Wednesday, 31 October 2007 17:00

Profiling - How Do Vehicle Owners Categorize You?

Written by Dick Strom

For years my wife and I have been cleaning up the roadside where we live. One major reason we do this is for the exercise it provides… a couple miles of brisk walking plus back and knee bending that keeps us fairly limber despite arthritis issues. Generally speaking, on the relatively upscale, bedroom community of Seattle island where we live, what little trash along our road is Starbucks cups, McDonalds wrappers and plastic salad containers, cigarette wrappers and butts, an occasional beer can or pop bottle, some of those little liquor bottles from plane flights (someone down our road obviously works for an airline), and an occasional syringe. The roads around our home are frequented by spandex-covered bicyclists with their butts high in the air expressing, I can only assume,  their opinion of the rest of us. 

Recently, while spending a few days at a cabin we own on a lake an hour’s drive from home, we decided to get some exercise by cleaning up the trash along the road surrounding the lake. Our lake property is in what might be considered “redneck” country, and the trash here is mostly beer cans and hard liquor bottles (not the teensy little airline type), lots of cigarette packs and “chew” pouches, items of clothing, and lots of fast food wrappers. Whereas the typical form of transportation around our home is a $40+ thousand motorized pedigreed-dog house, the average vehicle around Tee Lake is a 4 x 4 pickup with a gun rack, occasionally with a mongrel in the bed, drooling ecstatically, face to the wind. Generally speaking, folks living near the lake would be much more comfortable in jeans sitting at a bar eating cholesterol-enhanced steak, while many of the folks around my home get all gussied up anywhere from two and seven nights each week to eat at one of the fancy restaurants or bistros, some whose names I have trouble pronouncing. A spandex-coated butt near our lake property would likely be run off of the road at best, possibly shot off of it at worst. I’m quite comfortable abiding in either location, though I tend to be more in touch with the jeans and steak crowd.

Though our warped sense of political correctness may urge us to deny it vehemently, the truth is that human nature dictates that we all to some degree mentally place everyone else we meet in some category or another. Whether a subconscious defense mechanism, a means of making ourselves feel superior, or whatever, we all at least mentally profile or categorize others in relation to ourselves and others we’ve met. It should come as no surprise that your customers and mine do the same concerning us.

So, how do your customers categorize you? How do you measure up in the mind of the vehicle owner? Do they categorize you as just another insurer-dictated robot totally beholden to insurers, or as a true craftsman with the best interests of the vehicle owner in mind?

I was impressed recently upon reading an article written by California shop owner Lee Amaradio. In his piece titled Let’s Do Away With Traction And Body Casts (last autobody news, 9/07), Amaradio cited a conversation he had had in which the insurer rep stated that in the 20+ years she had been an adjuster, shops have been using used weld on structure parts. Her implied suggestion was that since “everybody else is doing it,” he should discontinue insisting on using new-OEM parts, and follow the lead of “everybody else”, making her job easier. Amaradio’s response, as is mine, is that to the shame of the collision industry, just because many shops have for years performed a certain procedure in a certain way on vehicles built with yesterday’s technologies, that doesn’t make that procedure a legitimate method, right, or “best practice” for vehicles built using today’s technologies. Amaradio’s mother, and mine, displayed their motherly wisdom to such absurdities by reasoning with us mush-for-brains, “If everyone else was going to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?”

Unfortunately, it would appear that many within this industry today weren’t blessed with having loving mothers who mentally wrestled the mush from their craniums, replacing it with their own system of good values, honesty, and moral responsibility. Like lemmings, many of those within today’s collision industry will seemingly do anything for anyone for any amount of money, apparently without any worry of any consequences. And insurers are loving it, and monetarily profiting greatly from it! This fatalistic attitude and practice is making it extremely difficult for the seemingly few of us non-lemmings whose sole desire is to repair vehicles aboveboard, be paid fully for our skills, and be assured that the vehicles we repair are structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. Is that too much to ask?...I don’t believe it should be, do you?

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One major problem with many in this industry performing borderline to sub-standard to just plain fraudulent “repairs” (other than the fact that they are setting themselves up to become jailbait, and that they are further destroying any remaining shred of viability/respectability this industry ever had) is that their practices adversely make out those of us who are trying to repair vehicles correctly as the bad guys, when in reality those performing improper, often unsafe “repairs” are the villains. This was Amaradio’s point in his article, stating, “It seems that some are convinced that because they have always (performed a repair) a certain way, that makes them (and their deficient/outmoded repair procedures) right. Shame on them. It is (and they are) still wrong!... If everyone else is stupid enough to jump off a cliff, should we be required to jump with them?” Like the rep Amaradio cited, insurer reps who have helped promote this mania continue to promote it to the detriment of honest shops and uninformed consumers.

The problem for those of us who are not willing to take shortcuts is that the actions of many within the collision industry put us in the position of constantly having to defend why we perform repairs the way we do, which is the factory-recommended method. After 33 years of collision business ownership plus years before and during that time as a tech, I can say that there were a lot of things shops once performed in the manner they performed them that definitely would land us in court today. But back then there were no factory recommended methods or printed guidelines. There was no training by the vehicle manufacturers who originally built the vehicles we were attempting to repair, nor any other of the many resources which today are only a mouse-click away. So, with all this vehicle-specific repair information available at our fingertips today, does it make even a shred of sense to continue repairing today’s modern vehicles using yesterday’s outdated methods?

I recently had my other hip joint replaced. Even though I’d had the first one replaced only four years previously, and both performed by the same orthopedic surgeon, in those four years between surgeries, through networking with other top surgeons and making suggestions of improvements to the producer of the hip joint assembly, my surgeon now performs a better, less evasive surgical operation, and installs a joint today that should be good for 30 years, rather than the 20-year life expectancy of my first hip joint. Knowing this, would I be so stupid as to insist my surgeon use the same procedures and replacement parts that he used years ago? I’ll guarantee he would have refused to perform my replacement were I to insist he use his old methods and out-dated parts. We in the collision industry should be so fortunate as to have colleagues whose sense of moral responsibility and propriety matches that of my surgeon.

Back to my original question: How do vehicle owners categorize you? If you’re an insurer-compliant shop, what effect do insurer cost-constraints and dictates have on how vehicle owners categorize you? How can you improve on how these categorize you? Or do you even care what they think of you since your workflow presently is directed to your door by fickle insurers, rather than generated by a history of quality repairs?

There is a better way of doing business and, ironically, it involves using methods that were commonplace in this industry’s past. Over the years, many within this industry have been incrementally beguiled away from dealing with and working for the vehicle owner, which once was the method of conducting business in this industry, and is yet the mode of operation of virtually every other present day industry into which insurers have not yet weaved their tentacles. The advantages of working and dealing only with the vehicle owner are many and, contrary to what insurers would have you believe, the vehicle owners that you want as your customer do understand that you need to make an honest living in order to be there next time they need your services. And the vast majority of vehicle owners do not trust insurer motives and common practices any more than you do. We have found that through dealing directly with the vehicle owner, explaining the steps needed in performing a proper and safe repair, vehicle owners are quite comfortable with signing our legal paperwork that makes them responsible for full payment for our complete repair. This puts them (the policy holder) in a much better position than you (the shop owner) in pressuring the insurer to fork out for the true costs of repairs. An added bonus: Through their possibly having a part in dealing with the insurer, vehicle owners see the hypocrisy behind the flowery ads their insurer purports, which is useful to them when policy renewal is due.

So, how do vehicle owners categorize you? Are you finally ready to enhance your image by conducting your business as it was always meant to be conducted?

If you have any questions concerning how to work independently of insurer dictates and cost-cutting measures, and/or need paperwork you can use to effect this end, please don’t hesitate to contact the Coalition for Collision Repair Excellence (or toll free 877-700-7743), or contact me at my phone number listed below.

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@qwest.net.

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