There are many estimating software systems on the market, competing for your money. Accubid, ConEst, Estimation, McCormick Systems, Timberline, Vision InfoSoft—the list goes on and on. Most of them will be at the upcoming NECA Show in New Orleans, which presents you with a great opportunity to compare two or three systems and perhaps take advantage of a “show special.” But before you buy, make an investment of your time and discover which system fits your company. It will be one of the best investments you ever make.

Most estimating software has the same basic function: it allows estimators to input information into a materials and labor database, typically consisting of single items and assemblies built from these items. From this input, there are a variety of ways in which the user can extend the data. Simple, easy and quick, right? Sometimes. As long as you choose the right one.

An obstacle course

Expense is one primary problem with buying estimating software. High-quality systems are very expensive, and it takes time to find out if they are right for your company. Usually, you need to operate a particular system for several months, performing many take-offs before you can be sure the program is what you need.

You can’t know everything about a system before you buy it. But what you can do is commit to some serious research time before your buy. Your company could use this system for the next five years or longer. This is a serious investment, so take it seriously.

Finding what fits

First, analyze how your company produces estimates to determine what your estimating department needs. Ask yourself and your estimators these questions:

°What features do we need most? Menu-driven database searching? Fast input? Multiple take-off screens? Easy database manipulation? Scheduling features? Interfacing with a pricing program, the accounting department, CAD?

°Are we advanced computer users or “hunt and peck” hacks? Do we need simplicity or can we handle a NASA space shuttle?

°Do we count items or assemblies or both? How important is this to us?

°Will we have time to edit and build our database or do we want to use the one straight out of the box? Carefully study the “Items and Assemblies” database supplied with the software before your buy.

°Do we want a network or single-user systems? In my opinion, it is best to buy a stand-alone system first, and upgrade to the network version later. This minimizes your investment risk if you end up hating the software.

Second, get demonstrations by three or four different companies. In fact, you should get two or three demonstrations of each one. Compare, take notes and ask questions.

During the demos, make sure you play with the systems. Don’t let the sales rep run the program. See if you can get a working demo copy to use for a month. This will really allow you to work the program under real-time conditions. Additionally, call each company’s tech support. Get a feeling for how much they know about the program and how helpful they are. Do you get a fast response after leaving a message? Quality tech support is a critical feature and should be one of your top research items.

Once you’ve made your decision, develop a budget. A well-planned budget is always a smart business plan. You’ll spend at least $3,000 for one system from a top-of-the-line company and up to $10,000 for three or four licences that allow other estimators to use the system.

Also, don’t run your new software on old, slow computers. If you are going to invest big money for software, you better put some guts into the machines that run it. If you don’t have fast machines, add another $1,500 per system to your budget. You will thank me for this advice later.

The good news

This all might sound very involved and difficult, but the good news is the software technology is not going to change dramatically. The current versions of today’s major players are all multigeneration versions. Most of the bugs have been worked out, the really good ideas have been implemented, and the future will not bring many extreme changes. It is a great time to buy new estimating software.

Above all, remember that estimating software is not that difficult to use. Don’t be afraid of it. Invest your time wisely and you will be rewarded with the right system for your company. EC

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or sfs@TakeOff16.com.