Charted Off Course

Dec 3, 2009

It’s been an active season for hail across the Midwest. The storms came early and often, damaging vehicles in several large cities.

With a bumper crop of damage, many independent paintless dent repair technicians became very selective when taking jobs. If the bid was off or they felt a broker was being too greedy, they would often pack up their tools at a moment’s notice and move on to a fresh storm. The potential for a better gig was very tempting, and more often than not it played out in their favor.

While the scale of damage a vehicle sustains in a given season can be different, the cost of repairs tends to vary wildly. For the 2006 hail season, chaos was king!

Traveling around the country, one of the first things a PDR technician notices is the glaring variation of acceptable pricing standards. It’s a challenge that independent techs need to address head-on, before they price themselves out of the market.

Beyond the Chart

For PDR technicians to remain profitable, pricing is of the utmost importance-and when it comes to estimating paintless dent repair, there are a lot of variables to consider.

The vast majority of hail-damaged vehicles are repaired at auto body shops by sub-contracted PDR technicians. The body shop makes 20 to 30 percent of the repair order.

The combination of brokers and body shops earning a percentage off of the technicians’ skills can actually have a negative impact on the quality of repairs. The technicians have not been involved in designing the hail charts or the negotiation process.

Hail charts were developed a few years ago to assist in the estimating process. These charts used a system of counting the general number and size of dents to determine a price for repairing each panel of a vehicle.

Unfortunately, while their development was intended only as a guide, hail charts have since obscured the accuracy and limited the value of service that PDR technicians provide.

The charts categorize the size of the dents by using a coin-scale system-dime being the smallest, then nickel, quarter and half-dollar. Where these charts falter is in the intangibles, such as the depth of the dent, its precise location, bodyline damage, the color of the vehicle, limited access areas and, perhaps most importantly, the value of the panel being repaired.

The charts are merely black-and-white, while the real world is bursting with color.

To give an illustration, let’s say a customer has a vehicle with moderate damage. The insurance adjuster may have seen 80 quarter-size dents when he wrote the original estimate and used the chart in determining the price. The technician then does his or her assessment and finds more than 120 quarter- to-half-dollar-sized dents, many on the aluminum hood, which increases the difficulty of the repair.

Now, if the technician has done his homework, he will know the exact cost of a conventional repair, and, with this knowledge, he now has a better understanding of what to charge for an estimate.

Of course, because of the added difficulty to this specific vehicle, the estimate will be higher than the original assessment written by the adjuster. This can lead to conflict, as the adjuster won’t always understand why a tech needs what he has requested to make the repairs and will suspect that the tech is trying to overcharge him.

In most cases, if the tech takes the time to explain why he is charging what he is in a particular instance, the adjuster will understand the reasons behind the request and agree to the additional money.

This isn’t to say there aren’t times when the adjuster and the tech can’t find any common ground, however. When this happens, a good tech will stand firmly by his price, knowing that it’s fair and reasonable.

I’ve personally told adjusters that they aren’t doing me any favors by offering me work at a too-low estimate. Standing by your price will succeed in doing one of two things-you will get what you want, or it will infuriate them.

The best thing a tech can do if it is the latter is to walk the adjuster through the process of what’s actually involved in making the repairs, so he can better understand why your price is what it is.

A True Estimate

Let’s take, for example, the roof of a Honda Accord with a factory-installed sunroof. This particular vehicle has extensive bracing and very limited access throughout most of the roof panel, even with the headliner and sunroof removed.

This same vehicle without a factory-installed sunroof won’t have the same kind of bracing system. Yet, the charts won’t differentiate the fact that the technician faces a much more challenging repair on the sunroof-equipped model. [In some cases, in fact, the model with the sunroof may be altogether irreparable-and the charts won’t make up for this concession.]

Another problem is that the price charts won’t address the type of vehicle being repaired. Imagine if the collision repair industry adopted an estimating strategy where all sedans were viewed the same. In that scenario, the price of repairing a Chevy Cavalier fender would be exactly the same as repairing a Volvo S80 or a Mercedes S-Class sedan.

That type of estimating procedure would never fly in the collision industry, so why should it be acceptable for PDR-type repairs? In my opinion, it shouldn’t.

Since every case is unique, trying to lump all of the necessary factors involved in coming up with an accurate PDR estimate on a single sheet of paper [or an electronic spreadsheet] is oversimplification at its worst. This is demonstrated by the excessively high supplemental rates that almost all insurance companies are currently experiencing.

Of course, this isn’t to say that an accurate estimate of a PDR job can’t be made.

For example, there’s a company called Dent Estimators [dentestimators.com]-a widely known business in the PDR industry that has largely been ignored by the collision and insurance industries that has, in most cases, been able to include the factors needed to produce an accurate PDR estimate.

Having tested its process myself, I can vouch that it’s straightforward and easy to use, and that it automatically factors in the type of information that only a PDR technician with years of experience will have acquired.

Did I Say PDR Experience?

The lack of factual, forthright information and the limited education available to entities outside of the PDR industry has contributed greatly to the challenges we’re facing today.

In many cases, something that began as a simple sales tool for a single company has become widely accepted as a standard within the PDR industry.

While it may have been momentarily beneficial, the overall impact has added to the confusion and misconceptions now facing our industry, not to mention outside entities, as they try to sort the facts from sales propaganda.

Many of these misconceptions have arisen in part because the relatively young PDR industry has not yet evolved a mechanism to enable valid ideas and information to flow to the outside entities that make use of the PDR process for its time- and cost-saving benefits.

Recently, organizers launched the National Alliance of Paintless Dent Repair Technicians [www.napdrt.org]. The goal of this nonprofit group is to provide independent PDR technicians from across the country a chance to come together and help define the problems facing our young industry-and ultimately create solutions to fix those problems.

The goal of NAPDRT is to work hand-in-hand with the end-users of the PDR process, to help them sort PDR fact from fiction. The way to do this is to define sorely needed standards that can be referenced by all parties involved to bring PDR into the mainstream of the auto repair industry.