It is important to invest in technology that will best meet your needs.

Purchasing an estimating system is an investment in your company's future.
We had just settled into our new house and were ready to paint. The bedroom walls were pink and we decided on white. No problem. The previous owners left lots of white paint they had purchased from a discount hardware store. Did I say no problem? Three coats later, I found myself buying some one-coat paint to cover the still-slightly pink wall. Sometimes what seems like a bargain really can just cause more work and aggravation than getting the right product the first time. One such product is estimating software. Purchasing an estimating system is an investment in your company's future. Yet for many of us, anything about computers seems like foreign technology better suited for our kids. So how do you know what to buy? How do you know what will fit best in your organization?

Analyze Your Needs

Take a few minutes to consider your company. How does it run now? What is the present paper trail from estimate, signing up work, to shipping the job? Who will need to see the information produced from the estimate? The system you choose should present that information in a format easily read by everyone.

Analyze your estimators' tasks. Often, they go far beyond quantity takeoffs. How much do they communicate with the field? Do they order material for each job? Do they project future needs for inventory or for supplier price breaks? How about cost-coding the job for the accounting department? Good systems can make these tasks much faster, freeing the estimator from crunching numbers and allowing more time to analyze the job.

Available Systems

Today, there are numerous systems on the market. Some are little more than a glorified calculator/spread-sheet requiring manual entry. Others have electronic digitizers that allow touching points on the plan for quantity takeoffs. Some are friendly; some are not. Just like the paint for my home, typically, you get what you pay for. Here are some important features and other considerations:

Flexibility - Some programs are great as long as you always encounter the same construction conditions, but get difficult when encountering anything unusual. Unfortunately, for a great many projects, unusual conditions are the norm. How easy is it to replace one item with another? Can a new item be created easily? After something is taken off, how easy can you add more or take some away? And once changed, how will you track what you did? Good software should be able to handle all of this and leave the estimator in control, not the software.

Ease of Use - How easy is it for a person to learn? How will the company you purchase a system from help you over the learning curve? Are tutorials available to help someone walk through everyday situations?

Some programs require little or no computer knowledge. Others require a lot. Don't just go by the salesperson's demonstration. Ask the tough questions that are real -life situations.

Databases -A database, in very simplistic terms, is terminology for a list of items. Typically, these items would include those used to complete your takeoff. Some make it easy to add items; some make it hard.

The database should be as complete as possible and easy to modify or add to what already is there. Don't get caught short on this one. You could save a few bucks on the purchase and then end up spending months making the database workable for your company.

Information Transfer - How many times during an estimate will the system require that you transfer a number or multiply an extension by hand? Every time you do, you run the risk of transposing, miscopying, etc. A good system will minimize this type of situation considerably.

New and Improved

Computer technology is improving constantly. This allows software companies to add features to make your job easier. Is the software ever updated? If so, how often? Are updates an additional cost? Will jobs you estimate before the update work after the update? Good systems should provide relatively smooth transition between versions rather than forcing you to scrap all previous work.

Know Your Supplier

Software companies vary quite a bit in size and strength. How long has the company been in business? Has its growth been steadily increasing or decreasing? You want to purchase from a company that will be around to service your account in the future. If possible, ask for a demonstration. Then you can get meet the people in technical support and get a first-hand look at the operation.

After you purchase the system and you have a question, whom do you ask? When you call, do you talk to a human being or a machine? Some companies have technical support people who take you call or answer your e-mail immediately. Others may take a couple hours - or days - to get back to you.

When you are in touch with a support person, does that person know enough about estimating to help you? Do they make you feel like you interrupted them with your problem? Having qualified, enthusiastic technical support is an important factor to be considered. Talk with some existing clients and find out how they are treated.

Is training part of the price? If so, how much? Is it conducted in a lecture hall with other trades, or is it individualized?

The Price Tag

There are two parts to a price. One is the actual dollars required for the purchase and the other is the value of the features included. Regarding dollars, total up all the options you need. Does it include shipping, installation, training, support, updates and similar options? As for value, will the features, or lack thereof, in one system justify the difference in price? Can mistakes be made easier with one system than another? Make a wise investment in your company's future - look at the whole cost.

Careful Shopping

Everything looks great in a brochure or video. Take them with a grain of salt. The real test is whether or not the system will work for your company. You probably will have a difficult time determining this from sales and marketing materials. Making a hasty decision may result in much time and money devoted to something not geared toward your operation.

Is the sales rep knowledgeable enough about the drilling industry to properly demonstrate the product? Is he or she letting you make the buying decision, or is he or she trying to force you into it? Is the person trustworthy? Make the rep demonstrate how the system will handle your questions and not just tell you that it will without actually showing you. Don't buy a system because someone tells you what it will do in a future update. If you can't use it the way it works today, don't waste your money. The future update, whether intentional or not, may be a lot further away than you are led to believe.

Generally, it is better to know what estimating system (software) you intend to use prior to purchasing the hardware (computer, printer, etc.). Some systems require a specific computer and/or hardware, while others can be used on any commonly available systems. Either way, the software company can provide some recommendations regarding the features needed in the equipment. Having the list of appropriate hardware settled beforehand can avoid needless headaches.

Working for You

Right after you first purchase your system, the excitement will be high. Plan to capitalize on that excitement - get somebody using it right away.

Who will use the system in your organization? Is the person already working 14 hours every day? Don't expect twice the output one week after installation. Plan to give that person time getting used to the system. Getting off to a good start will pay big dividends down the road.

How much will the owner get involved in running the system? Does the owner intend to run it or just review reports with it? If the owner doesn't plan on running it, does he oversee the individual(s) who will use it to ensure it's being used to its fullest potential? Generally, in a company where the owner has some personal involvement, the system will get running faster. It's an Investment Purchasing an estimating system is an investment in your company's future. You get what you pay for. Analyze your company's needs. Features such as flexibility, ease of use and database capacity are critical. Other important factors include updates, company strength, technical support and training, as well as owner involvement. Find something that will do the whole job. Careful planning and the right choice can pay substantial dividends for a long time to come.