Where Have the Good Inspectors Gone and Who Is Filling Their Shoes?
Where Have the Good Inspectors Gone and Who Is Filling Their Shoes?

As a little girl, I didn't grow up dreaming of becoming an owner of an inspection company, but that is what happened. Now there is no business I would rather be in for a variety of reasons. Over the years this industry has been very good to me and my family. Many of my closest friends are in the VSC industry, starting with our wonderful staff and the talented inspectors we work with every day, and including the managers and staff of the companies we serve. I love this business and I have a passion for it, which is why I am troubled by the problems we face today.

I have written this critique to share my perspective as an inspector on our industry (the VSC claims administration industry) and offer ideas to solve the problems. I accept my share of responsibility for where the inspection industry remains today. And, although I am not claiming to have the magic bullet and don't know if my ideas are among the best ones out there, I would love to hear your thoughts on what I do have to suggest so that we, as integral parts of this industry, can begin to work out solutions to our common problems.

The table below provides a comparison of the inspection process over the past 15 years and some of the changes that we have seen occur.

1985 2009 2010
24-48 hrs to visit RF 24 hrs or less to visit RF 24 hrs or less to visit RF
Verbal report not required to be from RF Verbal report from RF mandatory 99% of the time Verbal report from RF mandatory 99% of the time
Handwritten inspection notes, delivered via snail mail (no time limit) Handwritten report w/ disclaimer signed by RF, with typed version uploaded to an inspection website by next day Handwritten report w/ disclaimer signed by RF, with typed version uploaded to an inspection website by next day. At least one large inspection company will require completion on-site while at RF
35mm photos (6-10), taped to a photo sheet, delivered via snail mail Digital photos (20-40) uploaded to an inspection website by use of computer/laptop, no later than the morning following inspection completion Digital photos (20-40) uploaded to an inspection website while still at repair facility, by use of laptop, WiFi, cellular phone. One system currently being marketed, only has the ability to STRICTLY transfer photos obtained by use of a cellular phone versus a digital camera (cell phones have no flash or manual focus capability, which will likely create it's own issue with quality)
Average time spent at repair facility performing a single inspection: 35 minutes *Average time spent at repair facility performing a single inspection: 55 minutes *Average time spent at a repair facility performing a single inspection: 65 minutes
Time spent preparing inspection notes, photo pages, invoicing: 5-10 hrs per week Time spent typing and uploading written reports, photos, invoicing: 10-15 hrs per week Time spent typing and uploading written reports, photos, invoicing: 10-15 hrs per week (unless required to complete while at RF)
**Inspector base rate per mechanical inspection: $50-$55 **Inspector base rate per mechanical inspection: $40-$60 **Inspector base rate per mechanical inspection: $40-$60
*Attributed to significant increase in multi-component failures inspected; increase in number of photos required; technical advances in vehicle design; intensity of testing required for failure verification; verbal report hold times; transfer of information from repair facility, which is not an entirely new process. There have been previous unsuccessful attempts in the past to replace inspectors through technological advances.

**Varies based on which inspection company you work for, and not necessarily based on technical knowledge/ability.

Increased Costs

Anyone who makes the claim that additional technological advances "don’t cost inspectors money or expose them to liabilities" is not viewing the industry through the eyes of an inspector. As the comparison shows, technological advancements have made it necessary for an INSPECTOR to make personal investments for often costly equipment such as digital cameras, desktop and/or laptop computers, Internet and WiFi service and cell phones – many of which require continual updating so that we can continue to stay current with the most recent technology necessary to keep up with our providers, dealerships and to stay ahead of our competition.

Then we have the effect of significant increases in gasoline prices since 1985 – approximately 166 percent. In spite of all these changes and efforts to improve our inspection processes, not only does it take longer to perform a single mechanical inspection, 95 percent of all inspectors have not had the option of increasing their base rate to cover these additional improvements and expenses. In fact, I have heard of many instances in which inspectors were required to LOWER their base fees. To an inspector, time is money, and this creates an unpleasant, yet unavoidable, dichotomy for the inspector because inspections are more time consuming, yet more inspections are necessary to maintain the same income level as 20 years ago. The result is that quality suffers!

Increased Competition

During the late 1990s through 2007, the volume of industry inspections was unbelievably high. There was a push for quicker arrival at repair facilities, much of which resulted in the birth of several new inspection companies (many of which have since gone out of business). Many of the here-today-gone-tomorrow inspection companies were started by former field inspectors, or claims adjustors who wanted to quickly cash-in on the significant money they saw being spent on inspections. They did so by arming themselves with proprietary information they "borrowed" while working with inspection agencies. Their strategy was simple, "we will offer lower inspection fees to gain a bigger share of the industry’s inspection volume." And hence, the price wars began.

Quality of Inspectors

Yes, I have a vested interest in increased inspection fees, but right now I am focused on the problems that all of us have contributed to. As an industry, the quest to provide faster service has resulted in unintended consequences, from which we have yet to recover. Volume was at its highest, inspection prices were being reduced, everyone wanted 24-hr service and quicker return of written and photo documentation was being required. It was a mad rush to bring on new inspectors and accommodate the industry's wishes. This is where we began to experience problems with the technical knowledge of inspectors.

From where I sat, with very few exceptions, the industry didn't seem to want to hold inspectors or agencies accountable for their actions (or lack of actions in many cases). This further allowed for the expansion, and use, of technically unqualified inspectors. The unqualified inspection workforce (albeit presently still the minority) has led to trust concerns throughout the entire industry – and let's face it, an inspector is one of the industry's strongest lines of defense against fraud. We truly become dysfunctional without a high level of trust. This includes the inspection agencies as well, who should have the greatest control over an inspector's use/performance.

The entire industry, including myself, has had a hand in creating these concerns, and it will take a commitment by the majority to fix it. Industry inspection volume has decreased significantly over the past 18 months, and the lesser qualified/lower paid (sometimes untrustworthy inspectors) have negatively impacted the financial viability of the good ones (many of which have taken part-time jobs to survive, or have quit altogether).

We must weed our garden now, and fertilize the remaining good crop of inspectors. I am committed, along with my organization, to helping in any way I can to bring about the necessary change(s). The following are suggestions about how we as an industry can begin to accomplish our goal and bring about change:

  1. We acknowledge there are serious issues with QUALITY, TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE, ACCOUNTABILITY, and TRUST, along with why they exist. If we continue to close our eyes to these issues, incorporating the available technical advances will just be "window dressing," and in many cases not even "designer window dressing," for a plethora of problems yet to come. A prime example is the use of the cellular phone for inspection photos. Phones without flash or manual focus capabilities can lack the necessary detail required for taking a useful photograph.
  2. We acknowledge and accept that inspection fees at rates lower than 20 years ago are not likely to bring about the necessary change at the required pace.
  3. Realize that inspectors' compensation should be more in line with their counterparts/peers such as Shop Foremen and Lead Master Techs (on average, they are presently below these levels).
  4. Realize that an inspector only has between five and six hours per day in which to perform inspections (especially considering travel, RF breaks and lunch hours, and customers in service lanes).
  5. Realize that by not holding repair facilities accountable for their fraudulent actions, and by simply restricting an inspector from a particular facility upon request, may have consequences.
  6. Realize the importance of knowing your inspection agency/partner (financial standing, how they treat their inspectors, how/what they compensate their inspectors, willingness to accept responsibility and accountability).
  7. Establish an inspector certification and rating program to include code of conduct standards, technical knowledge, ongoing technical training, diagnostic capabilities, problem solving skills, communication skills (written and verbal), personal responsibility, trustworthiness and legal ramifications of their inspection opinions.
  8. Establish an industry review panel, where concerns regarding an inspector’s lack of qualifications, accountabilities or trustworthiness can be reviewed and shared with the entire industry.
  9. Consider standardizing inspection procedures (from an inspector’s point of view).
  10. And last, but certainly not least, perhaps it's time to consider two-tier inspection pricing, not based solely on an inspector's technical qualifications, but consideration also given to the type/extent of information verification and how that information is being returned to the client.

A few years ago, as a VSCAC speaker, I expressed concern about the direction of the inspection industry. Today, I worry about how long a pool of inspectors will actually be around. I would greatly appreciate hearing your impressions and ideas, and hopefully we can start to improve things together.