If you are shopping for a new estimating system, you have probably realized that the many bells and whistles available with today's estimating software can sometimes obscure the basic function of an estimating system: to help an electrical contractor produce an accurate estimate that they can use as a tool to profitably win business.

During a panel discussion at the recent Electric West trade show, “Electrical Estimating in the 21st Century,” senior executives from several of the largest estimating software vendors agreed that as much as the estimating scene has changed over the years, when shopping for a new estimating package, electrical contractors have the same challenge: finding a reputable vendor who offers a system that produces accurate estimates and does not require users to totally change their estimating methods and business processes.

The panel discussion, on Feb. 12 at the Electric West trade show in Las Vegas, Nev., offered insight into the key trends reshaping today's estimating systems. The panelists were George Hague, ConEst Estimating Systems, Londonderry, N.H.; Todd McCormick, McCormick Estimating Systems, Chandler, Ariz.; Steve Bowman, Estimation/TradePower, Blue Bell, Pa., and Giovanni Marcelli, AccuBid, Toronto, Ontario.

Todd McCormick, McCormick Estimating Systems, said electrical contractors should look for systems that have the strongest features where their estimators will be spending the most time: doing take-offs.

McCormick said users spend 80% to 90% of their time doing takeoffs. He also said contractors should look for systems that are quick, precise and accurate, and don't require an inordinate amount of customization. “A lot of systems don't conform to how your estimators have been trained,” he said. “You need a system that can mold around your estimators.”

AccuBid's Giovanni Marcelli agreed on the importance of finding a system that produces accurate estimates.

“If the accuracy is not there, the system is failing the customer. A system has to have the ability to not only do estimating, but take care of project management. You need to bid a job the way you build it.”

Marcelli also emphasized the importance of finding a vendor that you can work with over the long-term. “Today, you are not buying a piece of software. You are buying a partnership. The company must have the organizational management, software developers and software support.”

Depending on their experience with computerized estimating systems, electrical contractors are looking for different features. George Hague, ConEst, has found that customers with second- or third-generation systems are particularly concerned about customization.

“First-time users are usually concerned about ease of use,” he said. “Contractors coming into their second- or third-generation systems are concerned more about a perception that their business is different than other contractors. They are concerned about whether the system can handle their type of business and their type of customer.”

Steve Bowman, Estimation/TradePower, added that first-time users ask a lot of questions about the basic benefits of computerized estimating systems.

“They are not really sure what they can get out of estimating systems,” he said. “They ask questions such as, ‘What is estimating going to do for me? How is it going to improve my lifestyle? Is it really going to save me time?’

“More experienced buyers are looking for certain features that are particular to their business function. I don't think there is any one feature. They know the one or two features that their current system does not have that they want to gain by changing or upgrading their system.”

Bowman also urged contractors to question vendors on their future development plans and on the training they offer.

“Nothing is more disappointing than buying software and six months later finding that the company you bought it from is not going to be able to develop it, or installing the software and having to travel a zillion miles to get the training.”

KEY QUESTIONS

Here's some questions that you can ask estimating software vendors.

FEATURES AND BENEFITS

  • Is the system easy-to-use?

  • Is it accurate?

  • How easy will the system adapt to my estimating and business practices?

  • What type of after-sales training is available? Is it available on a regional or centralized basis?

  • Does the company offer a single point of contact for any technical or service issues?

  • How does the system handle the exporting of data into other business systems, such as accounting, bookkeeping or project management software programs?

  • Will the system serve the needs not only of estimators, but also of project managers, administrators and others in the company who may use the system or rely on the data it produces?

  • How easy is it to customize the labor units?

  • Which assemblies are offered? How do you customize them?

COMPANY BACKGROUND

  • How long has the company been around?

  • What is the company's main business focus?

  • What is the company's take on industry trends such as transmission of data from the field via hand-held PDAs or other wireless networking devices?

  • Can I get references from current users of the system?