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Focus on Development

The slower we get, the harder I work.

—Estimators Everywhere

I’m hearing several variations of the above notion a lot these days, which leads me to believe there is a good deal of truth to it, in spite of the surface contradiction. The reasons for its veracity emerge with a little probing. Perhaps the lull in activity has resulted in the downsizing of an estimating department, and there are fewer bidmeisters to carry the load. Maybe it’s because we are bidding more projects with less revenue, which generally entails more work. Perhaps it’s because the work we are bidding requires more effort to interpret and define because of its nebulous nature (think: renovations). It could be that the competition has gotten so keen that we spend more time wheedling pennies from our bid than ever before. Or maybe we are spending more time on budgets than in times previous because investors are (still) too gun shy to fund the project concepts they offer.

Most likely, the increase in work load is due to a combination of the above. Regardless, the consensus is that this downturn has resulted in an uptick in the demand for your time, which brings to mind an old time-management adage that is similarly counterintuitive. They say that 80 percent of your reward comes from 20 percent of your time invested. If you stand that on its head, the inverse logic says that 80 percent of your time spent nets only 20 percent of your success. However you look at it, it stands to reason that simply investing more time in more fruitful endeavors and less time thrashing around in the weeds will make you more effective in the long run.

As anyone who is involved in the business development aspect of our industry will tell you, it’s all a matter of focus. And even in these dark times when low-balling has gained some undeserved legitimacy, a good sales department depends on more than just numbers. The time and thought that goes into developing and maintaining successful business relationships is part of that fruitful 20 percent. A little self-examination regarding your business may prove helpful in focusing on development. Ask yourself the following:

Who are my preferred clients, currently? Go back two or three years in your bid-versus-sales history and determine which four or five general contractors have awarded you the most work, treated you most fairly, and continue to do so. Once you’ve determined this, focus your time and energy on servicing their needs first. After all, if they are your preferred clients, you want to be—and remain—their preferred sub.

Do all of their budgets, remodels and paltry projects without grumbling. This is difficult, I know, but keep in mind that they are just servicing the owners from whom all blessings flow. They probably are no more thrilled with the 7-11 renovations than you are, and they will undoubtedly remember and reward the subs who hung tough with them through the lean times.

Impress the GC’s estimators with your pre-bid homework. Review the project docs early, work up a list of questions and call (don’t email) the assigned estimator to discuss any ambiguities there might be. Get his personal take on the project—what he might want to see in terms of scope and emphasis on bid day. Send in an early proposal (sans amounts, of course) a day in advance with a thoughtful list of inclusions, exclusions and clarifications that will help him make accurate comparisons. Complete their bid forms cheerfully, however convoluted and inane they might be. Your thoughtful proposal and thorough bid form will help them navigate through the fog on bid day, which may gain you favor in a close race for the gold.

Call the GC’s project managers or project directors to set up an appointment (or an activity) to discuss upcoming jobs. Remind them how important this mutually beneficial relationship is. Recount positive past performances. Inform them of new services (i.e., BIM capability) and innovations (for instance, the possibility of panelizing an upcoming project). Oh, and try to steer the golf game in his favor without being too obvious.

What particular contractor would I like to add to my “preferred” list? Targeting only one prospect allows you to maintain that crucial focus, because careful consideration is demanded in determining which single contractor you want to work on recruiting to your “stable.” Size, longevity, market share and reputation of fairness should be the foremost factors in deciding on the contractor you want to pursue.

Once you’ve found a likely candidate, wait for a particularly sophisticated project that he is bidding to break the ice—one that demonstrates your expert capabilities in the course of submission. In addition to the tactics for cementing current relationships explored above, use the bidding process to introduce yourself to this new potential client. Complete his prequalification forms thoroughly, and include an impressive history of completed projects, whether or not it is requested. Attach a cover letter that emphasizes strengths that may not stand out on a form. Cite your low bonding rate, full service scope (if it applies), low experience modifier, history of schedule adherence, quality control program, innovation—whatever accurately describes your organization and presents it in a favorable light.

Once you’ve completed these preliminaries, arrange for some face time to continue the courtship. Convey your initial reasons for pursuing his business, and convince him that his best interests and yours can indeed mesh. Even if you don’t score on this first job, if you practice these methods you’re bound to at least get a place on his regular bidders lists, and that’s a valuable foot in the door.

Finally, follow through in all your sales practices by adding more percentage points to that time which nets you the most success. If you do, you will find yourself saying: “The slower we get, the smarter I work.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator at E&K of Phoenix.

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