IT’S EASY to wonder in an election year such as this if just one vote – yours – can really make a difference. But history is filled with examples where it does. John F. Kennedy's margin of victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 was less than one vote per precinct.
In the collision repair industry, too, it's easy to feel that one person can't make a real difference. Some of the key issues facing the industry are large and systemic, making it easy as an individual to feel almost powerless to change or improve the situation.
But here are 10 things you can do now, yourself, to help make a positive change in the industry. Most are relatively simple and might not require a lot in terms of time or money. No single one will revolutionize the industry or single-handedly solve a major problem. But just as with your vote, when combined with similar actions by others, they can make a significant difference.
Improve your estimating. The best estimators don't just know how to look for damage on the vehicle; they also know what aspects of that damage are and are not included in the various labor times. That means becoming a student of the "procedure pages" or "guide to estimating" for all three of the major estimating systems.
Those guides are regularly changed. Motor Information Systems earlier this year, for example, released a revised edition of its "Guide to Estimating," the system used by CCC Information Services. The new guide indicates that recalibration of the steering angle sensor is not included in motor labor times. It also adds electrical wiring to the list of non-included items on frame labor, steering column overhaul, trunk lid and quarter panel times.
Changes like this mean every estimator should set aside 15 minutes a week (or one hour a month) to read a few pages from the documents, even if just as a "refresher." All three can be downloaded at no charge from the Database Enhancement Gateway website (www.DEGweb.org). Just click on the "Get Educated" tab from the homepage.
Join an industry association. Some in the industry may find fault with the state or national trade associations for not doing enough to help the industry. But often these critics are not aware of all that these groups do accomplish – despite the handicap the associations have of rarely having more than just 5 or 10 percent of the industry as members.
"As owners, we all need to be more involved in our industry," says Luis Alonso, a board member of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) and co-owner of Pan American Collision Centers based in San Jose, Calif. "We need to come together. Join your local association, your national association. Take a little of your money and put it back into our industry for our future, for our kids' futures and for future technicians coming into this industry. I think we could all put a little more back into the pot so this remains a vibrant business and one we can be proud to work in."
Alonso and others say the odds are good that the discounts on products and services you can receive as a member will cover most, if not all, of the few hundred dollars a year in membership dues. So even if you have no interest in attending meetings or "getting involved," you can help your business and the industry by at least mailing in that membership application and dues check. Even just a slight increase in the percentage of shops that are members will give these groups more resources and clout as they work on behalf of the industry.
The three primary national groups (which can also put you in touch with any affiliated state organization they have in your area) are the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers (www.autoserviceproviders.com), the Automotive Service Association (www.asashop.org), and the SCRS (www.scrs.com).
Make the call or send the email. Once you belong to an association, you'll receive notifications when your state legislature, or federal lawmakers, are considering a bill that will impact the industry. Even non-members can visit ASA's legislative website (www.TakingTheHill.com) to sign up for such alerts. The associations go out of their way to make it quick and easy for you to contact your representatives to voice your opinion about any such proposed legislation. Often all you have to do is enter your zip code and pre-addressed, ready-to-sign letters or emails pop up, ready for you to print or send.
It might seem like your voice will get lost in the political debates, but you would be amazed at what a difference a few contacts from their constituents at home can have on lawmakers' views. And chances are, you'll receive a letter back from them as well. Other trades and professions use this grassroots campaigning far more effectively; you can do your part, even without contributing a dime to a political candidate or campaign, to give your industry this same political power.
Respond to the survey. Many of the state and national associations conduct industry surveys – sometimes just of their members, sometimes involving every shop in a state or region. These surveys gather useful information for the association and for you as an individual shop. Wonder what the average labor rates are in your market? Wonder how what you're paying technicians compares to wages in other shops? Wish you had a way to let consumers know which insurance companies seem to treat their insureds the most fairly? These are exactly the types of surveys many associations conduct. But the percentage of shops that respond is often pathetically low. This weakens the validity and value of the survey findings. So the next time you receive such a survey, take just the few minutes it requires to complete and return it.
Speak up online. Even if you can't get out to attend an industry event, you can exchange information and ideas with other shop owners online. Check out the community section of the ABRN website, for example, to interact with other shop owners, post questions, offer opinions and read those of others. The site is sort of an industry-version of Facebook that allows members to better exchange information and ideas with each other.
ASA also recently has added a "Communities" section to its website.
Ron Pyle, president and chief staff executive of ASA, said "Communities" is very much in its infancy, but he foresees it becoming a popular way, particularly for younger members of the association, to interact with other members, much in the way attending a local chapter meeting has served that purpose in the past.
"The collective intellectual property (of ASA members) is huge, but we don't get to capture it to the degree that we could or should because we're limited in the amount of people we can talk to on a daily basis," Pyle said, predicting that "Communities" will help better collect and disseminate that information.
Get some technical training. Technicians, shop owners and managers who say they regularly get training – even just a few courses each year – say it pays dividends in a variety of ways. Training helps improve the quality, productivity and safety of technicians' work, certainly, but it can also help ensure the front-end staff knows what procedures are necessary, and thus billable. And perhaps at no time since the shift to the unibody vehicle has vehicle technology been changing as quickly and dramatically as it is today.
Stay up-to-date by signing up for some I-CAR (www.i-car.com) or other technical training. No time for a 4-hour classroom course? I-CAR has actually lowered the cost of its online training (http://tinyurl.com/7rsb2sb). There are now more than four dozen online classes available, some vehicle-specific (such as "Ford F-150 Frame Replacement") and others more general (such as "MIG Brazing"). Many can be completed in just an hour.
Sponsor a scholarship. Heitzman Body & Paint in Beaverton, Ore., has for many years sponsored an annual scholarship, named after the company founder, for a student at Portland Community College's collision repair training program.
Most schools have a foundation that accepts tax-deductible scholarship donations and can help you determine how much or how little you want to be involved in establishing selection criteria, etc. Aside from helping a student and the school, such scholarships are also an opportunity for positive publicity for your company in your community, as many such scholarships are announced at high school graduations and in local newspapers.
Find other ways to help your local collision repair training program. Not in a position to sponsor a scholarship? There are plenty of other ways to lend support to a local school producing tomorrow's technicians.
Sabra Burge of another Portland area shop, Canyon Road Auto Body, Ore., has for a number of years served on the advisory committee for the Portland Community College collision repair training program. One way she helps its students is by conducting mock interviews with them to help them prepare for their careers.
Some programs struggle to keep enrollment up, so perhaps you have a dependable, hard-working employee in a lower-skilled position within your shop who could become star technician if you help them attend training while working for you. Or ask the local instructor if the program is ever looking for a guest lecturer; some lessons – such as the importance of wearing personal protection equipment – sink in faster for students when they hear it from potential employers. Or invite the instructor and the students to tour your shop.
Improve the estimating databases. Think a labor time in one of the "Big Three" estimating systems is insufficient? Or is there information that appears to be missing or inaccurate? Take 10 minutes to submit an inquiry to the Database Enhancement Gateway (www.degweb.org), and you'll be doing yourself and the industry a huge service.
Created by the three national repairer groups, the DEG website offers an easy way to question the accuracy of information in the estimating guides.
"We've submitted dozens of inquiries since the DEG was started. Most of them have resulted in positive outcomes," Nick Kostakis, owner of Angelo's Auto Body in Irvington, N.J., said.
Check out the DEG database of more than 4,500 inquiries to get a sense of the types of issues the DEG can address for the industry – with your help. Kostakis said even just one inquiry from each shop each month would make a huge impact on the accuracy of the estimating systems.
Bring someone new into the industry. Stop poaching employees from other shops and instead help yourself and the industry by recruiting new employees from outside the industry. Particularly as the industry moves toward "blueprinting," look for potential new "estimators" not among technicians, but in those with good sales and "people" skills who can be taught the basic technical skills needed. Each branch of the military offers job-posting websites (such as the Army Career Alumni Program, www.acap.army.mil) for those leaving the service. Veterans tend to be disciplined and hard working, and many bring good technical aptitudes. Or speak at a career day at a local school.
Don't just complain – do something. If you're returning a lousy (but certified) aftermarket part, take 10 minutes to file a complaint with the certifier, either the Certified Automotive Parts Association (www.capacertified.org) or NSF International (www.NSF.org).
Tired of trying to compete against shops that clearly don't know their own numbers and basic business fundamentals? Work with your local jobber or trade association to bring in some estimating or other shop management training – and personally invite local shops to attend.
Embarrassed by the negative press or less-than-ideal image of the industry? Get involved with the "Recycled Rides" program through the National Auto Body Council (www.recycledrides.org).
Getting burned out? Refresh your batteries and get some new ideas by attending a conference or trade show such as NACE (www.naceexpo.com) in New Orleans or SEMA (www.semashow.com) in Las Vegas this fall.