Avoid eating pre-accident damage costs

Feb. 13, 2014
Let’s look at ways to change the dialogue with the customer and increase our expertise in finding pre-accident damage before we make that initial contact.

One of the more touchy subjects we deal with when we have to talk with customers about repairing their cars after an accident comes when we find a problem that we believe was pre-accident. We all know that every customer’s car was perfectly maintained and in pristine, show-ready condition before their accident. But we also know that when a car takes a light hit to the front, it rarely causes the right rear electric window motor to suddenly stop working. To avoid getting into an argument that makes the entire process more difficult, let’s look at some ways we might change the dialogue with the customer and increase our expertise in sleuthing out these conditions before we make that initial contact.

I have the pleasure of knowing many of the best-run collision shops in the country, so I may be preaching to the choir on many of these ideas. However, if you do not follow the suggestions to come, just know that many of your peers are. To kick that off, I highly recommend that you have a check-in sheet for your techs to fill out that contains a pre-inspection list. If it is at all possible, you should connect a code reader, or better yet, a full feature scan tool and collect all of the Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTCs) from the vehicle, operate the electrical functions of the car and inspect basic maintenance items on top of your normal blueprinting operation.

Why are we looking at these things when a car comes in with body damage? So that we can capture things that are obviously wrong up front and have a conversation that we control, rather than getting that call back after we deliver the vehicle. If you determine that the vehicle’s maintenance is lacking, your notes to that point will help avoid an expense that is not your responsibility. As an example: a car comes in with no oil reading on the dipstick, and it clearly has not had collision-related damage that caused the oil to leak out. If that engine fails a week after your repair, the customer is highly likely to blame the accident for the engine failure, and the insurance company may wind up buying one.  On the other hand, if you noted there was no oil in the engine and the oil change sticker was a year and 10,000 miles overdue, the conversation will be completely different. Armed with facts, you now can approach the customer and offer to change their oil with all of the caveats that are appropriate for an engine that has had no oil in it.

Figure 1: 2008 Buick Lucerne with a right front curb shot that broke the spindle among other things.

I have noticed a tendency for estimators to have a tough time putting on the service writer hat and asking the customer to pay for things that are not accident related. For many of you that have mechanical departments, this becomes even more critical if you want to not only retain technicians with great skills, but also to help generate revenue to fund the plethora of tools that are necessary to sort out problems on all of the interdependent systems throughout the vehicle. You might be surprised how many customers are happy to have the opportunity to get other repairs done while they are driving a rental car and do not have to make other arrangements for regular or irregular maintenance. To lower the stress of making that call, be sure to have a solid and accurate estimate that prioritizes the needs in case the customer decides to only buy part of your recommendations. If you appear organized and knowledgeable, customers will be less likely to question whether you are actually qualified to perform work other than the body and paint on their car. Of course, it is also very important that your staff actually is trained and properly equipped, or that additional revenue will be replaced by additional headaches.

Now that we have covered the part involving customer service, let’s look at a couple examples of determining what is and isn’t collision related.

If an owner knocks the whole corner off their car (Fig 1), it is a safe bet that any pre-existing damage to the drive axle, strut or ball joints is going to be pretty hard to ascertain. What is important is to check the other side because if there are many miles on the car, we might want or need to recommend replacement of such parts as ball joints, shocks or struts to go with the new pieces we are putting on the damaged side of the vehicle.

Figure 2: Measuring a ball joint with a micrometer

Back in January, I mentioned the importance of using the proper method for measuring parts. If we take the example Buick Lucerne and look in our service information for ball joint inspection, we can see in Fig 2 that the tolerance for wear is very small, as they are using a micrometer to measure deflection. Diagram 3 shows the procedure, which is typical of late-model cars, but not what many techs are using to determine wear. By using the right test, you won’t miss a ball joint that would make getting a good alignment difficult. This is where you are going to find those revenue opportunities. Often times the plastic socket liner will get broken in a steering end or ball joint from a sharp blow, but the reality is that downsizing these components has created many that do not last the life of the vehicle. In most cases, if the part is so bad you can see it moving, it probably either caused the accident or was damaged during the accident. It is tough to say sometimes, but look for the evidence of impact as well as the maintenance condition of the vehicle and make the best call you can.

Figure 3

At the beginning of the story I suggested scanning the vehicle for Diagnostic Trouble Codes and attaching them to the blueprint or work order for later use. First and most important is DO NOT clear the codes in the system until you are all done with the car or a diagnostic procedure recommends it. In many vehicles, you may have lost your proof that the problem was present before the accident. Here is a simple and common scenario. A vehicle arrives with the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) on. The technician is performing his pre-check and finds a P0301 code present. The code description is universally a misfire on cylinder number one. Could the car have a misfire after the accident? Sure it could. Could it have been there before the accident? You bet. How do you know? Well, if you do not clear the codes, the Onboard Diagnostic System (OBD) has some help to keep everybody honest. It is called freeze frame. When the event that sets the code occurs, a little guy inside the magic box known as the diagnostic executive makes a note, takes a picture of all of the data during that time and flips on the porch light to let you know something is going on in his digital world. With most good scan tools, you can view this freeze frame, and it will tell you when and in many cases how often this problem has happened. Carmakers all take a slightly different approach, but you will be able to tell if the problem is new or not pretty easily. Diagram 4 shows you an example of how one tool displays a generic P0300 – General misfire code. It is important to learn how your scan tool package works so that you can use this data to your advantage.

Figure 4: Note the mileage since first failure. Unless you have driven this around after the accident this is a pre-accident problem and the engine was almost warmed up when the fault occurred.

Determining before or after is challenging detective work that can serve all parties involved. You may be able to help your customer with facts to get a component replaced that might have otherwise been their responsibility. You might also have an opportunity to repair a pre-accident problem and improve your revenue. For insurance adjusters, a thorough pre-check on your part will expedite returning the car to the customer and establish responsibility with less debate. And who doesn’t like that better?

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