Estimating Success Doesn’t Just Happen

The most competitive sign shops are using estimating software to offer up accurate pricing in a flash. Are you keeping up with those Joneses?

Estimating software. It may not be the sexiest of sign shop topics, but it’s one that can add to your top line and your bottom line.

Estimating software does a little more than what its name suggests. Beyond estimating, most software makers in this category produce robust packages that aim to help you manage your workflow and print invoices. For a busy sign shop, estimating software saves time, money and sets the stage for continued growth without burning out the owner.

“Our software gives the user full control over every aspect of quoting and makes sure that they don’t leave any money on the table,” said Mark Smith, president of EstiMate Software Corp., an estimating software development company in Enka, N.C. “It’s very easy when quoting sign and graphics work to forget small details that add up to big time. And big time, unbilled, becomes a profit black hole.”

Estimating the Benefits
The benefits of estimating software are many. Smith pointed to one of the most compelling: not leaving any money on the table. Another advantage is doing more with less, according to Scott St. Cyr, president of Baton Rouge-based Cyrious Software, maker of quoting and business management software for the sign, digital, and printing industries.

“Our software frees the owner or key personnel to stay focused on making signs rather than writing estimates,” St. Cyr says. “In most businesses, the limit to growth depends on how much time key people have to spend on business growth activities. There are only so many hours you can work. Estimating software makes your shop more efficient.”

Cain Goetteman, president of FLS Banners, a sign maker in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., has been using estimating software for 10 years. He needed a solution that would help him manage the volume of orders without having to hire additional employees.

“Estimating software really improved our customer service,” Goetteman says. “We can give customers a price instantly instead of e-mailing them four hours later. We can also put up an order and customers can see where it is in the system.”

Instead of spending hours quoting jobs, FLS has a dedicated team that follows up on the estimates they send within 48 hours to try to close the deal. The software automatically reminds the team at scheduled intervals. That has paid off time and time again. Goetteman points to a profitable gig with Wal-Mart for a flu shot promotion as a prime example.

FLS bid on a point-of-purchase display for the retailing giant but didn’t get an immediate response. The follow-up team kept checking back with Wal-Mart until they were informed they didn’t get the job. But the persistence paid off anyway: When the first sign vendor failed to deliver, Wal-Mart called FLS. In the end, FLS ended up getting a 30 percent premium on a rush job. Now, Wal-Mart is a $200,000-plus a year client.

“What I like about the Cyrious Software is that I can send out a mass e-mail to anybody that hasn’t bought from us in the last few months,” Goetteman says. “I can use their name, mention the order, ask how the product is working, and offer a discount on future work. Estimating software is a must-have.”

Hands-Off Estimating
The notion of virtually automatic estimating can’t be overemphasized. Manually quoting a sign job can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, Smith said, and the typical sign shop is called on to quote two to five jobs a day. That could add up to more than two hours a day spent quoting.

“Since most of the day is spent on production, quoting is often backed up until the end of the day. Alternatively, the shop owner may ‘shoot from the hip’ and miss out on a lot of details in that verbal price arrangement,” Smith says. “Without good software, the sign shop owner is in a bind: either give a fast verbal price, or spend a significant amount of time at the end of the day quoting the job. If they end up quoting a job at the end of the day, often times another shop has beaten them to the punch.”

Steve Gillispie, a partner in Acorn Sign Graphics, a sign maker in Richmond, Va., has been using estimating software for about four years. Before that, he relied on a paper-based system to create and track estimates. That system caused problems across the board, from projecting costs quickly to billing people accurately.

“With estimating software, you always have accurate information about what you are producing, who you are invoicing and when projects are due,” Gillispie says. “The estimate becomes your work order and your work order becomes your invoice. You only have to input something once. You can even print your invoices to PDF and e-mail them. So that’s a dramatic time savings.”

Eliminating Redundancies
Gillispie has integrated estimating software into many of his business operations. When materials are needed to produce a certain job, the purchase order is linked to the work order. There’s a record in the software as to whether the materials have been received, who received them, and the actual cost. That, he says, helps manage the workflow and avoid material shortages that slow job production.

“We couldn’t do this kind of volume with the number of people we have without estimating software,” Gillispie says. “I think we often get the job because our estimation is three our four days ahead of the competition. We can do pretty complicated estimates in about an hour. The client then feels more favorable toward you because you got the estimate back so fast, even if it is a little bit higher.”

Ken Baxter runs a FastSigns franchise in West Palm Beach, Fla. He appreciates estimating software because of its ability to save estimates. If a customer comes in and asks for a certain kind of sign, even if it’s very complicated, he can quickly pull up a similar job and make any adjustments to deliver a fast estimate. With e-mails serving as a primary lead generation tool, estimating software is vital to his business because he can reply quickly with an attractive estimate in a digital template.

“I hear from a lot of customers that other sign shops didn’t really seem to care about giving a good estimate. They call back three days later and get a totally different number,” Baxter says. “With estimating software, our prices have consistency. It can mean the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.”

Avoiding Mistakes
Estimating software can also help sign shops avoid costly mistakes. Costs are volatile in today’s market. If the cost of steel or aluminum goes up and you don’t have the latest pricing, you may lose money or overcharge and lose a job.

“Estimating software doesn’t calculate price changes for you, but it prompts you to enter the price of the materials. That’s a good reminder to check the current costs,” says Bonnie Templeton, customer service and software support agent for Ft. Collins, Colo.-based ABC Sign Products, makers of Accutrack Business Control Software. “That can make a difference between losing money and making a profit.”

By automatically taking into account the various aspects of sign jobs, the person doing the quoting will not miss small details, Smith agrees. In addition to forgetting to enter the current cost of materials, good examples would be forgetting to charge for concrete when installing signposts, or forgetting to charge for design.

“Over time, these add up to a huge hole in the profits of the business,” Smith says. “Essentially, EstiMate gives the user control of the money on the front end rather than on the back end looking at what happened from an accounting perspective.”

St. Cyr says sign shops that aren’t using estimating software are at a major disadvantage. Those shops can’t grow as fast as their competitors because the boss can’t keep up with the estimates. “You’ll be stuck as an eight- or 10-person shop if you try to do everything yourself,” he says. “Unless you get a system in place, you are going to max out and be miserable. When you rely on software, you can have business growth and balance in your life.”

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