Damage Claims — Documentation and an Established Procedure Are Key
Two things are certain in the car wash business, especially concerning in-bay automatics (IBAs) and tunnels: wash-quality complaints and damage claims. Re-washes and refunds usually take care of the first category, but when it comes to damage claims, a more professional and comprehensive way of handling the situation is necessary.
PROBLEMS BY TYPE
Each type of car wash has its own unique set of problems and different ways of dealing with them.
For example, IBA washes are largely unattended and a few motorists look to this type of wash as an easy target to blame for any external damage to their vehicle. After all, no one is around to refute their claim and they figure the owner will be forced to pay since it will be virtually impossible to prove otherwise. Normally that would be true, except most IBA operators now realize that their only protection is security cameras. All sites, attended or not, need the best surveillance and vehicle-damage-inspection systems they can get to safeguard the property and prevent improper claims.
Express-exterior washes are in a similar situation in that some are unattended or only have one or two people present who are usually very busy with loading and prepping and are not oriented to pre-wash inspections. Even if they do notice pre-existing damage they are not usually in a position to provide any written documentation that will help later if a claim should arise from that vehicle. Here again, the only protection is inspection cameras that capture the views necessary to provide documented evidence that will withstand scrutiny and carry more weight than just an employee’s word that he or she saw damage prior to the wash process.
Full service, flex serve, lube shops, detail centers, and other types of operations that take the customer out of the vehicle have a lot more exposure and can risk various types of claims including employee theft from vehicles, damage to customers’ vehicles by an employee, and even theft of the vehicle when it is left alone. Management can handle these types of incidents professionally and promptly if you have developed procedures and forms for dealing with them. In fact, no matter what type of operation you have, it is important to devise a plan to deal with damage claims that works for everyone involved.
Whether you are dealing with common claims such as mirror, antenna, or trim damage, or more serious tunnel collisions, having the right forms can guide everyone through the documentation process and even serve to calm irate customers if done correctly. Many of these forms can be obtained through your regional or national associations, and then be customized by management for your type of operation.
DAMAGE CLAIM FORMS
Bill Consolo, the owner of Chief’s Auto Wash in Ohio, says that it is important to demonstrate to your customers that you value your relationship with them and that you take their claim seriously. “We all experience many claims throughout the year,” says Consolo, “Some we accept as a matter of course, and others we deny. Since management is absent about a third of the time the wash is open, we have developed a simple system to handle complaints and claims. It involves the use of several forms. The first is the damage claim form. This form accomplishes two things; First and foremost, it serves to take the wind out of the customer’s sails when he has been wronged or thinks he has been wronged. The use of this form immediately tells the customer that he is at a professional car wash that has a professional method of handling damage claims, even when the owners are not present. Once your employee completes this form, it is placed in the daily bag and dropped in the safe at night.
“The form includes the date and time of the alleged incident, all of the customer’s vital information, vehicle information, and the customer’s description of the claim. At the bottom of the form, we have a note that lets the customer know we take his claim seriously. We do tell customers that the form is for informational purposes only and is not an admission of responsibility. In the form, we state that we will be in contact with them within two business days to set up a meeting at the car wash to evaluate the claim.
“When we accept a damage claim — 90 percent of claims involve whip antennas or rear wiper blades on minivans — we quickly fill out a damage repair authorization form. This form has the customer’s name, address, phone numbers, vehicle information, and a description of the repair to be made. The customer then proceeds to take this to the local body shop we use. If the car has to be kept for a few hours or longer and the customer needs use of a vehicle, we will arrange for a rental car and cover that cost, provided they have insurance,” says Consolo.
Damage forms work well, but they are not the end but rather the beginning of the damage claims process. Next is the evaluation phase in which you either accept or reject the claim.
Jennifer Spears, a systems design engineer at CarWashCameras.com says, “The first step in evaluating any claim is to review the footage from your surveillance cameras or, if you have it, a vehicle condition documentation system. The quality of the video footage has to be superior since it will be used to help determine whether damage was pre-existing or if damage occurred during the wash process.”
Our eyes operate in 3-D and are able to focus at different depths constantly, but cameras are 2-D and have to be manually focused, so it takes some specialized digital cameras and high-resolution recorders to be able to produce an image that will permit close inspection.
Jennifer explains that a digital vehicle condition documentation system utilizes ultra-high-resolution cameras strategically placed to view all of the critical angles and surfaces of vehicles entering and leaving the tunnel.
The system, she says, uses six inspection cameras at the entrance and also at the exit, that give you the critical angles needed to document most damage. These purpose-built cameras can see everything from tire and wheel damage up to dents, trim, mirror, and even antenna condition. Even subtle damage or dents in bumpers and missing or damaged bumper trim, hood ornaments, wipers, even debris or cargo in the back of pickups can be seen in the megapixel-quality footage.
Jennifer adds that cameras at the exit end are necessary as well because they will be used to determine if the damage occurred during the wash process. This is especially helpful when a customer comes back days or even weeks later and claims that your wash damaged his vehicle. Without documenting the condition of the vehicle when it leaves, the only proof you will have will be the footage of the vehicle entering undamaged. There will be no way to tell if the damage occurred in the tunnel or days later at another car wash or in a parking lot far away from your facility.
INSIDE THE BAY
It is also important to have cameras in the tunnel viewing the wash process and the procession of vehicles. However, these cameras are different from the inspection cameras because they provide a wide-angle view of a larger area and at a greater distance. They too are specialized, but in a different way.
The environment of any wash bay or tunnel is extreme to say the least. High humidity, overspray, mist, and steam carry corrosive chemicals and can render an ordinary camera and its lens useless in just a few months. The cameras in the inspection system are sealed and rigorously tested to ensure that they will never condensate or fog during use.
Tunnel cameras allow you to see if equipment is malfunctioning, monitor line speed, and also determine how long it is stopped. They also will reveal if brake lights come on causing a roller jump and collision, or if a window is rolled down or a door is opened during the wash process.
It is recommended to have at least one camera for every 20 or 25 feet of equipment placement. It is also good to avoid zooming the lens in too close so that you have an overall view of the area and can also see most employee slip and falls as well as unsafe practices or behavior.
Another advantage to using a vehicle inspection system is that you will automatically capture front and rear license tags that will make it easy to search for the correct vehicle. It also documents all vehicles entering your wash.
After you have reviewed the footage from the cameras that captured the vehicle, it’s decision time. Do you pay the claim, deny it, or submit it to your insurance company?
As an owner, you will have to personally evaluate the claims being made against your wash and use your own discretion when deciding whether or not to submit a claim or just pay it.
If the claim seems valid and the damage is minimal, you may want to negotiate the claim yourself. If the cause is not clear, but it involves a good customer, you may want to consider paying the claim anyway as a gesture of goodwill. If, however, the claim seems suspicious or the amount of damage is sizable, you may elect to pass on the information to your insurer.
Too many claims within a year, as I’m sure you already know, can trigger your insurer to drop your policy, or at the very least to escalate your premiums — by 50 percent or more. Because of this, many wash owners may elect to pay a claim even if it is over their deductible, just so they can keep their insurance.
EXPLAIN A DENIAL
If you decide to deny a claim because you really don’t think the damage was a result of your car wash, then the key is to try to do it without losing the customer if possible. Instead of just telling them you are denying the claim and dismissing them, take the time to show them why you believe the damage was probably there when they came in.
This can be as simple as showing them the video footage that shows, for example, that their hood ornament wasn’t there when they entered the wash, or that the dent was plainly visible when it passed by the inspection cameras.
Other types of damage may mean taking them on a tour of your tunnel to show them how your equipment works. For example, if a customer complains that your equipment caused the vertical scratch on the side of their vehicle, show them how your wraps and brushes move in a horizontal direction, making it impossible for the equipment to cause a vertical scratch. Knowing your equipment and what it is, or is not capable of, will pay off when dealing with damage claims.
Most customers do not consider the many alternative ways that their car could have been damaged when they notice something after a wash. Explaining how a dent could have been caused by other car doors in a parking lot, an errant shopping cart, or even vandalism will help them to consider that your wash may not be to blame.
Paint problems are another area where you will have claims. However, many times the car wash only uncovers pre-existing damage or weaknesses caused by a variety of other culprits such as stones, salt, bugs, birds, tree sap, or even hail.
If the customer is still insistent that your wash somehow caused the damage, offer to send him to your detail shop or a local body shop you have a relationship with, to have the scratch buffed out or paint touched up. After this type of care and attention to their concerns they should be convinced that you take their claims seriously and that you are trying your best to make them happy and keep them as a customer.
Trying to satisfy the customer in a calm, professional manner usually goes a long way in keeping that customer and creating goodwill while denying the claim. If you butt heads with the customer and lose your cool, you will lose more than that one customer. You will also lose the people they talk to about the incident.
With more than 20 years of experience in the car wash business, Allen Spears currently owns four car washes in Texas. He is also the chief engineer at CarWashCameras.com (a division of Rugged CCTV) and has designed surveillance systems for more than 4,000 car washes
during his career.