Lessons Learned from the Canadian Collision Industry

Dec. 1, 2010
What can you learn from the Canadian collision industry? A lot, it turns out. Across technology, training and environmental initiatives, our northern neighbors set a great example. Sounds informative, eh? Read on.

It might not just be cold weather records that Canada beats us at.

The collision repair industry up north is ahead of the curve in ways that might surprise you. The legislative landscape, along with Canada’s high rate of Internet penetration, have prompted Canadian body shops to become early adopters of technological advances, training regimens and regulatory guidelines that most American shops are just beginning to embrace.

Some Canadian repair shops are using Internet technology to communicate with insurers to make the claims process more efficient—and less divisive. Canadian bodymen, who must undergo training to become licensed to work in body shops, have also mastered the art of keeping their training up-to-date—even though it’s not mandated by law. And some Canadian body shops have become practiced at dealing with the regulatory aspects of the low-VOC laws that are only starting to sweep across the U.S.

While these are all familiar topics in the U.S., few shops have embraced all three areas. In Canada, many shop operators consider these things to be routine.

John Norris, executive director of Hamilton District Autobody Association in Ontario, explains it like this: “We repair the car in the same fashion, we generally explain the repair to the customer in the same fashion.” But when it comes to how shops relate to government, technology and the environment—that’s different, and worth following their lead.


No Picture, No Pay

Canadian shops are cataloging photos of the repair process electronically, they’re communicating with insurers electronically, and they’re relying almost exclusively on the Internet for parts ordering.

“Technology drives everything because the insurance companies need to create efficiencies at their end. Everyone’s trying to do more with less people. So the only way to really do it
is using a lot of technology.”
—Tony Mercanti, owner, Ontario Auto Collision CARSTAR

Insurance companies are significantly different in the United States, says Norris. For example, in Canada some provinces have government-run insurance companies, and no Canadian insurer has more than 12 to 13 percent of the market in any province. Despite those differences, American shops can learn a lot from Canadians about using technology to be more cooperative with insurers.

“Technology drives everything because the insurance companies need to create efficiencies at their end,” says Tony Mercanti, owner of Ontario Auto Collision CARSTAR. “Everyone’s trying to do more with less people. So the only way to really do it is using a lot of technology.”

Here’s how Mercanti says it happens in Canada:

• Photo management system. Mercanti’s shop’s system has three digital cameras that log the entire repair process onto computers. The photos upload to a website for insurers to use for warranty purposes and to verify repairs, he says. The photos record what the car looked like before the car was fixed, when it was dissembled, before it’s primed, and before it’s painted. “It’s all based on the premise: No picture, no pay,” Mercanti says. “And now we’ve trained the technicians how to use it and it’s helping huge.”

• Cameras as a surveillance system. The same cameras that are logging the repair process also log photos of the shop floor and save them for up to 20 days. This gives the shop evidence in case of a health investigation or any other legal problems they might face.

• Partnering with insurance companies for Web-based lead-generation. Several times a day, Mercanti’s insurance company partner sends over leads the insurer has garnered from its website. “We have a log that we look at two to three times a day on our website. So [insurers] give us leads and then it’s up to us to get the customer in.”

• Wired techs. Mercanti’s shop has 10 computer stations that are all networked. The techs are the ones who update the repair status of each vehicle so it’s available for customers to see online. This eliminates front office work.


More Education for All

Before a Canadian bodyman can get to work, government trades licensing is required. Even then, Canadian shops are encouraged to do quite a bit of so-called “upgrade training.” This is an informal, life-long learning process in which repairers use various educational tools to stay on top of new technologies that come out after a tech is done with school. Upgrade training is not mandated, although many collision repair associations are pushing for it to be regulated.

Upgrade training is serious business in Canada. It’s considered as important—if not more so—than the initial training techs undergo. American shops, which are running into more and more training requirements from insurance companies and manufacturers, take heed: Techs in Canada are encouraged to go through upgrade training on a regular basis. Norris says that the additional training is so effective at keeping the industry up to date, that virtually every shop should make it possible for its workers to participate.

Another important aspect of training involves recruiting smart apprentices while they’re in school. That helps bring the most recent knowledge from the classroom straight into the shop.

“We’re a small shop and use a fair number of apprentices, so we get to learn the things they are talking about in the classroom,” says Mark Timson, owner of Timson Autobody in Caledonia, Ontario. “It keeps us fresh just by having fresh blood.”

Canadian shops get their upgrade training from a mix of vendors, suppliers, and educational institutions such as I-CAR. Oftentimes, insurance companies help foot the cost of the training, says Mercanti. Two of the hottest areas for upgrade training include:

• New metals training. Mercanti tackled the hefty subject of new hybrid metals by providing his staff a three-hour after-work session to learn to use a new welder.

• Customer service training. Mercanti is focused on training his techs in customer service—including how to handle complaints. “When a customer complains he’s giving me a chance [to make things right],” Mercanti says. This kind of training is especially important for small shops, Norris emphasizes.


Dealing with the Regulators

Some of Canada is still transitioning to comply with new low-VOC regulations, much like the U.S. industry. However, Canadian shops have come far enough in the process that many of them are in compliance—and they’re used to dealing with visits from regulators.

Shops must keep their own paperwork on hand, proving their compliance with low-VOC regulations, but, “for the most part, we don’t have to report to the government per se,” says Timson, whose shop has had a visit from regulators. “We don’t have any forms that we have to fill out monthly or anything like that.”

After regulators come in for a check, they grant a permit stating how many quarts of paint the shop is allowed to spray based on the size of the shop, the number and type of paint booths it has, and its proximity to other businesses. A shop has to meet certain standards if they want to increase that number, says Timson.

Shop operators have learned a few things about how to sail through a regulatory visit:

• Ask regulators what exactly they’re looking for. “If you don’t know 100 percent, ask the question. Somebody will have an answer. Make it fit your situation. Then you can find out what the actual costs are,” says Timson.

• Get informed about the products you choose to paint with. “You don’t know what the product can do and what it can’t do,” says Timson. “Don’t assume anything.”

• Talk to your association. Associations have all sorts of programs and help to get you compliant before the inspector gets there, says Norris.

• If you fail to comply, don’t panic. Call the collision repair association you’re a member of to find out what to do next. “We are faster, cheaper and better to help you than taking a risk by hurriedly finding a name in the phone book,” Norris says.

North Star Know-How

Both the U.S. and Canadian collision repair industries are ultimately focused in the same way: quality repairs and customer safety, says Norris. He points out that all collision repair customers ask themselves the same questions: “’Is my car safer or as safe as when I had the accident? Is it going to respond in a secondary accident the same way?’”

The Canadians provide ample good examples for smart business with insurers, keeping techs studied up, and complying with environmental regulation. And, Norris reassures, the U.S. market sets a good example in some pretty important ways, too. Namely, profit.
“I think we’re passive here and that’s perhaps restricted getting our door rates where we probably need them,” he says. “The Americans have some profitability ideas and some aggressive marketing ideas that just blow us away.”

Clearly, the door to good ideas and best practices swings both ways.

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