High Tech, No Touch
Vince Bailey / February 2020
Let my machine talk to me …—from “World Leader Pretend,” REM
I never underestimate the value of cultivating and maintaining relationships with key players (especially pre-con folks) on the client side. And even though I personally tend not to milk these associations with the same vigor that some of my colleagues do, I do frequently witness the fruits of their endeavors. I also recognize that in competitive circumstances, nothing trumps a low number at bid time. Still, even with hard bids, the unsung advantages that can befall a particularly friendly sub—especially one with a favorable performance record and current contacts—cannot be denied. That is why I find it curious that some general contractors are choosing to outsource preconstruction management with services that impede any kind of friendly interaction with its bidding subcontractors. Online preconstruction services do just that.
Oh, I’m aware of the attraction these pre-con management programs hold for general contractors. I admit that if I were the senior pre-con manager for a large GC, I would be sorely tempted to subscribe to one. With regard to bidding subs, they provide an organized single-site repository for all bid docs, including plans, specs, instructions to bidders, bid requirements and more. Also, most of the services offer even more. They send bid invitations, accept and catalog RFIs, and send out award and loss letters. They screen and pre-qualify subs whose trade(s) make them likely candidates for specific jobs, in addition to being a source for owners and design teams looking for a qualified GC to build their project.
So a bid service can be a real task-saver for the GC utilizing it, but maybe not so much for those of us at the bottom of the food chain—subcontractors. In fact, from my own perspective, the downsides more than eclipse the advantages of our clients’ pre-con services. My objections break out into three main areas that frequently overlap as they occur: 1) they tend to be user-unfriendly, that is, difficult to navigate, 2) their “one-size-fits-all” format minimizes user-specific or job-specific considerations, and 3) they tend to be not only impersonal, but, as alluded to above, they obstruct any personal interaction between the GC and the sub. Some examples can be reconstructed from my own experiences and those of bidmeisters I have spoken with regarding the subject.
Aside from the buttons, bars and boxes being arranged in a puzzling, almost counterintuitive way, access can often be challenging due to the security obsession (username/password fiascos). Some projects can be accessed only by the individually invited bidder. So, if my colleague receives a bid invitation that I am assigned to, I have to have him download the bid docs for me (and every time new bid docs are posted, he receives notification, not me). It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is a bump.
OK, here’s an access issue that arose for me just recently. I received a service-generated bid invitation from a service that I haven’t interacted with in over a year. I am prompted to access my account. My password is rejected. Now, it is possible I’ve forgotten my password, except that I typically use the same password for all of these several services. I apply for a new password and am issued one. What made me tear my hair out is this newly issued password was rejected as well! This may just be anecdotal evidence, except that I’ve heard the same complaints from many other estimators. All indications are that easy subcontractor navigation was not considered a priority during the design phases of these bid management programs.
Typically, the services only break out bid amounts by section—Drywall, ACT, EIFS—but don’t take into account all the qualifications that are expressed in a proposal/scope letter. Consequently, the GC sees only unqualified numbers—he doesn’t know that, for instance, I am including EIFS to EIFS caulk, but not EIFS to dissimilar material. He would not know that I have not included sound insulation in my walls, even though it appears in my spec section. The point is, the GC will not be able to make an accurate “apples-to-apples” comparison of bids with the scant info he has on the service-generated bid form.
The other downsides pale in comparison to this basic flaw. Not only does the interaction with the service minimize interaction with the GC’s pre-con team, but several of them openly discourage such interaction by omitting the identity and contact info for the GC’s pre-con manager. Of course, just a little digging can identify and put me in direct contact with my counterpart. Once again, we can resolve little ambiguities with quick phone calls or emails. For me, these direct communications are irreplaceable for staying current and maintaining good relationships with the GCs.
All of this leads one to wonder from a subcontractor’s point of view: What possible good are these pre-con services for me?
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.