The Life of an Estimator is Tougher Than You Think
My friend David Lahey, CTS, of Conference Technologies in Maryland Heights, Missouri, sent me the following missive recently. It had so many great insights that I thought, with his permission, I’d offer it here as food for thought on the role of estimators in an AV project.
Dave is Director of Estimating, currently with eight direct reports. His department is responsible for bidding on projects that are put out to bid and designed by others, or in response to an Request for Proposal (RFP). His group also takes care of all General Services Administration (GSA) and military sales.
Anyway, to hear Dave tell it, he started writing down what it was like to be a project estimator so that bid team members new to his team would understand their role better. He’s proud of his team’s work and needed a tool to help others warm to the estimating group. Dave says he’s even started rotating new project engineers through estimating for a month to help train them on how to calculate labor on activities, problem-solve better, and understand bid jobs so that when they’re assigned to one, they appreciate the challenges.
Dave told me separately, “When a new salesperson is hired, they now spend an hour or so with me to understand what we do, and that we do not compete with them. I show them what I’ve written so they kind of get an understanding of our feelings.”
As for what specifically he wants to communicate about the job of an estimator, Dave writes, “Those of us in the audiovisual industry know that experienced estimators are more cynical than the average Joe. They’re also more prevalent than young, fun-loving estimators. The duties of an experienced estimator change fun-loving kids into cynics in a couple of years because being an estimator is one of the most difficult jobs in AV.”
What makes this job so difficult? Why would anyone voluntarily do it?
“The most difficult part of being an estimator is the potential ‘lose-lose’ proposition when results of a bid are revealed. In today’s difficult market, where almost everything is being bid, a decent amount of competition is prevalent. As an estimator, you’re tasked with three goals: cover all costs (don’t miss anything), make a good profit, and win the project. And after the project’s bid results are released, the estimator faces one of two questions: Why did you not win that job? Or, how did you beat those other companies’ estimates? (i.e., what did you leave out?).
“That’s not a good position to be in. If an estimator doesn’t have thick skin, he or she will develop it in a few short months – or look for another role.
“Other things that toughen up the estimator population are the rigid deadlines and high-stress environment of an impending bid day. When bid day arrives, bids are due at a specific time and place, and in a specific manner. For a lot of projects, there are no exceptions for family problems, printer problems, misreading the documents, guessing about what the client (or GC or architect) really expected, traffic problems, or getting lost. If you don’t meet the submittal requirements, two to four weeks of work is out the window. In the other parts of our industry, where negotiated pricing occurs (service work, change orders), there is more latitude. But not for bid estimators. The pressure compounds with all the executives, project managers, and superintendents who may be on different schedules and don’t understand the urgency. Not to mention the effect that sometimes non-responsive vendors have on price and schedule. Bid day is a pressure cooker that will scar the most battle-ready AV employees.
“And let’s talk job performance beyond bid day. Estimators, by nature, take pride of ownership in the projects they pursue. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t win many projects nor last long in the job. That ownership position doesn’t stop at winning the project; estimators want the projects they estimate to be built and implemented correctly and be profitable. And they want to ensure they have a happy client. But for most estimators, their only direct responsibility is winning the project. After that, the project is handed off to a project manager and supporting cast who have to perform the rest of the functions. When a project doesn’t go well after award, some estimators either take the burden on themselves (they should have done more) or they blame their teammates and wonder why they put all that effort into winning the job in the first place.
“Finally, estimators deal with the quality of their work–as viewed by their peers. Because a lot of AV companies place financial responsibility–and even bonuses–on a project manager’s ability to bring projects in profitability, there is a tendency among project managers to highlight every mistake an estimator might make. But remember, the bid period is typically only a few weeks, yet that estimator’s work stands forever for everyone to analyze. If you’re a technician who installs a speaker in the wrong location, you can relocate it and the evidence of the mistake is gone from view. But if you’re an estimator who misses a speaker count, the printout of your estimate is always available. This continual job review by peers, bosses, and other parties makes estimating a very difficult profession.”
Dave makes a lot of good points. The job of an AV project estimator isn’t easy. And it’s fairly unsung. So why be an estimator in the first place?
Dave continues, “Why would anyone be an estimator? If you’re good, you typically win only one in every four jobs. In today’s market it may be more like one in six or 10. Estimators are the cream of the crop. They are unique. They need math skills, strategy skills, reading comprehension, visualization skills, and most of all thick skin. No AV company can survive for long without good estimators. They take a beating day in and day out and keep coming back for more. I think it’s important for everyone in the business to understand how difficult the job is so they can understand and support their estimator as best they can. What type of support? Start with just a little appreciation for a job well done. And if you’re so moved, go out and hug your estimator today!”
Estimators! Does this sound familiar? People who love estimators! How do you value their role in your firm’s success? Let’s start the discussion here about this or another other underappreciated role in a successful AV project team.