One of the greatest misconceptions about construction estimating is that it’s a solitary profession. It doesn’t matter if you’re an estimator for a General Contractor (GC) or a subcontractor (sub), there’s always someone calling, emailing, or popping into your office to discuss something. I’ve written before about reliable estimating practices that improve the coordination, clarity, and timeliness of communication between the GC and the subs. I focused on practices that reduce the need for estimators to interrupt one another to get or give pertinent information.
I’ve worked in offices where the incessant phone calls consumed far more time than any other aspect of the job. The constant interruptions dramatically increase the chances of making a quantity take off (QTO) error, or a transcription mistake in your estimate.
Mistakes are often easier for others to see
It’s been my experience that there are five personality types that tend to work against an estimator who’s trying to work efficiently. The companies these people represent can be market leaders which means the competitive estimator has to find ways to deal with difficult personalities. Everyone is coming from somewhere, which is to say that sometimes a difficult personality is a product of their environment. I strive to be thankful for difficult people, as they remind me of what I don’t want to be.
We’ll start with the most common personality type in estimating, the obsessive. Estimating offers the detail-oriented person a lot of information to focus on. Lots of companies focus on best practices in estimating which are often simplified to only detailed estimates are accurate. Their intense desire to quantify and categorize every detail is continually thwarted by missing, incomplete, or confusing information inherent to construction documents (CD’s).
If all the needed information was presented in the CD’s, there would be no need for estimators. Detailed estimates may indeed reduce the uncertainty of an estimate, but it’s entirely possible to have an accurate estimate using other methods.
Obsessive’s are rarely able to cope with uncertainty, to the extent that many of them feel it’s wrong to make any kind of assumption.
Steve likes to be sure nothing changes
In extreme cases, these folks won’t bid at all if they don’t have an “official” direction in the form of an answered Request For Information (RFI), an addendum, or a bid directive.
It’s important to understand that a lot of obsessive estimators work for companies that see estimators as cashiers ringing up a long list of very obvious stuff. Most projects are bid before the building department has completed their review of the CD’s so it’s very common for Architects to add a great deal of information to the construction set. Many people see a bid-day uncertainty as an obvious decision when they’re holding the Architects revised plan.
This extends to bid results as well. If the estimator bids a job, they’re expected to get bid results to show their boss how they did. Bidding the worst-case scenario can lead to losing by large amounts. The consensus view of competitor bids will be seen as the obvious judgment call. This fundamental ignorance of the estimators role leads to negative performance reviews. Estimators in these companies learn to see uncertainty as future punishment. This is why they’d rather withdraw from competition, than bid on incomplete information.
Advice for GC estimators working with an obsessive sub
GC estimators working with obsessive subs need to understand that the driving issue is one of accountability. GC estimators cannot expect these subs to exercise good judgment if it means the sub estimator will face accountability for their actions. The GC estimator must be willing to provide accountable direction to the sub. I encourage GC estimators to seek these subs insights into the issue because they may be highly skilled and experienced estimators in their field.
Advice for sub estimators working with an obsessive GC.
Obsessive GC’s tend to go looking for any uncertainty in the sub’s proposal. They’re driven to distraction by exclusions, clarifications, and exceptions. If they direct the subs to bid a certain way, they will badger anyone who doesn’t conform. Subs must understand that the obsessive GC is focused on avoiding any potential judgment call. They want to know that the subs are taking full responsibility for everything whether it’s perfectly clear or not. Obsessive GC’s are virtually never competitive bidders so unless they’re bidding a negotiated project, subs should expect their bids to be fruitless and time-consuming. These GC’s rarely attract market-leading subs, even when they have negotiated work out to bid. Patient subcontractors may find they can win highly profitable work with obsessive GC’s on negotiated projects.
The next most common personality type is the insecure estimator. New and inexperienced estimators fall into this group, however they’re only half the population. Construction estimating is a unique vocation that relatively few people seek out. An awful lot of estimators came from the field following a significant injury that would have otherwise ended their careers. Knowing how things go together is certainly a critical skill set, however estimators draw confident conclusions based on analytical techniques, market observations, computational skills, and management fundamentals. I started this blog because the majority of construction estimators I encounter lack most of these skills.
Insecure estimators are constantly paralyzed by mundane issues because they don’t understand how estimating fits into the larger picture. These estimators rarely see a lack of detail as an opportunity to present a uniquely advantageous solution. To many insecure GC estimators, the bid is simply a process of collecting sub pricing, toting it up, and adding profit. I call it bid collecting because they’re not actually estimating anything. This is terrifically common among companies who have their PM’s bidding their own work.
Insecure sub estimators are often convinced that a proposal with several pages of boilerplate exclusions will protect them from the outcome of their mistakes. Their bids emphatically exclude so much that it’s genuinely difficult to tell what you’d be paying them to do.
“Dave’s a snappy dresser but nobody’s sure what he does all day”
In many ways, the insecure estimators are the opposite of the obsessive estimators. Insecure estimators won’t communicate during the bid. GC estimators who won’t answer their phones or email can’t be expected to draft RFI’s to the design team, or publish bid directives to clarify the intent to the subs.
Everything is reversed on bid-day as these insecure GC estimators often resort to begging subs for last-minute bids. Conversely, the responsible GC is forced to play phone tag on bid day with the insecure sub in an effort to decipher all the exclusions.
Advice for GC estimators working with an insecure sub
Reliable estimating practices must be built around the value of time spent being inversely proportional to the time remaining. The shorter version; an early hour is worth less than the last-minute. With the majority of the sub proposals coming in an hour or two ahead of your deadline, the GC must be able to quickly scope the proposals looking for bids that could make or break the GC’s odds of winning the bid.
Time sunk in a promising proposal that turned out to be a dead-end, might have been invested in more fruitful considerations. Insecure subs proposals are incredible time-sinks. Their proposals are riddled with boilerplate exclusions, with the proposed amount inevitably buried in fine print, and there’s typically an innocuous-looking exclusion for some obviously costly and necessary part of the scope.
Rather than play on the insecure sub’s terms, the GC estimator should provide bid clarifications that stipulate the inclusions for all trades. Requiring that the sub’s acknowledge the bid directives on their proposal allows a useful means to circumvent their chicanery.
Following up all proposals with a bid-checklist forces the subs to agree they’ve included, or modify their proposed amount to include the pertinent scope items. This frees the estimator to consider the sub proposals in a consistent format designed to facilitate a clear definition of the agreed upon scope.
Advice for sub estimators working with an insecure GC.
Insecure GC’s can’t be counted upon to know what is, and what isn’t in the subs scope of work. Efforts to request direction will be either ignored, or the GC estimator will demand the sub bid “per the plans and specs”, with the occasional request to “price it both ways”.
Ineffective GC estimators are the leading reason why people don’t follow instructions on bid day. Giving an inexperienced or irresponsible GC estimator the means to lose the bid works against the entire market’s interests. Subs working with these GC’s should strive to keep all communications on company email accounts that provide time-stamped evidence of who said (or did) what, and when.
It’s often necessary for subs to gently teach a new GC estimator how things typically work. Leading the inexperienced GC estimator to a fruitful and logical conclusion builds trust and rapport for both parties.
There’s less a sub can do with a seasoned, yet insecure GC estimator. The lack of communication isn’t a bug, it’s a feature intended to maximize plausible deny ability. Working for these GC’s is often a greater risk than the project itself because there’s nobody protecting the build team’s interest. These GC estimators are rarely competitive bidders, without exposing their subs to considerable risk.
GC estimators who complain about the scores of “whiny subs” they’re dealing with probably have reason to reevaluate their estimating program to attract (and retain) market-leading subs.
One of the most difficult estimating personalities is the doubter. These are the estimators who tenaciously ignore the obvious design intent whenever they find a discrepancy. Efforts to answer their questions will exercise your patience because these folks are always in doubt and never in a hurry.
Rick’s commitment to interrupting your work is impressive.
Doubter estimators typically come from the field where they had extensive experience in a wider variety of work than their current employer typically builds. They’re often intelligent people who didn’t fit in with field crews that emphasized production over planning.
Advice for GC estimators working with a doubter sub
GC estimators should look beyond the immediate project and the doubters questions to establish a precedent for future interaction. Pretending that it’s reasonable to indulge every imagined concern will only encourage them on every subsequent bid. Approach the situation as a teachable moment to lay down default assumptions you’d like them to work within. Up to and including how you’d like them to ask questions. Doubters tend to favor whatever is the least efficient means of resolving a problem. Tell them that their questions are important to you and that you want to quickly resolve them by using your preferred medium. Be advised that you’ll almost certainly have to enforce your boundaries.
Advice for sub estimators working with a doubter GC
Subs will know they’re dealing with a doubter GC estimator when they receive an invitation to bid (ITB) that’s absolutely riddled with alternate and breakout pricing requests that work against a cohesive scope of work. The doubter GC estimator doesn’t understand the project in the client’s terms, so they bombard them with options “just in case” the client would like an a la carte menu of confusing prices.
Subs need to be very careful about what they tell the doubter GC because there’s little assurance that what they’ve asked for, will be presented appropriately to the client. Doubter GC’s tend to misinform the client which typically leads to scope changes and a pricing revision that turns out differently than the client expected. Subs should ask the doubter GC to walk them through their proposed breakouts with a special focus on how things might be combined disadvantageously to the subs. Often the list of what the doubter GC thinks they need, will be shortened when they’re faced with explaining how they will protect their own teams interests. It’s critical to understand that doubter GC’s love to pretend that their long list of alternates was a client request. They quickly become sanctimonious about honoring their esteemed clients request if you simply object to the amount of information being requested. Give your client what they ask for, provided you’ve controlled your risk first.
Hot Air Balloonists
Whenever projects cross over into markets where work is bid informally, there will be estimators involved who will cause delays, confusion, and a whole lot of waiting for them to get back to you. I call them hot air balloonists (HAB for short) because they’re often unavoidable, slow, and colorful characters that you’ll need to tie down before they drift past your deadline.
Often these estimators are either “mom or pop” at their firm which generally means they’re spending most of their time doing something other than estimating.
Artistic rendering of whatever Melinda’s doing whenever you call her for a bid…
These professionals often have a competitive edge on their markets because they maintain a lean operation. In most cases, these folks view estimating as a necessary evil, rather than a vital phase of the construction project.
Advice for GC estimators working with a HAB sub
HAB subs aren’t going to respond to an ITB that looks like it came from a faceless computer. These folks get most of their work through personal networking. They don’t chase every hard-bid opportunity that comes along, and they’re often reserved about bidding to an unfamiliar GC. It may take several tries to get them on the phone, but making a personal connection with them is vital to getting them to bid on your project. Since they wear a lot of hats, they don’t have a lot of time to chase jobs that are a poor fit for their company. GC’s should be prepared to answer a lot of in-depth questions about the project on that initial call. If the GC doesn’t convince them it’s a standout opportunity, they won’t make it a priority. It’s a fatal mistake to tell them the answers to their questions are in the files you sent them. They need to see you’re on top of the information because you’re determined to win. It’s a good idea to check in with them between your first call and bid day. Lots of HAB estimators will stall out on a bid when they think they’ve got plenty of time. Absolutely all communication should reiterate the deadline.
Advice for subs working with a HAB GC
HAB GC’s tend to focus on smaller projects that have little in the way of formal drawings, specifications, or even narratives of what the project is about. Most of what the subcontractor needs to bid the job will be covered at the job walk. It’s fairly common for HAB GC’s to walk a group of subs through a space waving their hands in the air like an orchestra conductor. Subs need to prepare proposals that carefully itemize the work to be done because HAB GC’s aren’t known for their contractual finesse. Subs looking for HAB direction, should approach the question by presenting the subs preferred solution. Chances are excellent the HAB GC won’t answer their phone on bid day, so be sure to put clarifications in bold on your proposal. Emphasize clarity, by keeping the descriptions in simple terms. Exclusions are vitally important to protecting your interests. HAB GC’s love to assume that everything they overlooked was implied at the job walk.
Corruption takes many forms in the construction industry but it’s always found in practices that discourage transparency, accountability, and competition. Estimators must tread a fine line because they must maintain confidentiality in order to conduct a fair bid. Providing a bidder with their competitors prices in order to solicit lower prices prior to award is known as bid shopping. This practice is absolutely unethical, and is in some cases illegal.
The reciprocal of bid shopping is bid peddling, which is where a bidder offers to submit a lower price than the winning bid to secure the award.
A less extreme version of this practice is for a GC to continually bid a job they’ve already won in an effort to “beat the bushes” for a lower subcontractor bid. Their original ITB promised to fairly award the contract to the winning bidder on bid day. Any GC who feels it’s their right or privilege to renege on their promises whenever it’s convenient to them is a cheater. Be advised that pretending to be “not sure who won” their original bid is an old scoundrels trick.
There’s no good reason to do business with corrupt people. Whatever you stand to gain in contract award, you can expect to fight over in unpaid invoices. Con artists only solicit dupes that they can control and later contain. I have an entire article on warning signs that will help estimators steer clear of trouble.
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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved
June 7th, 2017 at 7:19 am
Great post. I ‘m confronting a couple of these difficulties.
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