Contractors that are still putting estimates together using pencil and paper are not only wasting time and money, but they also are losing business. Contractors who think they can’t afford estimating software are just plain wrong. In today’s competitive software market, coupled with cloud storage and mobile communications, solutions are affordable, easier to implement and necessary for an electrical contractor to grow and thrive.


Estimating trends


Today, clients and general contractors are demanding more details and breakdowns in the bids they receive from electrical contractors, making estimates much more complex, according to Todd McCormick, president of McCormick Systems Inc., Chandler, Ariz. As contractors enter niche markets, such as lighting retrofits, renewable energy and low-voltage projects, estimators must work with different materials lists, staffing and tool requirements.


“These demands have compelled software providers to migrate toward onscreen functionality, allowing contractors to create takeoffs without paper, reducing drawing fees, and enabling contractors to create drawings onscreen and email them to field personnel to access on smart devices,” McCormick said.


This onscreen functionality in the form of digital takeoff tools is one of the fastest growing areas in the estimating software industry, according to Paul Goldsmith, electrical/ITS segment manager for Trimble MEP Division, Westminster, Colo. 


“Digital takeoff tools can quickly scan PDF or similar formats, and electrical contractors are now receiving most of their estimates in this format,” he said.


The biggest contributor to the development and deployment of onscreen takeoff and other digital estimating tools is, of course, mobile technology. 
McCormick said mobile communications has enabled contractors to take estimating from the office to the field.


The other technology that is driving the use of estimating software is the cloud. 


“Cloud storage, tied with a smart device, provides both mobility and efficient communication,” said Sam Flanery, vice president of sales for JobFlex, Rockford, Mich. 


Just as the advent of the Internet changed how sales teams interact with customers, smart devices and the cloud are helping contractors become more competitive and able to demonstrate their ability to immediately and effectively respond to customers’ needs. In addition to mobility, cloud-based systems offer the contractor decreased costs.


“Cloud-based systems are software as a service [SaaS] and do not require the infrastructure of a computer- or PC-based system,” said Mac McCabe, vice president of business development, JobFlex.


To address these trends, software providers needed to do several things, including ensuring that the system’s databases have the latest material and staffing requirements for nontraditional electrical installations, listening to users and implementing their suggestions, having the hardware and software expertise readily available to ensure the integration and optimization of project workflow, and ensuring that the solution offered is a cost-effective proposition for the contractor. In addition, the solution needs to allow the contractor to create estimates without the Internet, McCabe said.


“Internet connections in the field are not always available or reliable, so software programs must enable the contractor to disconnect from the cloud and work offline,” he said.


Need to know


Estimating software gives the contractor speed, accuracy, consistency and better information control, but there are a lot of systems on the market. According to McCormick, ECs need to look for a provider with a proven track record that understands the industry and is an estimating software expert. 


“The system should be easy to use, come with technical and customer service and be scalable with an upgrade path,” he said.


Since no two software suppliers are identical, it is important that contractors look for what is most important to them as well as at the lifetime value of the software, Goldsmith said. 


“It is also very important to examine how the software is supported on an ongoing basis and to be sure that, when something goes wrong, the provider will be a true partner that has domain knowledge of the industry and will be there to help,” he said.


Flanery advises contractors to look for a system that enables them to streamline their estimate and sales processes and that will improve communication between the contractor’s sales force, estimators, field personnel and back office. 


“Also important is the increased efficiency the program offers. If the entire team can’t use it to review paperwork, project files and sales material, whether in the office or in the field, it may not be the right choice,” McCabe said.


Once chosen, contractors need to ensure that the training fits the individuals’ learning styles. 


“The company must devote the time it takes to ensure a complete understanding of the system,” McCormick said. 


However, with top-level buy-in for the implementation and a clearly spelled-out vision, system users will be more likely to quickly adopt the new software and appreciate its benefits.