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How to Get the Concrete Job Without Being the Low Bid

Rectangle luxurious pool with cool chairs, white concrete pool balls, concrete with a smooth, brushed finish, one awesome pool deck
The follow-through and communication of your crews will help establish loyalty. Photo courtesy of Colorado Hardscapes Inc.

We’ve all had the phone call with a client where he lets you down gently, saying thanks, but some other contractor came in with a lower number. Sometimes it’s best to just write off those lost jobs, but how do you get the jobs you really want without having to be the lowest price? 

The most obvious answer is reputation. If you have a great reputation for being the best decorative concrete contractor in your area, you may be able to overcome some of the price battles. If clients see the value represented in your reputation, they may be willing to pay a little extra to have you on the job. But how do you get there and stay there?

While at the American Society of Concrete Contractors conference this fall, I helped facilitate a roundtable discussion on “beating the unit price battle.” Through the discussions with various concrete contractors, a common theme came up in realizing proposals shouldn’t always be only about dollars. It involves so much more. The thought and thoroughness that goes into each bid results in the estimated price to get the job done correctly the first time. Each project is unique and needs to be treated as such. The same holds true for the low-bid battle. It is dangerous for owners or general contractors to base their selection solely on the lowest dollar. 

Looking through our most successful projects, seven main reasons surfaced as to why the client chose us based on value instead of solely the price: professionalism, response time, quality, attention to details, thoroughness, follow-through and loyalty.

Professionalism

I know all of us in the concrete business are rough and gruff construction folks . . . but we’re not living in the world of handwritten proposals out of the bed of a dusty pickup truck any more. Through technology, competition, education and business evolution, expectations have increased for subcontractors. The emphasis on professionalism from the first meeting to the final walk through determines a business’ success. Look professional, have clean, professional business cards, letterhead and formal proposals (with all the legal jargon to protect you and your company). It’s not only nice, it’s expected. 

In addition to having a professional appearance and presentation, insist on samples and mockups. By providing clients with samples and mockups, you not only set yourself apart as an industry leader, but you provide assurance to the client, the designer and your crews of what to expect in the finished product.

Response time

How quickly you return phone calls pre-bid, during bid, post-bid, during construction and post-construction help support your professionalism and reputation. If you can’t get to something as quickly as you or the clients would like, at least provide a courtesy call or email letting them know the status. Communication helps build and maintain professional relationships. 

Quality 

If you can look at your finished work next to someone else’s and there is a noticeable difference, you’re doing something right. You should be able to pick out one or two things your crew does better than the competition. For example, I recently walked a job that we lost to a lower bidder, and walking through it I noticed wavy saw cuts, saw cuts that didn’t line up with each other and birdbaths in the slab from poor attention to grading. Now, this may be acceptable per the plans and specifications, but it’s not acceptable to the standards our company holds internally. Being able to identify how your crews produce more value will help in the negotiation process on the next job. Also point to past projects your clients can visit to prove your consistency in quality.

Attention to details 

During the bid process, point out details included in your proposal. When owners or general contractors shop your quote, they can ask your competitors if they included such details (e.g., sealer, caulking, final cleaning, control joint shop drawings, LEED submittals, supply of power, concrete washout pans). Of course you risk the competition blindly agreeing to include those details, but even if you lose the job, you have raised the bar of expectations in your market (and probably just lowered their margin). 

Attention to details in the field is equally important. When saw cuts line up with every corner and wall perfectly, landscape architects notice. They may not draw every joint on the plan, but when they see the attention to detail and how a crew can make their vision on paper become a spectacular reality, who do you think they will recommend to install their next design?

Thoroughness 

Similar to “attention to details” is thoroughness — meaning you catch everything in your scope. Read the specs and plans. Double and triple check your scope and have someone else double check your proposal before it goes out. By creating a thorough proposal and scope, you make the owners’ or contractors’ lives easier. If they can clearly see you included everything, they know they can trust you and know your crew will be attentive in the field as well. 

Colored take-offs, which are detailed drawings that highlight a project’s included scope with unit measurements, are one of the tools we use to help clearly identify our scope (we use www.oncenter.com/products/ost). With the computer-generated plans we provide with every bid, general contractors can quickly glance at them and see what we have and haven’t included. On a weekly basis, general contractors call to thank me for the colored take-offs. It helps them eliminate overlap or gaps in their bids. 

Follow-through 

The previous tips are all helpful, but without the follow-through you can still fall flat. If you don’t hear back from clients after you send a proposal, follow up to make sure they received it and to see if they have any questions. The last thing you want is all your hard work to get lost in cyberspace or buried on someone’s desk. Be certain they received it and looked at it. Perhaps even point out a particular item to make sure they noticed an inclusion or exclusion. Then, if you get the job, ensure that your crew is set up for success so they can deliver what you promised. With good follow-through, you will enhance your reputation and build trust with the client.

After your crew completes the work, walk the final project with clients to ensure their and your satisfaction. If something doesn’t live up to your expectations or doesn’t meet the plans or specifications, fix it or tear it out and do it again. We have a client for life because he remembers a driveway we placed and rejected 20 years ago and redid on our own dime. Although the redo may hurt a particular job’s bottom line, it will impress clients and build long-term trust and loyalty knowing you stand behind your work. 

Loyalty 

This one may seem backwards, because in the long-run aren’t we trying to gain our clients’ loyalty? Yes . . . but loyalty is a two-way street. To gain their loyalty, you need to be a loyal contractor first. When you say you’ll be on the job or at a meeting, be there. Stick to the schedule you agreed on and do everything you promised. And take it a step further. 

When the job is done, thank them for the project, take photos of it and market it, giving them equal or more credit for the outstanding project (unless, of course, it is a job that isn’t allowed to be marketed). By helping them succeed, they will want to help you succeed. Give them a successful project and the loyalty and trust will start to grow and thrive.

By providing consistent professional and loyal services, your company’s reputation for quality will help you win more projects without losing money. The fun part of our industry also stems from the creative side. If you offer something unique or are able to try some crazy idea the client wants, you can also build your reputation with them, but the same rules as above apply to innovation. By being innovative, accountable and professional, decorative concrete is an exciting and thriving business. 

Karen Keyes wears many hats at Denver-based Colorado Hardscapes Inc., including business development, marketing, sales, estimating and project management, with an emphasis on specialty rock construction. She can be reached at karen@coloradohardscapes.com.

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