Giving Away Free Estimates – Is It the Only Way To Do Business?

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by Engineer Designer on May 6, 2012

One of the most frustrating things contractors face is the expectation from the public that estimates are free and are a necessary first step to any possibility of a serious dialogue. It has become part of the culture to expect this valuable service from the contractor. It is common that a prospect will contact several contractors without any more than a cursory idea of what he or she wants and expect estimates. They do this, often, with no real intention of taking action of any kind. As a contractor your options are to totally WAG “wild-ass-guess” the estimate (very little value to the prospect), or try to sketch some rough idea and actually take the time to put numbers to it, or just blow the whole thing off. At best it is a frustrating affair for both – at worst, a waste of time. Let's face it, our clients do not know or do not particularly care about the work it takes for you to do an estimate. An estimate is a valuable product. It takes knowledge and experience to produce. It is a sort of feasibility study which is a valuable product itself. Is there anything you as a contractor can do to direct these situations to better advantage? Is there a way to develop this important beginning relationship offering value to your prospective client yet not having to give away the store? In my opinion the answer to the two questions is "yes". The solution is to, if you are not already, consider yourself a “Design Builder”. People are basically good. In their hearts they do not want to take advantage of people (not all, of course, but most). The routine pattern tends to put a person into a "no exchange" situation and some will feel  uncomfortable - not a great way to start a relationship. And it certainly can be a waste of your valuable time. A better way to proceed, in my opinion, is to simply explain to your prospect that it is impossible to give any kind of valuable estimates unless an exact scope is established. Any client approaching contractors without a design (or, better, a full set of plans) is asking for frustrations – the old “apples and oranges” syndrome. What I did for years as a design builder was get them to spring for a design. It usually worked. The job is to convince them that if they’re serious about doing the project then they’ll have to get a design. It’s a matter of doing it now (no messing around) or doing it later and suffering through the inevitable frustrations. If they are not willing to spring for a design then why waste your time? It will likely turn into another endless hope; you know what I mean; one of those jobs that sits out there in never-never land. I tend to be of the persuasion that you move it forward with certainty – or you drop it and get on to the next game. Some call it “s### or get off the…” - well you know what I mean. It makes absolute sense that if they are really intending to proceed with the project then a design is, really, the first step. The key? Get them to do it through you. Either you design it yourself if you can or hire someone, a professional designer, to do it for you. And charge them. It is very likely that you will develop that valuable rapport during the process. This is part of the beauty of this. Just tell them to get all the bids they want, including yours, once the design is done; no obligation. They pay you for the design and if they choose another to build it – fine. Convince them that any prices they obtain will be much more valuable based on a real design. It’s true. And I'll tell you something. This was certainly true for me. You'll end up getting 90% of the jobs. If a client is not willing to spring a few bucks for a design he or she is likely going to be a time waster for you. I suggest that you give it a try. Work out a fair fee to charge (you may need to establish something with your designer if you don’t want to do it yourself), make up a design contract and meet your new prospects armed and ready to close them on a design. If you want to do the design yourself it is an extremely learnable skill. There are inexpensive programs out there that you can purchase for your computer, Iphone, Ipad and the like, that, with a few hours of fussing, can be used get rather good at preliminary designs. And if you want to really jazz it up and make a nice presentation – make a deal with a professional designer. I think you'll really see a difference in the time you spend/waste on those valuable and time consuming estimates. When you actually give one you'll have a leg up on the competition and the bid will actually count.