Sometimes the estimators job isn’t done at the bid deadline. Clients, Architects, or the Owners Representatives may have questions for the bidders as they review the bids they’ve received. In some cases, the estimator will need to make revisions to suit the client’s needs, or to facilitate direct comparison against a competitor. So far, so good.
Estimators are under pressure to respond quickly because the client is planning to award the contract as soon as they are satisfied with the winners bid. Clients can be very difficult to reach following a bid so it behooves an estimator to make sure their attention doesn’t drift to a competitors bid. Most contractors pack the calendar with bids so there is always another deadline looming. This means that every post-deadline revision is taking time away from the next bid. Leisurely clients with lots of questions rarely understand the estimators need to hustle.
“Sam had a terrible feeling that the client wasn’t going to let the meeting end.”
Making the right moves
In times of stress and pressure, it’s helpful to prioritize your tasks. A client requesting a revision to your bid presents a significant reward for the additional work invested. Compared to an oncoming deadline for a competitive bid, the client’s request will often take priority because it’s more likely to result in a contract award. However it’s possible that the Client is calling about a small job with limited profitability compared to the upcoming bid. The estimators purpose is to secure profitable work for their company by controlling risk. When everything demands speed, accuracy and competitive pricing, the estimator will see the truth in an old adage.
“Fast, Accurate, or Cheap, you can only pick two.”
With time always in short supply, the estimator must constantly decide between delivering a cheap or an accurate revision. It’s worth pointing out that the estimators’ wages are generally funded out of overhead. For many firms, estimating is the only advertising or marketing for the firm. Time sunk into answering endless questions for a client who awards the contract to a competitor is a costly proposition. While estimators must make decisions considering uncertainty, their bosses see the outcomes as though there was never any doubt. Post-bid work is rarely noticed unless it leads to, (or costs you) a contract award. Many estimators have gotten into trouble this way.
Often smaller General Contractors (GC’s) and subcontractors (subs) aren’t qualified to pursue larger projects for established clients. Smaller projects are more likely to be for “one-off” projects for sole proprietors who’ve never built anything before. Inexperienced clients and small budgets are constant companions, which brings us to cost-effective design teams. Here again, the above adage comes into play. Incomplete, erroneous, and misleading construction documents (CD’s) are common with clients who have neither the time nor the money for a professional design. Estimators may expect the number of post-bid revisions to be inversely proportional to the professionalism of the CD’s.
Building a pyramid is an iterative process
Not all client questions are focused on arriving at a defined outcome. For example, let’s say a client is trying to reduce cost or waste in their project. They might ask a question intended to generate a data-point which drives their next question. With each “layer” of inquiry, they believe they’re cutting away the unnecessary, so that each iteration is better value. We might imagine this process to look like a pyramid where each layer is successively smaller than the preceding one.
Above: “An elegant process leading to a difficult position”
The pleasing aesthetics of this process are based on several assumptions that seldom hold true in real life. For starters, estimators who are competitively bidding have market pressure encouraging them to reduce cost and waste from the project. It takes great individual knowledge and skill to win competitive bids. Unless the scope of work, or the risk involved in the work has changed, the client is asking the contractor for information to be used against them. Estimators know this, so the information provided takes this into account.
Providing information that would reduce profitability, or increase risk is obviously detrimental to the contractor. As much as possible, the contractor will seek to provide answers to the client in terms of reduced scope, or reduced risk. Clients are quick to notice that anything that can be cheaply omitted, might be cheaply expanded. This means that every price the contractor provides has the potential to work against them. Once a price for something has been provided, it becomes a “fact” separated from the conditions that define it. Clients will consistently remember the cheapest price they heard for something, and woe betide any estimator who tries to change their mind later on.
In situations where the client requests revisions to revisions, the estimator and the client are poring over the same information repeatedly. Since the earlier revisions are “fact”, there’s a built-in incentive to assume the earlier work was correct.
“Good news! We’ve defeated the camouflage but now we’re seeing double”
Between the pressure, the drudgery and the desire to move things along, the estimator may be making quick-but-wrong revisions just to get the client to contract. Clients obsessively focused on culling waste may talk themselves into cutting out critical project scope. Estimators foolish enough to price their demands will be rewarded with an angry client, who feels cheated when the critical scope must be restored.
Like most things, it’s pretty clear to see where things went wrong in hindsight. Clients may have several motivations for their actions, and it behooves the estimator to quickly identify what can be done to bring them to a decision in as few iterations as possible. It’s my considered opinion that there are three client motivations that should inspire patience and diligence in the estimator.
- Testing the contractors
- Scope to budget alignment
On the contrary, I believe there are three client motivations which should be cause for concern and reservation.
Answering questions that speak to the client’s curiosity, budget, or desire to vet their contractors will give them what they need to enter a contract that’s beneficial to all concerned. Conversely, questions driven by incompetence, dishonesty, or distrust are likely to move the project further from an honest and practical effort to award the contract. “Helping” an incompetent client by pretending every ill-advised question is valid is how a lot of estimators end up with a profitless job and an angry client. It makes little difference whether the client is distrustful or dishonest when their condition prevents them from awarding a contract in good-faith. Scoundrels will sometimes feign distrust on the grounds that they don’t know enough to properly protect themselves from greedy contractors. Demands for post-bid breakout pricing to “prove” that the bidders aren’t overcharging is a common and fundamentally dishonest practice. The goal here is to make the winning bidder compete against the losers’ breakouts.
Imagine watching a 1600 meter race in the Olympics. The winner is the one who finishes in the least time. Should it matter if they were winning at the 400 meter mark?
The client intentionally misled the bidders to believe the contract would be awarded in good faith to the lowest bid submitted before the deadline. Pretending that it’s “too close to call” is the favorite line of the scoundrel. Extending the “competition” to continually solicit “run-off” bid revisions for better pricing quickly devolves into outright bid shopping. It should go without saying that the construction industry’s policy of withholding bid results enables this chicanery.
I’ve awarded half-million dollar contracts that were won by less than $50.00. I did so cheerfully because my risk of the low bidder having missed something was negligible. While we’re on the topic, I can only think of three ethical and honest reasons to conduct a “run-off” bid.
#1 The project scope has been significantly changed following a budgetary blowout. This means that contract award based on the original bid is not possible. This is notably different from having a “run-off” bid where the two or three lowest bidders are asked to deliver Value Engineering (VE) proposals. This is dishonest because any VE ideas lifted from contractors who weren’t hired constitutes a theft. Any estimator who participates in this kind of run-off should seek easier ways of helping their competitors!
#2 A contract was terminated after the project started, but before it reached completion. The contractors who originally bid the job are in a better position to estimate the cost of taking over the project. Taking over a failed contract presents a lot of risk which will deter bidders. Asking only the second and third place bidders from the original bid for a run-off bid reduces their competition which may encourage them to bid.
#3 Two or more bidders sent proposals for the exact same amount. If this is the case, the client should be careful to disclose the actual bid amount so all the affected parties know the client is conducting an honest bid.
So how do we apply all of this?
Estimators who find themselves with a client whose revisions seem endless should create an opportunity to speak directly to the client. Emails, faxes, and messages won’t do because there is no control over the narrators tone in our reader’s imagination. A direct conversation provides nuance that is essential to diplomacy.
It’s been my experience that offering gentle resistance by presenting questions or your own, can disrupt the iterative patterns to reveal the clients motivations.
For example, I called one client who was on their fifth iteration of the bid in as many hours. When I was on the line with the client, I explained that whenever a client requests so many changes, I assume I’m not getting them what they need. This little disruption shifted our dynamic from call and response, to collaboration. From there I could help them to define their problem, along with thresholds for acceptable solutions. Working within that understanding, I was able to bring everything to conclusion with one final revision.
That’s not to suggest that all clients will respond as well. I had a similar situation where I tried the same approach. This client was only interested in breakout pricing to see “who was really low”. Everything was presented as though the decision was just one unanswered question away, yet it’s just “too close to call” the original bid. More than one such client, added scope of work in each revision over the span of several days, then called (to avoid written record) to say they’d like to hire me if only I would do all the extra work for my original price.
“If you show them where to cut, you won’t like it when they do.”
I’ve also had GC’s as clients who blustered officiously about how it’s their “standard procedure” to answer even the most perilous questions from a client. They didn’t care that it was potentially ruinous to the trust of all parties involved. A question was asked, and it’s their duty to answer it. It would be difficult to imagine another situation where someone could honestly work so hard to appear incompetent, dishonest, and lazy to their client. As a sub, it’s not “good optics” to let a GC put your name on their mistakes. Rookies at the GC level are particularly likely to cause this problem, which is why their subs won’t follow instructions.
Good reputations can take a lifetime to earn, but only a moment to lose.
Estimators inclined towards a more charitable view of their incompetent or dishonest clients should consider how costly a failed project can be. The people involved can either generate, or ameliorate the projects risk. Estimators should consider their part in the projects risk. How did the pricing revisions affect the project risk? How did the outcome of your efforts compare to your intentions? If pricing revisions are costing you work, look back on your efforts to identify where you might have taken a different approach. Estimating is more than measurements and spreadsheets. Thinking beyond the obvious process reveals opportunities to set your work apart from competitors.
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© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved
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