Regular panel reviews have made loss adjusting a tough business to make money in. But a large IT investment in vehicle inspection could give Miller Fisher a competitive edge. Christine Seib goes on the road to investigate

Earlier this month loss adjuster Miller Fisher posted its results for 2001. And they didn't make pretty reading. Pre-tax losses increased from £3.1m in 2000 to £16.8m and turnover fell to £41.2m from £48.3m.

But Miller Fisher has a new game plan. In order to differentiate itself from its competitors, Miller Fisher will start promoting add-on services like motor inspection. Most loss adjusters offer this service, but outsource it. Miller Fisher does the work itself and the key to inspecting efficiently is a robust IT system.

The system cost an initial £300,000 and requires an ongoing investment of £25,000 per year to keep it up to date. The benefit to the loss adjuster is tighter control of service levels. Miller Fisher claims it can tailor service levels with greater flexibility and maintain quality better with an in-house system rather than one contracted out.

There is a team of inspection engineers on the road, covering the country inspecting vehicle claims which are entered on the system each day.

They are kept busy. Motor services division's enthusiastic managing director David Cresswell says the M25 engineers have eight or nine jobs a day, while in Cornwall they have four or five.

Cresswell says it is vital the system is seamless. "Our client, perhaps a claims manager, can see the progress of the claim on the internet and we're judged on how quickly we see the vehicle," he says.

He says 95% of his engineers have passed the Institute of Automotive Engineer Assessors exams and that his firm is the only firm of independent engineers recognised as a Centre of Excellence by The Engineering Council.

So how does it work? Insurance Times followed Miller Fisher Motor Inspection Services engineer Steve Law for an afternoon to find out.

Law has been in the motor trade for almost 30 years, as a mechanic, car salesman, Ford workshop controller, service manager and, for the past five years, as an engineer at Miller Fisher Motor Inspection Services.

Law, the northern regional manager, is usually based near the Lake District, inspecting cars as far north as southern Scotland. He is at the Waltham Cross headquarters to go over some reports with the call centre.

On the road with a motor claims inspection engineer

An instruction comes to the call centre from the work provider, usually an insurer with overflow work, an accident management, leasing or credit hire company or a large fleet owner.

Telephonists such as Lisa Challis enter details of the vehicle, its owner and whereabouts on to the company's Unix system.

Instructions arrive constantly by fax, phone and email between 8am and 6pm. The call centre team then make contact with the insured or the garage to make an appointment for an engineer to see the car.

The telephonist uses a unique computerised diary to assign the appointment to the most appropriate engineer, from Penzance to Perth, based on location and the engineer's expertise. They book about 55,000 inspections via 260,000 in- and out-bound phone calls each year.

At 5pm we stop booking for tomorrow, ensure the diaries are OK, then all engineers get faxed their following day's jobs so they can plan their route, call centre manager Zoe Stapleton says.

Steve Law gets the details for his three jobs and he heads for his car, in which he has covered 20,000 miles in the past five months. His brief is to inspect the car, diagnose the damage, work out the best repair method and ensure the repairer's estimate is fair, before compiling a detailed report for the client.

First stop is a Watford motor dealership, to inspect a brand new Nissan Almera that was damaged on the ship en route from the manufacturer. Damage noticed at the port is adjusted by Miller Fisher Marine & Transit, but, once it's in the dealers' hands, it's the motor inspection services' job.

The silver car has two scratches - one Law decides was legitimately done in transit, another he says was done in the car yard itself. The decision is based on his long bodyshop experience. He contacts the painter who has already given the dealer an estimate and asks him to quote separately for each scratch. He will report that the insurer is liable only for the first scratch, saving half the repair bill.

Second stop is the Future Auto bodyshop in Abbots Langley, where a 1985 Mercedes estate has rear damage. Law uses Thatcham's repair time schedule and parts price guide, the car's condition, its mileage and his knowledge of car sales to estimate its value and the cost of the repairs. He then negotiates with Future Auto's owner John Smith on the new parts needed and the time it will take to repair the damage. Smith says 20 hours, Law estimates 17. They agree on 18 hours, saving the insurer £48.

Law fills out a repair authority, which is like an insurance company cheque for the repairs. Smith is not part of a repair network, saying all his business comes through word of mouth.

"We try to get them away from the recommended repairers," he laughs.

Smith also disdains high-tech estimators "I can do the same with a pen and paper as they can."

At Broxbourne, Law has a difficult task; telling an owner his car is a write-off. Using Glass's older car guide and experience, Law estimates the rusted 1984 Honda CRX's sale value is about £800. It has taken a hard hit at the back, damaging the car's entire structure. Repair would cost £1,400, making it a total loss. The owner is happy with Law's estimate of the sales cost, so Law will submit the estimate to the insurer .

The insurer will organise a salvage operator to collect the car. Before he leaves, Law notes the car's vehicle identification number (above), which is vital for preventing the fraudulent misuse of the scrapped car.

After a quick stop back at headquarters, Law will return north to his home office, where he writes up reports of each inspection. These are entered on the Unix system. The report will go to the client within two days of the inspection, with a savings analysis and itemised parts list or, in a total loss, a detailed breakdown of the valuation calculation. He's not fazed by the hours of driving facing him. "When you've sat behind a desk for 30 years, you don't mind getting behind the wheel," he says.