The estimate should be fast, thorough and closed

Jan. 1, 2020
The estimate, or repair blueprint, is one of the most important tools that determines business profitability.

If forced to choose a single document that represents the collision repair industry and its process, the estimate would most likely be chosen. The estimate (Fig. 1) fulfills two primary purposes. First, it's a blueprint for the repair of the vehicle. This document will precede the vehicle throughout the repair process and will be used as a guide for repairs. It is often referred to as "the blueprint" for the repair process.

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Therefore, it must be accurate, complete and detailed. This document is one of the more important tools regarding business profit. Each time a line item is added to an estimate, it should be examined considering these two purposes.

The estimate also can be a negotiating tool when the repair process is presented to the insurance company. Thorough and detailed line items outline each necessary step. With a complete and detailed damage analysis (estimate), negotiating a thorough and profitable repair is easier. If it can be shown through specific line items that work is being performed, it's likely that these tasks will be reimbursed when negotiating third-party (insurance company) pay.

A repair estimate, also called a damage analysis, can be used as a negotiating tool when presenting the repair process to the customer. It can be a complex document to explain. If it's used during a presentation portion of sales, the salesperson must be careful to thoroughly explain each step without overwhelming the customer with details.

Here are some guidelines for writing an accurate estimate.

Know the P-sheets

To be able to write an accurate and profitable estimate, the writer must be thoroughly familiar with the estimating guide (Fig. 2) that their shop is using. Whether you are using a manual estimating guide or an electronic guide, knowing and understanding terminology such as overlap, included items, transfer time, R&R, R&I and overhaul, just to name a few, becomes extremely important – especially in regard to the estimate's two primary purposes (blueprint and profit).

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If the estimator is not familiar with this terminology, the unfortunate result could repair work done by technicians without significant reimbursement. A detailed estimate not only helps the technicians who use it as a repair blueprint; in addition, the more detailed an estimate becomes, the more productive the repair procedure becomes, and thus more profitable.

Gather pertinent information

Having a company information sheet (Fig. 3), which collects the needed information about the customer, their vehicle, their insurance company and how the customer heard about your organization can be helpful as a sales tool before or during the estimating process. These forms are available on the Internet using a generic search. Modify the form to meet your needs.

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Using a customer information sheet speeds up the gathering of the client information. An information sheet can be filled out by the receptionist and handed to the estimator prior to the sales process. By having this information available, the estimator can quickly use that information to write a speedy and appropriately detailed damage analysis.

Write it in a step-by-step order

By having a step-by-step method for estimating a vehicle, it's not likely that the estimator will miss important information. The estimator should first inspect the vehicle several times for such things that you can see on the exterior of the vehicle, without lifting it or opening any doors. This often reveals the signs of more serious, sometimes structural, damage that can be later discovered during the teardown process (Fig 4). Second, check for more serious structural damage. Often an estimator rushes to the tear down before thoroughly examining for visual indicators in such areas as door gaps and other misalignments indicating more serious or structural damage. If a vehicle's fender is removed prior to a complete visual examination, these important indicators may be lost or overlooked.

Next inspect for mechanical damage, as often collision-related mechanical damage is overlooked. Damage to systems such as air conditioning, alignment, steering, suspension and exhaust may be present but overlooked if a thorough evaluation of mechanical components is not completed. It's not enough to examine only large items such as steering, brakes and checking for leaks.

Also important is examining such things as cables, vacuum lines, air conditioning (even in the wintertime), seat belts and electrical components such as windows, seats and windshield wipers. If a customer must return the vehicle following the repair because of drivability problems such as noise, vibration or harshness – problems not checked for because mechanical and alignment components were not thoroughly inspected and repaired – the customer relationship may suffer.

Also check for inertia damage (Fig 5) that the vehicle may have sustained during the collision from such things as exhaust, motor mounts or loose cargo in the trunk. Heavy golf clubs, for example, can become missiles on impact and cause serious damage during a collision. The golf clubs could cause damage to the deck lid, and be overlooked by the estimator who may mistake it for prior damage. By writing sufficient notes on the estimate (that the golf clubs in fact were the damaging factor in a front-end collision), a more accurate and profitable estimate can be written.

List deployed air bags in the inertia section of the estimate. Repair and rearming should be included within this section. If air bags were not deployed but must be disarmed for repairs, that should be listed here as well.

Next, note all the refinish procedures that the repair will require. Whether they include simple spray-out panels, specialty paint additives or any others, make sure that all refinish tasks are listed.

Lastly, upsell. If a vehicle could benefit from detailing or additional paint work to repair prior damage, the recommendations should be listed in the upsell section.

Upon completion of the document, the estimator should review all the sections one by one, (Fig. 6) making sure that nothing has been missed or overlooked the first time through. It's important that the estimate be as thorough and complete as possible.

Don't forget

Modern vehicles are so complex (Fig. 7) that it's easy to overlook items that may appear to be part of the normal repair procedure but may not actually be an included item. Knowing the P-sheets specifically for each vehicle helps the estimator remember those items that are included in the repair procedure and, nearly as important, those items that are not.

Having a list of items that are easily forgotten that an estimator can check also is helpful. By checking this list, the estimate writer is assured that everything has been included, making sure that the shop is paid for everything it does during the repair. Easily overlooked items include two-tone allowance, towing, storage, wheel alignment and shim kit, access time, flex additive, aiming headlights and hazardous waste disposal fees.

This list is not complete. Many other items can be overlooked when writing an estimate. Shop employees should brainstorm to develop a comprehensive list of forgettable items that is checked against each new estimate prior to submission.

Profit is in the details

Although it's tempting, especially on a busy day, to rush through an estimate and write down repairs using less detail, it's certainly less profitable. Also, when negotiating with an insurance company, it's less likely that you will be paid fully for your procedures if the estimate is not written in great detail. For example, look at the two descriptions below:

Repair left body side damage: six hours; compared to

Repair left fender: two hours

Repair left door: two hours

Repair left quarter panel: two hours

Some might argue that both estimates are the same because they each have a total of six hours of repair time. And if repair time were the insurance company's only consideration, the observation would be correct. But when negotiating, the second, more detailed, estimate is more likely to be paid in full because of its thoroughness.

Labor time

It's also important to know how labor time is calculated for your particular estimating guide system. The quote below is taken directly from Mitchell's P-sheet description:

"Labor times listed in this guide are to be used to estimate time needed to replace parts or assemblies with undamaged used parts or assemblies of like kind and quality. The suggested times may vary depending on vehicle condition, labor, technician experience, and shop equipment, etc."

If the estimator has read and understands this definition, he or she would realize that although it reads "used" parts, it also says "undamaged." Therefore, the removal of a damaged part from a wrecked vehicle can be significantly different than the estimated time in the guidebook. On a vehicle that is significantly damaged, access time should also be written when needed.

The close

Although it is attributed to baseball legend Yogi Berra, the statement "it ain't over till it's over" is a great example of a sales philosophy. Until the deal is closed, it ain't over. Often referred to as a serious closer, a salesperson (in this case the estimator) should direct all of his or her skills to making that sale, or the close. (Fig. 8). Closing the deal is the primary focus for salespeople. However, having a total sales philosophy, placing importance not only on closing the deal, but also making sure that the client is satisfied, will ensure that the customer will be a long-term repeat customer.

Much has been written trying to explain and categorize types of sales techniques and the philosophies that drive them. And though the list below is not complete and may also have been discussed using other titles, these five categories seem to encompass most sales types:

The instant buddy

Many people believe that customers are more likely to buy from someone they like. Salespeople who use this approach are warm and friendly; they ask questions, show interest in their prospects and often try to connect on an emotional level with customers.

An example of the instant buddy approach to sales might be the salesperson walking to the damaged car, touching the vehicle and remarking sincerely to the customer, "I hope no one was hurt." This approach can be very effective for a skilled salesperson in the right situation. But beware that if the customer believes it to be an insincere response, it may backfire and the customer may decide not to buy from a person viewed as insincere and manipulative.

If you choose to use the instant buddy approach, a good sales technique is to try to connect on a personal level. During the interview, you might talk to the clients about their son's upcoming little league game, for example. Building such a connection will help to reinforce the buddy approach. The salesperson might make a note in the records, and later send a card or text asking how the son's game turned out. Sincere and appropriate interest can be effective.

One of the reasons salespersons are attracted to the buddy approach is that if it is going to work, it will be evident relatively quickly that rapport or a connection has been established, and the sale can then be closed.

The guru

This philosophy sets the salesperson up as the expert in their field. They have confidence that they understand and can solve any problems that their clients place before them. For some sales personalities, this more logical and less emotional approach lets them make significant connections with their client, but on a more technical level. This approach requires a great deal of knowledge in your field; the salesperson will need to know the latest repair techniques and tools. For some customers, having this resource of knowledge is attractive, and they often send like-minded friends as potential customers to that salesperson.

The guru approach (Fig. 9) may take significantly longer to establish these salespersons as the experts that they want their clients to view them as. To establish this view, the salesperson must, without bragging or seeming arrogant, clearly demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. This takes a long time, so not all salespeople are attracted to this approach.

The consultant

This approach combines the guru and the instant buddy approaches, and can be very effective. The salesperson demonstrates their company's product knowledge while establishing an emotional contact with the client. As in many approaches that use two techniques together, this can be time consuming, but effective in closing the sale.

The networker

The networker is, as the name implies, a salesperson who spends a great deal of time setting up and maintaining a network or web of friends, coworkers and other salespeople from outside companies, customers, former customers, training partners (Fig 10), and everyone they meet. A strong network can be established, creating an ongoing flow of customers that can provide most or even all of the sales needs.

Although the networking technique may not seem be an approach that collision repair can use, since most collision damage happens not because of a network but because of an unfortunate accident; it can be effective. A network, with its circle of contacts, often relies on the leads of friends and other contacts who send to them potential customers that they otherwise might not have developed.

A networker will spend a lot of time establishing contacts that may not immediately produce sales, but they can be productive over time. Networkers seldom need to put a lot of effort into the close, because people who come to them often have made up their mind that they're going to buy because of the advice of the network.

The hard sell

One way to define the hard sell is "to scare the prospect into buying." The hard sell often is what gives salespeople a bad reputation. A hard sell is used to sell somebody something that they may not otherwise need or want. Techniques used by some hard salespersons include such manipulation as, "Buy this now, or you will feel stupid tomorrow," or "If you don't buy this from me, I will lose my job." Hard selling may even involve claims that are not true, such as "this product has a better safety record than the competition."

The hard sell is often used by salespeople who haven't yet developed their own sales philosophy or good techniques for selling. Developing a sales philosophy and approach to your clients is difficult, but putting in the work to develop and use them correctly can be profitable.

There are many key elements in becoming a good collision estimator, or salesperson. Be proficient at knowing your estimate guide's P-sheets. Be thorough and go step-by-step in writing the estimate, checking it against your list of "often forgottens." Consider offering additional work, which will increase the estimate's profitability. All these skills need to be mastered. Knowing "it ain't over till it's over" and having a well-honed closing technique will lead to a high closing ratio.