Get the Picture

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2000
by Angela R. Garber

Professional photographers often take an entire roll of film to get one good picture. For the average shutterbug, the ratio of wasted film to usable images can be even worse. And when you consider that developing costs range from about $7 to $13 per roll, depending on geographic location and how quickly you want them back, it can get expensive.

Rusty Rauls is the general manager of a collision repair facility in Anaheim, Calif. He and the 28 employees at Fix Auto Collision work directly with insurance companies and car dealerships to repair cars that have been damaged in accidents, and as a result, photography is part of the day-to-day business.

"We handle collisions mainly for insurance direct repair programs (DRPs). I have eight of those, and I have five dealerships that send me business," says Rauls. "And each one of those insurance programs has a different requirement of how you write the estimate and what kind of photographs you take."

Luckily for Rauls and other collision repair shops, the insurance industry is slowly but surely getting with the digital age. The advantage for Rauls is clear: Digital imaging not only produces instant results, saving time and money associated with developing, but it also allows for a fast turnaround time and quick payment on claims.

THE DIGITAL AGE
"In the past we used to just shoot a 35mm or a Polaroid and put them in our file, and [the insurance companies] would pick them up," he says. "Then it got to the point where we would attach them to a photo sheet and mail them in, and we'd keep a copy here for our records."

"I was averaging film total ­ Polaroid film, 35mm film, and developing ­ of around $600 to $700 per month, but there was a time when I was up to about $900," says Rauls. And there was no reimbursement for film and developing costs ­ that was just part of doing business in the direct repair programs. In addition to the cost of developing prints, there was also the issue of getting the canisters of film to the photo shop in the first place.

The switch to digital imaging has allowed Rauls to cut the cost of producing photos drastically. Instead of purchasing countless rolls of film each month, paying developing costs, and waiting around to see whether the pictures come out, Rauls purchased digital imaging software and uses Kodak digital cameras, and provides each estimator with a scan card. Each DRP has a preferred digital imaging program, and Rauls has a multiple user license on each. There are still a few companies that require 35mm, and for those Rauls spends about $90 to $170 per month. "It's cut my expenses $500 a month, easy," he says.

HOW IT WORKS
"We have eight DRPs, three different imaging programs, three different estimating programs, and two different cameras. Each of my estimators has his own 10MB scan card that goes in the camera," says Rauls. "Each takes his own pictures, and then sticks his card in the card reader and pulls from that the photographs that he needs and downloads them into the imaging and estimating system."

"We can mark and describe on those photographs, we can draw on them, we can circle damage, we can write notes," he says, "and it's great for billing purposes."

"We are sending photos in some cases before we've really finished fixing the car, which means the insurance company now has that information ahead of time. We can take a picture and upload it with a preliminary estimate, and the insurance company has it in its system immediately," Rauls says. "They can crop it, or print it, or whatever they want to do to it. And they don't have to wait for me."

"In the old days we couldn't do any of that stuff. You just took a picture, clipped it to a piece of paper, and mailed it to an address. And hopefully they got the photo ­ and if they didn't they called you in a couple of weeks and you'd [have to] send a second copy," he says.

"Before we would fix the car, send all this stuff afterwards, and the litigation department at the insurance company might be in the middle of negotiations ­ and they've never even seen a photograph," he says. "Now they have an instant view of the damage. If they have any questions about an estimate, they can call us immediately or send a re-inspector out to look at the car."

"They could never do any of that before ­ it was hurry up and wait," Rauls says. "Now it's done instantaneously."

GETTING PAID
The new systems benefit Rauls as much as ­ if not more than ­ the insurance companies. He doesn't have to go to the trouble of attaching documents and image files to an e-mail. He doesn't have to make sure that they are being sent to the right person at the right insurance company. The vendors for each imaging and estimating system act as an intermediary. Connected via modem, the vendor dials into Rauls' system and remotely scans for completed claims. And Rauls doesn't have to go out hunting for business, they send new assignments to him via modem too.

The instant uploads help Rauls get paid in a more timely manner than he was accustomed to under the old manual system. "We used to wait 30 to 45 days to get paid," he says. "Now, when we send the 'final repair' with the final photos, we're paid in three to 10 days ­ which is unbelievably awesome."

The three digital imaging programs that Rauls and his staff use ­ Mitchell's ImageMate, ADP's Photolink, and CCC Pathways' Digital Imaging Program ­ each link to a corresponding estimating program (UltraMate Estimating, Shoplink, and Pathways, respectively). The estimating programs then work in conjunction with Fix Auto Collision's accounting program so that information does not have to be re-keyed for the estimates that turn into repair orders.

"We could write up to 25 to 30 estimates in a day, and approximately five to 10 might end up as orders," says Rauls. To ensure that only the appropriate information makes it into the accounting program, it is configured in such a way that Rauls and his staff flag the individual claims to be logged.

Rauls also has the imaging and estimating systems installed on the network, rather than just on individual PCs, so that he can access the information from his office or from the floor. And since he knows that not all four estimators will need to be in the same program at the same time, he has limited his licensing to three to five users per estimating application and two users per digital imaging application.

The staff at Fix Auto Collision is a busy bunch. They don't have time to waste waiting for photos to make it back from the developer, and they can't afford to wait for the insurance companies to take their sweet time paying them for a job well done. And with $4.5 million in annual sales, it's clear they've made the technology work for them.

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