout at Auto Body Speed Shop (ABSS) in Jacksonville, Fla., where owner Derek Naidoo loves innovation. His shop boasts wind spires and solar panels that produce 30 percent of the business’s energy. And now Naidoo has the iPad. Eleven of them, actually—one for each of his estimators.

At the moment, Naidoo is one of the few shop operators using iPad technology for estimating, mainly because he has the unique skill set to create his own software to make it work. He’s not selling that software, of course, but that doesn’t cut you out of the mobile tech boom: Estimating company Web-Est offers a system compatible with the iPad, and indications are that other collision repair vendors have iPad apps in the works, too.

In fact, collision industry professionals hint that mobile technology looks to be the next big innovation in auto body repair—an advancement that could make you more efficient (faster, more accurate estimates), improve your image (cars + gadgets = James Bond!), and allow you to work from anywhere (well, almost).

Mobile Estimating

Mobile estimating with the iPad saves two hours per day at ABSS. Gone are the days when estimators would note by hand the details of an estimate, then return to the office to plug it into a computer report and finally produce an estimate that could be sent to the customer. “We weren’t getting estimates to customers quickly enough,” Naidoo says. And the handwritten information was inaccurate nearly 20 percent of the time.

So Naidoo invested $14,000 to develop software that made his estimating system compatible with the iPad. “We more accurately identify damages by having images provided by the estimating software on hand while we’re writing the estimates,” he says. Estimators can even have the estimate printed, emailed or faxed to the customer without having to leave the driver’s side.

[iPad use] makes a good first impression—an impression that your shop is cutting-edge.
- Eric Seidel, CEO, Web-Est

In addition to treating customers with an enviable car-side manner, Naidoo aims to fully utilize the iPad’s 3G—third-generation mobile telecommunications—capabilities. Upon implementing iPad estimates, those capabilities increased his estimating efficiency 4 percent. Though modest, that was enough to cover his $5,500 iPad investment ($500 for each one) in less than 20 days.

Naidoo has his sights set on bigger paybacks, as he expects truly mobile wireless estimates—meeting the customer at their convenience, wherever they may be—to become a new revenue driver for his business. “The whole idea is about adding value to the convenience of the customer,” Naidoo says. And convenience is a valuable tool for landing more sales.

The Image Edge

While mobile estimating has a history in the industry, it hasn’t been very popular. That’s because shop owners haven’t been able to easily and effectively capitalize on it, says Eric Seidel, CEO of Web-Est. Thanks to tech wonders like the iPad and 3G, completing field estimates is now much more attainable.

Those savvy devices also win confidence from customers, Seidel says. “It makes a good first impression—an impression that your shop is cutting-edge.”

Naidoo agrees: As vehicles become more technologically advanced, owners of those vehicles expect automotive professionals to do the same. “My clients see development of technology in their cars, and want to take their vehicle to a shop that’s aligned with those same technological advancements,” Naidoo says, noting that most of his customers drive high-end vehicles like Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Porsche.

Naidoo’s customers have been impressed with his ability to incorporate new technology into his daily routine. They can’t believe that a body shop took the step to go to this level of technology, he explains.

Image, Naidoo has learned, pays off in more than good customer impressions. He credits the iPad not only with improving his shop’s image, but also for landing a few more jobs: His closing ratio improved by 8 percent after switching to iPad mobile estimating. Customers, he says, now “have more confidence” in his ability to do good work.

Beyond Estimating

ABSS is a good illustration of the potential benefits the iPad can offer the collision industry. But for now, it’s still the case that unless you’re a Web-Est customer or have the technology savvy to create your own software, there aren’t many repairer-focused capabilities available for the device.

But the word from Seidel is not to worry. “Technology developers in our industry are going to have to step it up to keep up with the devices that are available,” he says.

Curtis Nixon, partner of and president of Auto Accident Kit, is one such developer, and he has stepped it up a notch. Since February, his Auto Accident Kit customer retention app has been helping shops win repeat business from clients who find themselves in need of collision repair again. Originally designed for the iPhone, the app is now available for the iPad.

It’s a safe bet it [iPad] will have adoption within this industry.
- Neal Lowell, director of product management, Audatex

Nixon isn’t stopping there. He plans to launch additional iPad applications for the collision industry within the year:

• Marketing application. Nixon is developing another tool that will help shops retain customers.

• Facility inspection application. Based on lean principles, this app helps shop owners and managers fully inspect their facility for cleanliness and organization.

• Jobber applications. Nixon is developing tools that will help jobbers complete shop inspections.

The iPad Gamble: A Safe Bet

Companies are pretty tight-lipped about future developments, but they do indicate that iPad products and services are on the horizon. Keep an eye on Audatex, Mitchell International and DuPont Performance Coatings.

Audatex. “We’re working with customers regarding mobility and its value in estimatics,” says Neal Lowell, director of product management at Audatex. The company is working to develop products that provide greater efficiency, accuracy and productivity to all collision industry segments—body shops, appraisers and insurers. “It’s a safe bet it will have adoption within this industry,” Lowell says, noting that Audatex has some product prototypes in place.

Mitchell International. Jim O’Leary, senior director of product management at Mitchell International, says the company’s first step is to make the Mitchell RepairCenter Mobile application and Mobile Glass application—both originally developed for the iPhone—compatible with the iPad. As of press time, a fourth quarter 2010 launch date was expected.

But O’Leary suggests that Mitchell has more in mind. Mitchell wants shop managers to have access to information without being chained to their desktop, O’Leary says. “There are definitely things in motion.”

DuPont Performance Coatings. Steve Trapp, collision services development manager, says DuPont is jumping on the mobility bandwagon too. “It’s a legitimate methodology of communicating with customers right after an accident and subsequent to when they get their first estimate. It’s a segment that people will be paying attention to in the future,” Trapp says, emphasizing that applications that create point-of-sale marketing are extremely valuable.

DuPont is in development mode with mobile applications, Trapp says. The collision industry can expect some new things at NACE 2010.

But Naidoo, with his mad software skills, isn’t waiting until then. He’s creating additional iPad apps to help his technicians research technical repair information and specifications on the fly.

“I want my franchises to have a competitive edge on the market,” he says. And they may, for another few months, anyway.

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