The market changed, what do I do?

The daily tasks of an estimator involve a lot of repetitive measurements, processes, and conversations.  For some, the estimators job is almost a ritual, complete with the enduring faith that “this time it’ll work”.  A losing streak  sends estimators in search of answers.  The most common conclusion is that the market has changed.  Ok, now what?  Sadly, many estimators figure they should do whatever they usually do just faster and cheaper.  If that sounds familiar, you probably know what comes next.

The Bid mill

Bidding more leads to winning less because there’s never any time to focus on the opportunities you could actually win.  High-speed cost-cutting generally comes down to lowering your personal, professional, ethical and moral standards.  Many of the most significant problems in our industry have roots in this practice.

Advancements in estimating technology are still in testing… 

Obviously this approach isn’t a solution to the problem.  Now what if I told you that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

Estimators have an image problem

On the surface, it seems pretty simple.  Estimators are supposed to win work.  When they don’t, it seems reasonable to focus on production.  After all, what else can you measure?

This is where estimating bites itself.  Everyone outside of estimating figures that the estimator should be able to “count stuff” and report back with a semi-obvious answer.  Another way to phrase this would be to say that an estimators credibility is directly tied to the generation of “charts and graphs”.

Summing up, estimators are perceived as process drones whose credibility is directly proportional to how much they prove their faith in the aforementioned processes.

Did you ever get the feeling that people just weren’t listening to you?  This is probably why.

OK, so everyone thinks we’re drones. What can I do about it?

Well, for starters we could consider the credibility of the information we are working with.  I typically check in with the trade publications for RealtorsArchitects and Contractors to see what’s going on at least once a month.  In my experience, the most accurate information is bad news which is typically reported in retrospect.  Construction trends track over time from Realtors to Architects to Contractors as clients move from speculation to occupancy.

The American Institute of Architecture’s past reports have suggested that an average commercial project takes a design firm six months to get to construction documents.  This is a particularly important factor to the construction estimator because downturns are bad news which aren’t prominently reported when they happen.  What I have found, are articles published months after the downturn began, predicting growth in comparison to the first month(s) of said downturn.  By the time an estimator is reading actual figures on the downturn, they have effectively lost six to nine months of prospects.  I’ve read Realtor reports indicating several months of stagnation on the very same day that contractor publications were predicting a boom.

From the estimators desk, none of these problematic trends will be visible until there’s suddenly a whole lot more competition for whatever is bidding.

We’ve got competition coming in HOT!

People in hard times tend to present their favorite excuses to explain what’s going on.  False conclusions will limit your options.

Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that the aforementioned Realtor’s report and the contractor publications prediction will prove to be true.  That’s difficult to act upon without context which is why it’s important to track the trends from Real Estate, to Architecture, to Contractors over time.

You can’t plan without strategy

So everybody’s got a plan to trade work for money.  We like consistency so we tend to repeat whatever worked last time.  No matter what the break-room poster says, in most companies the “plan” is one part repetition, and several parts reaction.  The success of the plan is dutifully tracked in accounting, scheduling, signed change orders, etc.  Process is built around those metrics, bureaucracy happens, next thing you know, everyone is in meetings reporting on the metrics of the processes.

With thinking like this, it’s inevitable that market shifts will be a huge problem.

Priorities are the foundation of strategy

Estimators often overlook one of their most significant skills; prioritizing information.   Measuring stuff generates a lot of data points.  Some of it is really important, some isn’t.  There are often relationships between data points that pull out a unique circumstance that influences everything that follows.

For example, open to structure ceilings.  When the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc. trades are all exposed to view, the installation will be more expensive.  HVAC return-air lines have to be ducted with attractive material, exposed electrical is generally required to be in costly conduit compared to inexpensive cable.  Structural supports for these systems have to be better-looking which takes more time and material.  In some cases, the total cost impact would exceed the price of a ceiling.

A savvy estimator anticipating a budget blowout might suggest adding an acoustical ceiling to save money.  This naturally leads to bargaining against the design intent.  “How much (or little) ceiling would it take to save money?”  That’s a tough question to answer for your competitors.  In this example, prioritizing cost-effective options gave the estimator a viable strategy to succeed.

Priorities should be defined, ranked, and consistent.  

I’ve encountered a lot of construction marketing that placed three words below the logo suggestive of priorities such as “Integrity, Excellence, Vision”.

Nobody working for such a business could prioritize integrity over excellence without guidance from whoever picked those words.

The estimator trying to fill in these gaps should start by doing something uncommon.  The estimator should determine what the company is actually good at.   In most of the companies I’ve worked for, the leadership overlooked the successful nature of boring, difficult, or small jobs.  Next, determine what makes them good at that work.

“Chris is a snazzy dresser but that’s not what makes him a good boy”

It may sound counter-intuitive but working from successful outcome to requisite priorities is a more productive approach.  If so, consider what you’re likely to get by asking why pure intentions and brute force were unsuccessful!

With clear priorities, the next step is ranking.  If every priority has equal standing, there’s no strategy beyond placation to whoever set the priorities. Consistent priorities encourage accountability because everyone is working with the same standards.  Inconsistent priorities are a major source of conflict between marketing and estimating.  Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.

Growing pains

In many companies, growth is a major priority.  A lot of contractors in a boom figure they can pay today’s bills with tomorrows growth.  When times get harder, there’s a huge push on estimating to “grow” into new markets as the old ones falter.

Much harm can be done in blind pursuit of a single priority.  It doesn’t get mentioned very often but the majority of contractors fail because of contract work they wonbut couldn’t complete. This happens in good times and bad.

Many firms find it’s relatively easy to land work in a boom so they simply add staff to pursue more contract work.  Every addition increases the overhead.  Most construction contracts include a retainage provision which withholds 10% of the contract total until the project is completely finished.  In most cases the contractors profit margin is below 10% which means that every active job is contributing to an overhead deficit for your firm.  An average commercial ground-up construction project has a six month duration. Which means…

We need more work to pay for all this overhead!

Now the firm will have to fund the retained portion of their overhead out of their earnings to date for the duration of each job.   Every job added to the ongoing work queue has the potential to magnify a cash-flow problem.  The smart way to proceed, is to increase the overhead on all bids going out during a boom, before additional staff are hired.

That includes interns

This leads to a lot more work for fewer people.  Growth is slower but it’s “paid for”.  So when the market changes (as it always does), the firm isn’t running a line of credit to fund cash-flow issues with overhead.  I’ve witnessed market downturn situations where firms that grew exponentially during a boom laid off entire estimating departments without notice.  One week they were hiring new people, the next they laid off 30 percent of the firm.  “Growth” is not a sustainable plan.

Strategy is neither a task, nor a goal.

Earlier I outlined how an estimator could determine the priorities that guided their firms through and to their most successful projects.  Seasoned estimators with a lot of successful bids would call this “good judgment” or “wisdom”.  These estimators have incredibly valuable insights to share but as I mentioned before, their credibility is often tied to a pile of charts and graphs.  In many firms, wisdom and judgment are downgraded to opinion which is dismissed when some shiny thing captures leaderships attention.

I thought I had a lot of things worked out until I actually did the priority development for the companies I worked for.  I made a lot of surprising discoveries.  For example, the single most definitive feature of a successful project that was visible from the estimators position was client honesty.  The second was client competence. Opportunities that resembled our bread and butter work came in third.

I suspect a lot of estimators reading this figured an honest or competent client would go into the nice to have category, well behind important stuff like contract value, duration, or proximity.

This is where we unlock the real value of strategy.  Mindlessly chasing whatever is worth the right amount, at a convenient time, within range of your business isn’t a strategy, it’s a  reactionary plan that’s very likely shared among all of your competitors.  That means that every ideal job will have increased competition pushing profitability down.  We don’t have equal odds of winning bids.  That’s a loathsome myth ranking up there with “free estimates“.  There is no sense in shooting at stuff you can’t hit.  There’s even less sense in winning work that threatens your company’s survival.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake ”

Napoleon Bonaparte

With the right priorities, the real opportunities become clear.  Chasing the ugly little project that’s out-of-town might well be the very best strategy for your firm.  The goal is to be successful.  Estimators need to link their credibility to results rather than reports.

So what do you do when the market has changed?

The plan starts with credibility.  No amount of busy-work will offset a plan built on misinformation.  Estimators need to see market trends before they arrive.  Major trends should chart through related industry publications over time.  Think about what these trends will mean to each industry.  Follow up to see what actually happens in your market.  How these trends actually affect your situation is what matters.

Figure out the priorities that lead to successful work.  Make sure the priorities are visible from the estimators position during the bid.  Work out the ranking, and lock them in so everyone involved is pulling in the same direction.

Apply these priorities to what’s available on the market in the context of oncoming trends.  This is where strategies form.  Patience, courage, credibility and commitment will be tested. If this was easy, someone else would be in charge.  Learn from mistakes and do the best you can with what’s available right now.

“I’m just not sure the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence”

Above all, stay informed of oncoming trends.  Unpleasant (but critical) information is often delayed or downplayed which can leave little time for reaction.  Conversely, good news is reported immediately.  Keep in mind that positive changes in the market can take a long time to materialize at your level.

 

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© Anton Takken 2018 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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