Damage Control

Check out these nine expert tips for streamlining your collision estimating process and learn how to apply them in your shop.


Estimating the cost of repairs in a collision shop is one of the most important steps in the repair process. According to industry professionals, the way we estimate hasn’t changed in about 30 years. But the vehicles we drive are rapidly evolving, especially with the introduction of computers.

Unfortunately, that means the current estimating processes in many collision repair shops are inefficient. But there are ways to improve them. Check out these nine tips from our collision-repair authorities that will help you streamline your estimating process.

1. Have all the right information

It’s important to know as much as possible about the car. Without knowing the vehicle, it’s easy to order the wrong parts, disassemble and reassemble incorrectly or inefficiently or to misunderstand how damage is transmitted. Knowing what you’re working with is a critical first step for any estimate procedure.
“Cars today are more complicated than they were in the past,” says Greg Horn, vice president of industry relations at Mitchell International. So [before beginning an estimate], have complete information. Have the right vehicle, including the right option package, before you order parts.”

2. Use technology

Technology is continually developed to make our lives easier, and it can help simplify the estimating process in several ways. The easiest way to let technology help you is just to start using it.
Rick Tuuri, vice president of industry relations at AudaExplore, suggests that while an estimator is inspecting the vehicle, taking notes, taking photographs and writing down information, they should directly input their notes into a tablet rather than writing it on paper and then reentering the same information into a computer later. Most tablets are compatible with stylus pens so that you can write instead of type, if you prefer.

Mike Anderson, owner of CollisionAdvice Consulting, suggests using dual monitors during the review process. This, says Anderson, allows the estimator to review the estimate on one screen and compare it with photos, OEM parts graphics or repair procedures on the other screen.

3. Focus on quality, not quantity

An accurate estimate identifies the vehicle and the parts that need to be repaired and replaced. It should include the cost of labor, which allows all parties to understand the necessary costs and procedures. It also enables the process of purchasing correct parts and ensures that repairs move forward in an efficient manner, benefitting both the collision shop and the customer.

According to Anderson, “One of the things that I see is that estimators … don’t have enough time to write a complete or accurate estimate. So scheduling is key.”

An inaccurate estimate can result from rushing the process, especially when estimators are trying to meet quotas. And it can lead to ordering incorrect parts, unhappy customers and wasted time spent working with insurance adjusters multiple times or waiting for additional parts to arrive.

Ultimately, says Roger Cada, the CEO of Accountable Estimatics, “Mistakes in estimation slow down the entire shop. In the end, higher quality leads to higher quantity.”

The focus on quality should come from the entire staff, not just the estimator. Leadership that encourages high quantities over high quality can be a major cause of rushed and incomplete estimates that stall the process.

4. Follow the flow of damage

Vehicles are designed to absorb the force of a collision in a way that protects the passengers and, in some cases, pedestrians. Instead of taking the vehicle apart and searching for broken parts, experts advise following the flow of damage according to the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) information, which can usually be found online.

Anderson recommends that you “approach the visual inspection of the vehicle systematically.” Using such an approach for the inspection and to create the estimate allows the estimator to deliberately find hidden damage.

After looking at the vehicle as a whole, says Cada, “Follow the flow of damage as you tear down. If you tear down first, you don’t see the damage transmitter. Cars are totally different now; they’re trying to transmit the damage to keep it away from the customer. OEM websites show the flow of damage so you know where to look.”

After taking the car apart according to the flow of damage, Cada suggests ordering replacement parts and then inspecting the non-replacement parts for additional damage.

5. Create a repair plan

“An estimate is not a true repair plan,” says Horn. However, creating a repair plan is often a path to a more complete and accurate estimate. To build a repair plan, it’s important to work with repair technicians after tearing down the vehicle.

After the initial estimate, Cada says, “Talk to your technicians who will fix the car. Most estimates come from soft skills, not hands-on experience, so involving technicians can provide guidance on whether [specific parts] can be fixed or not. It’ll build a more competitive estimate, and it’ll be more profitable because labor is more profitable.”

6. Use the repair databases

There are three databases that describe estimating processes: CCC, Mitchell and Audatex. “Superb estimators,” says Aaron Schulenburg, executive director for the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), “have a solid understanding of all three.”

Schulenburg emphasizes that it’s important for estimators to “download all of them and become familiar with them.” Even if most shops use only one process, an understanding of the differences between them can improve estimation skills.

Cada adds that one of the fundamentals of estimating is “knowing the databases, the procedure pages that accompany the database and how to apply them.”

Schulenburg recommends the Database Enhancement Gateway (degweb.org), which allows users to search the databases.

7. Involve the customer at the right time

Customer service is important. When the customer is happy, the industry benefits. “If the customer is there,” Tuuri says, “we have to fix the customer first, and then we have to fix the car. Include the customer in the conversation, and it’ll [create] a much smoother process.”

However, having the estimator work out front near the customers in the waiting room can slow down the process. It’s important to focus on the job, ideally in a private room, during the estimation process. Schulenburg recommends keeping a list of commonly missed items near the estimator’s workspace. Having another employee focus on the customer first can help the estimator work more efficiently.

Then, Tuuri says, “Get the customer involved and help them understand the nature of the vehicle and the damage. Get them talking about themselves, make sure they’re OK, build that trust factor and share what information you can with them. If issues arise later, like supplements or a longer repair time than expected, it’s better to have a calm, happy customer. The better job you do up front, the easier it’ll be on the back end.”

8. Estimate first, shoot photos second

While accurate images are necessary for a quality estimate, the purpose of photographing a vehicle is not to estimate from the photos. “Insurance companies want to ensure payments and bills match,” says Cada, “so we take images to account for a line on the bill.”

Estimating from images can lead to huge errors in estimation, especially when an estimator is trying to evaluate a three-dimensional vehicle based on a two-dimensional photograph that may or may not contain the necessary information. For example, a plastic bumper may show no damage on the outside, but could be hiding underlying damage.

According to Cada, if an estimator writes their best estimate and then takes the images, they will do their best to capture the damages. Having a second person, who hasn’t seen the vehicle, compare the estimate and the images can help produce more accurate photos.

However, if the estimator takes photos first and then estimates, it’s likely they will miss hidden damages, and the estimate will be incomplete.

9. Review your process

Lastly, it’s always important to review your current processes and determine what works and where there’s room for improvement.
Are there things that an estimator commonly misses? Are vehicles moving smoothly from one station to the next? Cada suggests looking at the following key performance indicators to understand if the estimator is performing well.

• Cycle time
• Average repair hours per day
• Average number of supplements
• Average supplement costs
• Repair images
• Average profit per repair
• Average number of rental car extensions

Other estimators in the industry are a great reference point for comparisons. If your shop has room for improvement, it’s time to make some changes.

Estimation at its best

As vehicles change, the industry needs to adapt the way it works with them. Estimators may not bring in profits directly, but they do have control over profits. Improving their process helps build customer relationships, increase productivity and raise profits.

At its best, estimation is a complete plan for how the repair process will proceed. And strengthening estimation can strengthen the entire collision repair industry.