Evolving with integrity: changes in autobody repair

Modern Insurance Magazine | 26 July 2021
Driven by providing exemplary customer service, Marc Holding discusses how The Vella Group are responding to digitisation, vehicular advancements and the push for carbon neutrality in the auto body repair industry.
Evolving with integrity: changes in autobody repair

Q. The repair industry is undergoing sizeable and rapid changes. How has the process of digitisation impacted the repair process and what have been the key challenges in responding to this recent shift?

I think it's fair to say that this is an area our sector is lagging behind in and will require focussing on. Customer behaviours and expectations are heavily geared around digital interaction, and the pandemic has only sped up the rate of change. A challenge for us and our clients is that in some areas we operate using off-the-shelf legacy systems that aren't always as well developed as they need to be and need innovation so we can fully embrace emerging digital technologies. With so many different businesses involved in the supply chain, making sure there is alignment, visibility and connectivity as we develop is critical.

It's also important for us to consider the benefits of digitisation internally; how we communicate with our staff and how we use data to manage and improve productivity and performance. There is a great deal of work to be done to truly embrace digital opportunities. It's a key aspect of our strategic planning.

This makes digital a key focus for recruitment, understanding that we need to build in roles that never would have been part of a traditional bodyshop setup. The pandemic has really sped up the transition to digital, and it's accelerated to the point where most businesses will need to have adapted to it, or they'll fall behind. For our business, and the sector as a whole, it's a key focus and a very hot topic.

Q. Vehicle technology has seen similar speedy development, with e-vehicle popularity and connected cars. How are The Vella Group ensuring you continue delivering quality, safe repairs whilst embracing the changes in vehicles themselves?

Repairers and insurers have had electric vehicles and the general digitisation of vehicles on the to-do list for the last couple of years, but the numbers being reported suggest that customers are transitioning to e-vehicles at a more rapid pace. This is being supported by manufacturers and governments making firm commitments to phase out traditional fuels and continue focussing on driver safety. The last 12 months has really brought this to the fore.

We are fortunate that we were on this journey already. We have installed charging points and EV repair and safety equipment across our sites, while training all technicians to Level 3 Hybrid. We have also trained the rest of our onsite teams to Level 2 Hybrid. The volume of EV repairs is still relatively small but, from a safety viewpoint, we are making sure all our staff are aware of the dangers and know what to do.

We are also seeing the changes in the wider technology of mixed materials, such as aluminium, that are increasingly become part of vehicle construction. Additionally, you have the digital advances in terms of onboard computers and safety systems, which continue to evolve. For our business, it's really about planning for continuous reinvestment; in the technology and skills, so we have the capability to repair those vehicles. An added complexity is the increasing average age of vehicles on UK roads, and therefore having accidents. To accommodate this, we are investing in the skills for tomorrow whilst we still have a large number of older vehicles, we need to be able to repair too.

I really believe this is a space where repairers, insurers and vehicle manufacturers have to work together. It's vital to have positive and honest conversations taking place so we can keep customers safe and get them back to normal after an accident. Looking after customers is something we are all invested in.

Q. With the changes to the vehicles and surrounding industry, it is safe to presume the consumer dynamic and expectations have also changed. How would you categorise this change and how has it affected the repair service?

We have seen real fluctuations in customer behaviour over the last 12-18 months. As Lockdown settled in, our NPS was at a record high, as customers were really grateful for the service we provided in what were very challenging conditions.

It's another area to keep pace on. Consumer expectations in many business sectors have evolved and become much more time-sensitive. In the past, customers tended to be happy with just knowing what day they were getting their car back. Quite quickly, that developed to wanting to know if it would be AM to PM, to now wanting a precise time window.

More customers are also expecting interaction to be digitally based, rather than a phone call. While this is expanding as a demand, many customers still require the right level of human interaction. This is a distressing time for many people, having just been in an accident, so any digital interaction must be partnered with great, human, customer service.

While we are continuing to develop our digital solution over the coming months, we are also making sure we don't lose sight of the fact that the personal element is really important and reassuring to many customers.

Q. The Vella Group takes a proactive approach to social responsibility, receiving the "AutoRaise Charity Repairer Supporting Apprenticeships Award" for 2021. What is Vella's approach to social responsibility?

A. We really don't see apprenticeships as just a social responsibility but a key business responsibility too. Investing in people is paramount to keeping up with the technological changes in vehicle repair. Understanding the skills shortage in our industry, developing apprentices also helps apply a brake to wage inflation.

Without the flow of fresh talent into the industry, wages will continue to rise, capacity will diminish and costs spiral, which impacts repairers, insurers and everyone who wants to get their car insured. Apprentices are a long-term investment for us, and we feel strongly that it is one that supports young people in our local communities and also supports the industry as a whole.

We've been careful to look at initiatives that matter to us as a business, that we care about, and we feel that we can contribute to. We know we can help in many areas as a business and that's the right and responsible thing to do. Customers are savvy enough to see through businesses that are just in it for the PR.

I think there will be more scrutiny over the coming years, as more people get into the headspace of what it means to be an ethical and socially responsible business.

When you look at huge areas such as diversity and inclusivity, and mental health and wellbeing, you really start to see how far behind our industry really is. There's a huge amount of work to be done, and apprenticeship programmes are a key part of that, coupled with a fundamental change in cultures and attitudes across the sector.

Q. The Vella Group is continuing to expand its footprint across the country, gaining four new sites in the last five years. Having received the NBRA Silver Level Greener Bodyshop award in 2019, is it correct to presume a large portion of that "footprint" will be green?

A. Greener is the key word. We operate in the automotive sector, so we have parts and paint shipped in from around the world. It's not by nature something that is green, but we can make it better and this is something we have a firm goal to do. As part of this, we became Carbon Neutral accredited (PAS 2060) at the start of the year. However, as this is heavily reliant on offsetting, we see it as a stopgap, rather than a solution.

We still have work to do to reduce our impact on the environment and have ringfenced investment specifically for developing our repair centres to support this. It's reassuring to us to see there is an agenda for change coming from some insurers. Their sustainability commitments, to customers and investors, rely on contributions from the supply chain and they are definitely looking at what repairers are doing in this area.

This is probably what gains the most momentum in our sector. Sometimes, pressure is a good thing to help getting things moving. The continued focus across the whole supply chain will gain traction, though we have to admit that the industry isn't in the best place to start from. I think then, as an industry, we can start moving forward. It's going to be a long journey and the Vella Group want to be a business that is leading the way in creating a more sustainable future.

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