Using the Estimating Process to Close Sales at the Auto Body Shop

By Bob Winfrey

I hope that this article will help your estimators close some sales!

When a customer pulls up to our shop, one of the first things we do is greet the customer. Some shops have greeters and some smaller shops leave that to the estimator to do the greeting. One of the most polite things to say is to just simply say hello, introduce yourself, and ask "How can I help you?" A golf shirt or name tag is helpful for identification purposes. Some of us still wear uniforms so our name and shop name are pretty evident but sometimes I wonder if people take the time to read them! I teach I-Car classes and one of the things I have learned is that there are no dumb questions (no matter how it seems to us). If you answer the questions asked with an intelligent answer it goes a long way to win over trust with the potential customer.

If it actually turns out to be a customer there are two things I ask politely for. My first question is "Has anyone written you an estimate yet"? If they say yes, I ask them politely if I could see the estimate. Sometimes they don't like to share the estimate but I have found that if I can get a look at it, it helps me explain any shortfalls as my sheet comes together in front of the computer. If they won't share it, insurer estimates are most important as this is what the customer's payment is based on. I will tell the customer that if they already have the insurer estimate it is not necessary for me to write one. I can take the car in and any shortfalls will be noted and the insurer contacted to cover the additional damage or lack of labor to cover necessary items. I just get a copy of the insurer estimate and have them sign my authorization to repair. We will get it in the shop and disassemble as soon as possible. Then we contact the insurer involved and get a re-inspection scheduled. I think a lot of cut rate insurance companies are writing 50% of the repair costs in hopes that customers either find someone hard up enough to fix it for the low price or that the customer will not have the vehicle fixed. If they are seeking your help or advice they are at least considering your services.

The second thing I ask for is the registration, this solves two problems. Firstly, you will know who the registered owner is. Secondly, you will have the 17 digit vin number that I can never read when I get back to the office to write the estimate.

On newer cars aftermarket parts can be an issue. If the other estimate has aftermarket parts on it make sure you mention how your company deals with the quality and warranty of used and aftermarket parts. Most customers cannot read an estimate so I like to explain every item as I hand them the sheet. It is funny when you are writing the estimate most customers like to chat about the weather or golf but I usually test the waters by asking about the accident and anything related to the cause. Sometimes it can be important to know if the car was sitting when hit, how many people were in the car for seatbelt inspections etc. If you are the first estimator then your estimate will be what the customer bases the rest of his experience on. I myself prefer to be honest and write a straight up sheet to cover what we are going to have to do to repair the vehicle properly and offer a lifetime warranty. Sometimes customers think that they can file a claim and not have to pay their deductible; in our area backyard shops with no overhead may be able to save them that percentage of the gross. I have found that you cannot do a quality repair and save a deductible. Being honest with the customer, I explain that the deductible is the first part of the payment of the claim and is to be paid first, then insurance kicks in. The customer needs to know that it is tough enough to get the insurer to do the right thing and pay what is necessary to repair the car properly! None the less save them $250, $500 or $1,000. If they are adamant about trying to save the deductible ask them what parts they would like you to leave off of the estimate. I start with the fender, door, broken windshield or bent rim. That usually gets the point across. Pick a large item that is important and they will get the point. I have been asked to leave airbag parts off and safety restraints off but that is a huge liability and against federal law.

I try to be flexible and work with the customer but sometimes there are things that I just cannot do. One thing you can do is write them an estimate for OEM parts and then a separate estimate for used or aftermarket. If you are writing for a DRP relationship then you are bound by your DRP deal.

To close the deal I usually let them know we can start on the car right away once they decide who they are going to use to repair their vehicle. Allover paint jobs are a little trickier. I generally have a set of hours in mind for a small car, a mid size car, large car, van or SUV and pickup truck. Semi cabs and box trucks are bid as you go kind of items. I cannot compete with the shake and bakes. They are not so cheap nowadays. They charge about $1,500 a car around us and their work is something to be desired. I explain that it is cheaper to have us paint the vehicle once and last for 8 or 10 years than to have shake and bake paint it and need a repaint in one year. We charge what we need to de-trim the car and as always the age of the vehicle and cost is important.  

I try to feel the customer out to see what they are trying to spend and sometimes they can afford us and sometimes they can't. I know a decent material I trust that will last the length of time I warranty the work for is going to last longer than I need it to. This material is going to cost about $700.00 with clear for a small car. Being aware of your fixed costs is important.

You have to operate lean to survive but there are only so many corners you can cut!

I hope this helps you, it has worked for me for 35 years.

Bob Winfrey