Minor car accidents are becoming a little less stressfu... Minor car accidents are becoming a little less stressful with the help of smartphone apps (Getty Images).
As insurance costs rise with car prices, ways to reduce costs seem to diminish. One Chicago-based company called Snapsheet, however, is poised to reverse some of that trend, by helping streamline the fender-bender repair process using motorists' smartphones to dramatically speed up damage claim estimates.

About nine years ago Snapsheet CEO Brad Weisberg had a minor car accident. He followed his insurance company's standard instructions to get three estimates of the damage. "It pissed me off," he recalls. "The first estimate was $300, the second was $1,000, and the third was $1,200. I thought, why are they so different? Someone's taking advantage of me. I obsessed about this for years."

By 2010 Weisberg started Bodyshopbids.com, which sought to direct its visitors to reputable body shops in a dozen or so metro areas. The site's users were looking for the best deals and were usually paying for body repairs to their own cars out of pocket. But only about 10 percent of body shop customers pay this way, Weisberg says, while the other 90 percent make a claim to their auto insurance companies.

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During his 2005 repair efforts, Weisberg observed one thing: "I noticed the estimator just looked at my car, they didn't take it apart." So he had the idea that a photo--not an actual visit to a body shop--would serve the process just as well, and in 2012 he started Snapsheet, a company that would estimate crash damage from smartphone photos. "Smartphones today can have 40-megapixel cameras, and I thought why can't they just take a photo of the damage?" he recalls.

Today many insurance companies often also send estimators to view a customer's car in person for a damage appraisal. But getting an appraisal this way means a personal appointment that can take a week to arrange. Using Snapsheet's new process, customers take a photo of their car right after an accident, and can often get an estimate and arrange body shop payment in less than 24 hours. "Over 50 percent of our claims close in the same day," boasts Weisberg.

So far Snapsheet contracts to seven major insurance companies, and the process works behind-the-scenes to most insurance customers. When a customer has a minor accident, they call their insurance carrier and are instructed to download a Snapsheet application to their smartphone. This app tells them how to take photos of their car's damage, and forwards the images to Snapsheet headquarters near Chicago. "We have a team real-time triage the photos, and if they are not clear we call the customer immediately and have them take more photos. If we still don't like the photos, then we send somebody out. We don't take any chances with photos," explains Weisberg.

Weisberg says the photos are surprisingly good: "If customers know they are going to get a good estimate, they take good photos. People are getting better at taking photos, you know, a lot of people take photos of their Chinese food at a restaurant and put them on Facebook right away."

Sometimes, however, body shops find hidden damage. In this case, the shop takes more photos, sends them to the estimators at Snapsheet, which then revises the estimate and payment. The majority of claims, however, receive estimates within three business hours, says Weisberg. Snapsheet then returns an estimate to the customer, who can either select a body shop or can have Snapsheet find one. Snapsheet, which is paid by the insurance companies, then arranges payment from the insurance company to either the body shop or the customer's bank.

The key to accuracy, Weisberg notes, is that Snapsheet estimators don't work out of their homes.

"We treat estimators like rock stars," he adds. "Right now everyone works in one office, we talk about what's going on in the industry. We have ping pong tables, putting greens, an open atmosphere in our office. It's a totally different atmosphere than they are accustomed to. They get yelled at in body shop."

New estimators are given a six-week training program, after which 100 percent of the claims they estimate are audited. A quarter of veteran estimators' claims are audited, and then ten percent of those are double-checked, explains Weisman.

Because of the speed and accuracy of the Snapsheet system, claims Weisberg, he expects costs will go down. "Insurance companies pay out over $100 billion in indemnity payments each year. Carriers are giving up 'leakage,'" which means the amount they pay for inaccurate estimates, delays, and costs of rental cars while cars sit unfixed, he adds.. "We're going to be saving billions because we're writing accurate estimates. I can't say exactly how much, but I'm hoping we will affect the industry in a positive way."

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