Photo estimates: love them or hate them, we must adapt and profit from them. COVID-19 has substantially accelerated the use of photo estimating. While insurance companies have been giving customers the option to use photo estimates for claim handling for some time, body shops had not yet implemented them. COVID-19 forced people to stay at home, and people were bored. Shops jumped on the systems already available and started sending links to customers. Photos flooded inboxes, and estimates were being written by the multitudes of underutilized staff members. The question is: do photo estimates have a place in a post-COVID-19 world?
When a customer visits a shop in-person, they have taken the first step in the process of getting their vehicle fixed. Our lives have grown so busy that if we take the time to go somewhere and commit 30 minutes or more from our schedule to do something, we are likely to commit and see things through. It’s the value of time, and when time is spent, a transaction has already occurred. People also begin to feel some responsibility to spend their money with someone who has committed a lot of time to them as a customer. Because of the time transaction and feelings of commitment, it is fairly easy to have a good capture rate with customers who come through the door. With photo estimates, no real time has been spent, no real commitment has been made and no face-to-face interaction has occurred. With photo estimates, it is increasingly easy to have more competition involved simply by having multiple companies writing estimates from the same photos. Like it or not, selling photo estimate jobs is a true challenge!
Photo estimates require a new approach to selling. In some ways, the increased competition gives a better opportunity to beat other contenders. For competitive owners and operators, that can be a good thing. When a customer submits a photo estimate, their only expectation is to receive an email or a text back with a completed estimate. Beating the customer’s expectations is absolutely possible by simply showing care and concern for the customer’s health after an accident, safety of their vehicle and value of the vehicle as an expensive asset. It is not much different than when the customer is in the lobby, but a bit more work is required.
A phone call or a personalized message in the email/text response is crucial. Many times, customers request email or text response only and desire no phone call interaction; this saves them time, reduces the personal connection and makes it easier to say no. If that is the case, a personalized written message is the only way to have a connection as one human to another. Look for signs of a child by looking for a car seat, school sticker, family figure stickers, etc. in the photos. These items provide a reason to inquire about the wellbeing of the child and discuss car seat usage and safety. Sending information about car seat inspection/replacement is something unexpected, but shows care and consideration for the safety of the customer’s family. Discussing potential hidden damage that could drastically affect a second collision is another avenue to explore. Electronic safety system operation should also be discussed if the car is new enough or has signs of advanced driver-assistance features. Explain how the impact to the wheel could cause an alignment issue, which will affect the ADAS system and could be very dangerous. It is not about scaring them into having their car fixed, but educating them to the point that it is only sensible to have it fixed.
The other difference can be a service that offers pick up and delivery. After completing the estimate, the shop can send a personalized note outlining how they offer a pick up and delivery service as part of their repair process. In the COVID-19 world, this can be done touchless. This can even include the involvement of the rental company to allow the customer to never leave their home. Rental car companies are working with shops to drop a loaner vehicle to the customer and get a ride back to their office. Sometimes they will even pick up a shop employee to drive the customers car back in one quick trip. How many other shops are willing to go to those lengths to take care of the customer?
Not sure you are willing to take the plunge into photo estimates? Don’t think they are beneficial to our industry? Too much work for a 50 percent capture rate? I would urge you to reconsider. Photo estimates have the potential to increase new customers who would not have otherwise stopped in for an estimate. A 50 percent capture rate on jobs that otherwise would not have come to your shop is 100 percent better than no job. A portion of something is always better than nothing! An additional benefit to photo estimates is they can relieve some pressure on the front office staff by reducing the number of non-committed price shoppers who come through the lobby doors. This still allows for an increase in the number of potential customers while simultaneously there is a decrease in the number of in-person estimates. Using and promoting photo estimates properly can reduce the workload on the staff by allowing the staff to decide when the estimate is processed, rather than being forced to do it when the customer walks in the front door. Giving the customer the opportunity to avoid fitting in an estimate before work, after work or at lunch reduces customer volume during the highest traffic times. This means that service advisors can focus more attention on the one customer who is in the lobby instead of three who would have otherwise been there. Once the lobby is empty, they can turn their attention to the pending photo estimates and spend time writing a good estimate, making a caring phone call or writing a thoughtful message to a potential customer. This allows every customer to be serviced with the care that they deserve and otherwise may not have received.
There is a reason why in the month of August three carriers committed to involvement with an engaging app that allows customers to submit photo estimates and schedule appointments directly with a shop. Of course, some of the benefit in scheduling directly with a shop is the need for less manpower by those carriers. However, it also allows for faster service, and when done properly, higher satisfaction with the service provided. Customer service is absolutely critical to the long-term success of a collision repair center. A huge part of good service scores revolves around efficiency and speed. There is also a reason why multiple OEMs are now offering a discounted or free relationship with photo estimating programs. OEMs are spending massive amounts of money to figure out how to protect their brand. Using certified repairers is helping after an accident. They see the benefit and are trying to further optimize the integration. If they see the benefit in photo estimates, then body shop owners should too!
Writing the estimate is the only hang up that should be discussed; it is the only downside to the process. Customers do not know what they should be taking photos of and that means it can be very difficult to see what needs to be seen to write an accurate estimate. Do not expect 100 percent accuracy. The key is to figure out if the main parts are repairable or must be replaced. Order the big stuff; the small stuff can be processed quickly once the car arrives. Utilizing experience to make assumptions can be risky, but also immensely beneficial if done correctly. As a last resort, contacting the customer for additional photos may be worthwhile to have an estimate that is not a complete waste. The focus must be on capturing the job, though. That means the estimate is only a small piece of the puzzle. The customer does not need an estimate; they need their car fixed, so convince them that your facility is the best place to get that done!
Many are going to say that it is double the work to write an initial estimate using photos, only to do a proper estimate when the car is dropped off and torn down. I won’t disagree, but shops routinely rekey an insurance estimate and chalk it up to part of the business. This is no different. Having a vehicle to do a tear down estimate on is far better than not having a car to tear down at all. Some will argue that proper drive-by estimates allow parts to be ordered and help cycle time. I will not argue that fact, either. I will, however, point out that during the COVID-19 slow down, many shops are grabbing keys, cold dropping anything and everything, and the national rental cycle time is down! So how much time is really saved with drive-by estimates? If during the tear down, just one extra part is found, it voids the benefit of a drive-by estimate. Use the photo estimate to get the big parts, the parts that absolutely must be present before the repairs can begin, and get the rest when the tear down is completed. Capture the job, and make money fixing a car you may not have seen otherwise!