Relationships and their place. Push vs. Pull

A quick view of most advertisements for the construction industry will reveal a few consistencies in how they perceive their client and their product.  Trite sayings hinging upon “building relationships” abound in construction advertisement.  Taken out of context, these same marketing efforts would have more in common with personal ads than custom manufacturers.

What would you say you do here?

Most General Contractors in the Commercial market do not self-perform the majority of the work.  In point of fact, they’re called General Contractors not builders because administering contracts is really what they do.  As a result most of them lack substantial focus on what they’re really there to do which is to faithfully execute the design according to the contract.  This means that the subcontractors are where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak since the subcontractors are the ones actually building the job.  Interestingly, few if any General Contractors make mention of their relationships with subcontractors when promoting their company.

Luxury car makers don’t advertise the special relationship they have with their clients.  They emphasize that they make the best car,  period.  Construction companies seem loath to admit that they  build what is designed; they don’t get to choose the level of quality, aesthetic appeal, or social prominence of their projects.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

“Dang it Carl, I said move the Church AFTER the wedding.”

Put your back into it.

So what is a client getting when they call a GC?  Mostly they’re getting risk management, project control, contract administration, and subcontractor “pull”.  “Pull” in this sense is the market value of that particular GC to any given group of subcontractors.  GC’s with a reputation for not paying their subcontractors have less pull than better GC’s.  There’s a lot that goes into your pull.  For example, if a GC has been on a losing streak, they’ll lose pull with subcontractors.  GC’s that chase bad clients will lose pull with subcontractors.

Bringing focus back to estimating, the amount of pull you can generate has a lot to do with how you handle your bids.  For most subs, the only thing they have to go on is how you communicate with them.

Like a lot of things in life, it’s the outcome that matters not the intent.  Some folks get hung up on sending everyone the exact same message, without actually pausing to consider how that reads to an individual.

Bid invitations are a good example of this.  It’s fast and uniform to send everyone on the bid list the exact same message.  Often these invites cover a few key points like the deadlines, site walks, and such while excluding individual trade-level details for fear of it not applying to all recipients.  It’s pathetic how frequently invitations to bid fail to evoke any enthusiasm for the project, the client, or the opportunity.  Mostly they’re a bland memo directing the bidders through the GC’s particular brand of bureaucracy.  When coupled with bid-letting services, these invitations can end up appended to a “do not reply” email that conceals everything from the recipient until they summit the mountaintop of logins, sales pitches, and file downloads.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

As an outcome, this is counterproductive to pulling subcontractors towards the opportunity the estimator is pursuing.  A great deal of what’s wrong in business relationships comes down to pushing when it would be better to pull.

Design relationships

Design teams fall victim to this process as well.  Traditionally, the Architect brought all the engineering disciplines together to develop a cohesive and thorough plan.  Like most industries, the concept of compartmentalization rose to the fore and now its common practice for a project to have a long roster of design consultants working in degrees of isolation from one another.

I don’t know what’s existing and neither do you, but it won’t be me that pays.  It’ll be you.

Projects that must refer to existing conditions are often riddled with notes declaring that all bidders have tacitly accepted responsibility for field verification of unknowable items.  These “gotcha” requirements are used in lieu of consultants making their own site inspection and designing accordingly.

Site inspections,  coordination meetings, and construction oversight are sometimes viewed as “add alternates” to the design package.  Clients often accept or decline these services based on their budget, schedule, and professional proclivities.  Clients pre-disposed to “hurry up” work can’t spare the time for consultants to fully fledge their designs.  Noteworthy examples are property managers pushing for Tenant Improvement projects that close the deal on a lease.

To the client, the savings in design fees and duration may appear worthwhile until the market pricing reflects the additional risk imposed by an incomplete design.  During market slumps, these clients use competitive bidding to flesh out the issues with the design which they ask bidders to solve.  Once they’ve got the answers, they incorporate them via addendum and put it back out to bid.

There’s no time to do it right the first time, but we’ll find time to do it again.

This “refine-design-by-bid” tactic initiates an unfortunate dynamic in the market.  Bidders who’ve invested in “helping” the client are rewarded with several costly rounds of bidding before the project goes to contract.  They know that rolling these expenses into their next proposal will all but guarantee a loss.  They also know that every answer they provide will be used to assist their competitors in arriving at a complete proposal.  Every round of bidding further diminishes the profitability of the project.  For some bidders the “solution” is to seek recompense in overpriced change orders.

This adversarial attitude angers clients who feel they invested heavily to see their project happen and feel exploited by greedy build teams.  Clients who’ve weathered this experience often arrive at the next bid with an enthusiastic commitment to pound out the issues before they sign another contract. Very rarely do they see the connection between “refine by bid” and overpriced change orders.

Perhaps the most frustrating observation to offer here is that the total pre-construction cycle on “hurry up” projects often end up matching the duration of having it properly designed in the first place.  Complete designs mitigate change orders, and bidding once restores profitability for the build team.  There’s more incentive to actually finish the job quickly when it’s clear the only profitable path is efficiency.   A critical aspect here is that clients need to comprehend that a request for proposal is supposed to be a commitment to actually hire the winning bidder.  Distorting the pre-construction process by eliciting free design help and  re-bidding is communicating a very one-sided  and unethical view of the Client-GC relationship.  It’s unreasonable to expect fair and ethical treatment when it’s not reciprocated.

Bringing this back to relationships it’s worth pointing out that departures from traditional responsibilities can’t and won’t happen without consequences.  Pushing off design responsibilities onto the build team will corrupt their relationships with the work and with each other. It also serves to alter the consultants relationship with the project in that they move away from taking responsibility for their design and move towards evading liability for every conceivable issue.  If consultants aren’t given sufficient time and opportunity to inspect existing site conditions, they tend to think there’s little alternative but to pass the buck.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

Engineers haven’t been the same since we took the trains away from them…

Professional conduct

Much of the hijinks mentioned above is more prevalent during recessions than at other times.  Given the choice, most professionals would rather pursue legitimate work that offers sufficient time and opportunity to do a good job.  GC’s are by definition, subcontracting the bulk of the work they bid. Viewing the Construction Documents (CD’s) as a liability, many estimators believe their role is to ensure that every scope item is included in one of the subcontracts.  When the focus is exclusively covering your hind end, it’s easy to miss opportunities to better understand where the subcontractors are coming from.  Subcontractors bidding to notorious cowards will be reluctant to offer insights into how discrepancies in the plans may offer opportunities to win.

Opportunity may only knock once

GC estimators that don’t dig in and really make the effort to know what’s going on with a project are constantly caught flat-footed when subcontractors call with questions. Whether its incompetence, cowardice, or a lack of commitment, the result is the same; subcontractors will take their best ideas to wherever they’ll profit the most.  In practical terms that can mean competing GC’s will get better pricing or it could mean that subcontractors make tough decisions about how best to “play” the situation.

For example, I’ve encountered situations where subcontractors choose to take a chance on a scope discrepancy without telling the GC estimator because they had proven themselves to be unwilling and/or unable to take a measured risk. Since the subcontractor can’t rely on protection from the GC if their gambit doesn’t work, they hedge their bet by keeping a goodly portion of the potential savings.

Don’t be an obstacle to success

The GC estimator rolls into the bid carrying that subcontractor because they’re lower than their competitors but fails to fully capitalize on what that subcontractor relationship has to offer them.  The relationship becomes more about what the subcontractor can achieve despite the GC estimator than what the team can accomplish together.  It’s a short leap from not sharing the bounty achieved through special insight, to purposely working on deals to exploit weak GC estimators.  Subcontractors who view themselves as king-makers aren’t likely to be positive force in the market.  This is how they get their start.

“I don’t know what this is, what do I do?”

None of which is to say that a GC Estimator can’t rely upon their subcontractor relationships to help them with issues and scope items they don’t fully understand.  Skilled trades require an incredible amount of specialized knowledge that a GC estimator couldn’t be expected to possess.

There is however a difference between blind leadership, and taking the council of trusted allies.  The GC estimator should be consulting with trusted subcontractors on scope items they don’t understand with the goal of building a working knowledge of the issues involved.   It’s an odd thing but it’s often possible to change the dynamic of a bad relationship by asking for help in understanding what the other person is facing.   Be a good student and retain what you’ve learned to earn a reputation as a consummate professional.  Before long you’ll likely encounter a situation where you’re relating something you’ve learned to a bidder thereby re-paying the market for its investment in your education.  Keep that in mind the next time you hear a “dumb” question.

Once again, there’s greater benefit to all concerned when professionals actively seek out responsibility to pull the project forward rather than pushing responsibility for incomplete work down the line.

Civilization is in retreat because it’s become unfashionable to do the right thing.

Understanding the critical relationship between quality outcomes and individual professionalism at every stage is the metaphorical keystone supporting the project arch.   Every buck that’s passed get’s a “vig” tacked on and when the bill comes due (and it will) the project will pay.  It’s important to break from thinking of your task as being done in a small room with a door in and a door out.  What gets passed down the line matters.  Many projects with supernaturally bad design teams get built anyway.  Just because someone passed the buck to you, doesn’t mean you must pass it on in turn.  An estimator converts the nebulous construction documents into a real and enforceable, construction contract. Some Project Managers have a well-earned disdain for estimators who’ve bound them to build a disaster with a schedule and a budget. Don’t be that guy.

Actions have consequences, make certain that you are pulling in the right direction and that everyone “downstream” is as well.  Project Management needs to keep the promises made at the bid stage, and they need to ensure subcontractors hold up their end as well.  Otherwise subcontractors may again “game” the estimator knowing they can exploit Project Management once they’ve slipped past the bid stage.

What does the client care about?

An awful lot is put out about when to invest in this or that.  Terms like “Value” become little more than boardroom chaff.  In reality the client is very concerned with value, however what they value isn’t always so obvious.  Answering questions and making them feel good about their purchase may be contingent for a sale however it’s not what they THINK they’re paying for.  In fact, most of the talking, drawing, thinking, and demonstrating doesn’t really factor into their concept of what they’ve hired you to do.

What they see

To the client, actually making the thing is where the magic happens.  Those are the skills they imagine they’re paying you for.  Since they perceive your pre-construction time as “free” they indulge in every tangential thought that comes to mind.  During a project they perceive the job site to be chock-full of workers and materials so changing this or that seems easier than if they imagined that change as a separate job going out to bid.  Design teams are keenly aware that their mistakes, oversights, and mis-communications are costing time and money.  During construction the client typically views the design team more as an adviser and quality control enforcer than anything else.  GC’s’ are generally loath to expose design team shortcomings for fear of retribution.   Diplomatic efforts to price necessary change orders stemming from design shortfalls can devolve into bickering about cost legitimacy versus design integrity.

The client and design team camp may shake their heads at the gall of the build teams prices while the build team shares their exasperation with projects that are changing direction while the clock runs out.

The pattern of pushing project responsibility down the line without each tier pulling their own weight is the root cause.  Returning to the opening of this article; “Building relationships” need not be a vacuous and misdirected approach to success.  Clients are not in a position to actually know that decisions to short-change a fully developed design will cause the problems they sought to avoid by hiring a design professional if nobody has the courage to tell them so.

Relationships and their place.  Push vs. Pull

“Sure you’re attracting lots of attention, I’m just saying you might take a different route next time”

 Making mediocrity acceptable through placation, participation, and proliferation of stupidity is not “worth it if you get the job”.  Lowering standards and passing the buck are the stock in trade of hacks.  Blurring the line between hacks and pros from the clients perspective represents a strong deterrent to future business.

Be better, be honest, and don’t be afraid to speak up.

 It’s in everyone’s best interest to speak truthfully with the client.  Many incomplete designs are put to bid by design teams who are deeply (and silently) frustrated by the client’s miserly haste.  GC estimators often succumb to pressure from marketing and pre-construction directors to bid risky designs.  Pushing rather than pulling.  If instead the GC Estimator took the opportunity to present solutions before bidding, they might persuade the client to make changes that profoundly improve their odds of an ideal outcome.  At worst, the estimator could articulate the issues that could hurt the client, pulling them in the right direction.

Now it’s time to bring this all back to relationships.  In my experience, there’s a contingent of dubiously moral folks in the market who rely on “relationships” to cover or offset the fact that they’re neither a good value, nor a market leader.  They are “connected” and often use their connections to exploit or extort the industry.  It’s foolish and dangerous to allow these people to “do you a favor” because they’ll be sure to demand what you “owe” them.  Working around them will incur their wrath as well.  It’s bad business wherever they’re involved so pick your path with care.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who are a veritable institution of good value, straight dealing, and integrity.  It’s a privilege to work with these rare individuals.  The sad truth is that they are rare no matter how common it is to read an advertisement extolling these virtues.  I hope this article has inspired you to choose that legacy for yourself.

 

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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: estimatorsplaybook@gmail.com View all posts by Anton Takken

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