Changing Dynamics of Vehicle Estimating

Writing a successful estimate today requires technology, understanding your market, knowledge of substrates and other key factors.

Your estimating system is the first step toward a lean and efficient repair process, and it deserves to be understood and scrutinized before you sign the contract.

As if the revolution in automotive technology isn’t enough, your customer base is also changing at a rapid pace. Within the next few years, Generation Y drivers will be involved in more than 50 percent of the accidents in North America. Their needs, penchants and desires will come into play in every step of your business, including the estimating and repair processes.


Throw in the ever-changing world of technology in general, and you have a lot to think about before you choose the estimating system that will best meet your needs and help you create an accurate, complete and comprehensive estimate in the most time-efficient manner possible. So with all of this and more to think about, where do you begin? I’ve found that it’s always easiest to start at the beginning. The first things you see are the screen display and graphics.


When I was shopping for my first home computer, I was thinking about gigabytes, RAM, ROM, CD readers, speed – everything that I thought was important. I talked with a friend in the computer industry who gave me some interesting advice: “Get the biggest, best monitor you can afford.” Your eyes are going to spend a lot of time looking at it, and you want the best visual experience possible. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a clear picture can be worth a million.

Not only are clear graphics easier on the eye and more pleasant to work with, the better you can see the parts, the more likely you are to make the right decision the first time. Three-dimensional (3-D) illustrations have proven to save time and improve accuracy in estimating. The ability to clearly see parts illustrations and be able to rotate and “zoom” provides a distinct advantage to most estimators.

3-D has also proven to be an effective aid to communicate with your customer about the repairs to his or her vehicle (think Gen Y) and improve closing rates based on appearance alone. They can also convey critical information, like substrate identification, in the blink of an eye.

Substrate Identification

Vehicle manufacturers fight a constant battle in design to save weight, get better fuel economy, meet the CAFE standards and make cars safer. The best way to accomplish all of these goals is to use lighter-weight, stronger substrates in parts and cars. Aluminum and high-strength steels have gone mainstream. As you have heard by now, the next generation Ford F-150 will be an aluminum vehicle.

Boron, magnesium, carbon-fiber and other “exotic” materials are being used in high-end vehicles today. They will surely work their way into the entire vehicle population over the next few years. Knowing what materials you are dealing with is critical when writing an estimate.

While most vehicle makers identify substrate in their service manuals, today’s professional estimator needs to know “real-time.” Most information providers identify substrate in one manner or another within their respective systems, but color-coding may be the easiest way to quickly identify these various materials, providing visual support to the professional estimator. With color-coding, substrate is visually identifiable instantaneously, helping you to make the right decision the first time.

Complete Vehicle Identification – Beyond VIN Decode

With vehicles becoming increasingly complex, they are also loaded with a combination of standard features, options, packages, equipment and color-combinations. How complicated is it? Ford says they can build 20,000 Ford Mustangs with no two being exactly alike!

The more automated the process, the quicker and more accurate the estimate. Proper identification of the specific vehicle being estimated drives parts and labor decisions, whether automated or entered manually. Therefore, complete vehicle identification is critical to the estimating process.

Most, if not all, providers offer a vehicle identification number (VIN) decode feature. This decodes the standard 17-digit VIN down to the make, model, style and year of the vehicle being estimated, along with the engine and (sometimes) transmission.

Once the VIN has been decoded, the estimator must then identify all of the options, accessories and packages on the vehicle at hand, to ensure that the proper parts and labor are included in the estimate, whether they need to be manually selected or automatically included.

This can be a difficult and time-consuming process, and errors are commonplace. Small mistakes at the beginning of the process inevitably lead to inaccurate estimates, unnecessary supplements, resulting in time delays, increased costs, and sometimes, improper repair of the vehicle.

To avoid these errors, look for a comprehensive VIN decode feature. Every VIN is absolutely unique to the vehicle that it is attached to. Remember, “This is my VIN. There are many like it, but this one is mine!” Compre­hensive VIN decode identifies everything that a standard decode does, plus a lot more. Connec­tivity to the OEM’s databases result in complete identification of the specific vehicle being appraised.

Comprehensive VIN provides the “Build Sheet Data,” or “Regular Production Options” codes; the “DNA” of the car. In addition to make, model, style, year, engine and transmission, it also captures all packages, options and features that were on the vehicle when it was made. Paint code, interior, trim, sound systems, headlamp type (Xenon, LED lamps, HID), everything you need to know to write the best sheet possible.

This is critical, especially when you consider that the cost of headlamps alone can vary by a thousand dollars or more, depending on the type of headlamp on the car. Hybrid vehicles often have different parts numbers from their non-hybrid counterparts for various components, including hoods, deck lids that can vary in price by 50 to 100 percent or more.

Tests show that this saves a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes in estimate preparation, and increases accuracy of vehicle identification to virtually 100 percent (aftermarket add-ons not identified by VIN). That means you have a head start in speed and accuracy with comprehensive VIN decode.


Tablet Compatibility

It seems like everyone has a smartphone or a tablet like an iPad or a Windows 8 device. Suffice it to say that virtually every “Gen-Yer” has at least one, sometimes two or more. The ability to walk the car while writing an estimate with visually impressive graphics and comprehensive VIN decode goes a long way to closing the deal, especially with Gen Y drivers.

Getting the customer involved at the beginning of the process has proven to keep them committed to the end. Generation Y wants to know about everything, every step of the way. Just do them a favor – once you’re repairing their car, text, don’t call. They love information, not interruptions.

It’s been said that the start is half the race. If that’s still true (and I think it is), get the best start you can in the repair process by writing a quick, accurate and complete sheet the first time. To do that, you have to select the best estimating system you can find.