June 2004
Farewell to Estimating
In his last column, Bob sums up key estimating principles and themes
I am sad to announce that this will be my last estimating column for Graphic Monthly. I am proud to have been associated with this fine publication since I started writing this column 10 years ago. Recently, several U.S. readers have told me that this is the last column focused on estimating in trade magazines in North America. I don’t know if this is a sign of the times, and the once proud profession of estimating has been commoditized, or if estimating has become just one part of a larger function of order management.

This column has been a wonderful opportunity to share business experiences. I work with interesting, talented students while teaching university-level estimating courses, and deal with print providers ranging from small in-plants with five to 10 employees to large, billion-dollar multinationals.

My final column seems like a good time to reflect on the themes that I’ve tried to share with you over the years. One key message that I’ve tried to convey is the importance of the estimating function in the total print operation, and the team effort required to achieve success. Many organizations have an adversarial relationship between estimating and sales, estimating and production, and estimating and accounting. But teamwork is fundamental for success.

Estimating fundamentals
Quite a number of my articles have focused on the fundamentals of estimating, including topics like budgeted hourly rates and activity-based costing. Other topics have included developing and maintaining standards, having the right environment for estimators—including tools and procedures—and understanding the importance of a job-costing process to ensure that you have a closed-loop measurement process for continuous improvement.

Vendor relationships are important for estimators. Not so long ago, paper sales reps used to visit estimating departments, share a few jokes, leave a few new samples and the latest price book inserts, and, occasionally, tickets for the current sporting event. Today, with estimating being a more decentralized function, and 95% of request for quotes being turned around in 24 hours, there’s not much time for social visits. Vendors know that, so they need to ensure that they bring value-added services to printers to help them provide value to their customers. Yes, the customer is king—or queen, as the case may be.

Sales and marketing themes reviewed how an estimator can be a critical team member, and help the company build business opportunities through creative approaches to estimating, ensuring that value-added suggestions are considered and offered to the customer. One critical element for identifying customers’ needs and communicating them effectively to the estimator is the Request for Quote. Sixty-seven percent of respondents in a recent survey indicated that getting accurate information from sales was one of the top problems they faced. Sales reps who want to provide valuable services to their clients are putting constant pressure on estimators to turn quotes around faster and faster. But what happens when they don’t provide detailed, accurate information for the estimators to work with? That can create a lose-lose situation for sales and estimating, and for the customer and your company.

Estimators constantly need to put themselves in the customers’ shoes, understand the primary objective of the printed pieces, and determine how to provide a print solution that differentiates them from the competition and provides true value for the customer. This is not usually conducive to an assembly-line operation, where how fast the quote is returned is the only measure of success.

Moving into management
Frequently I have reviewed management functions and relationships as they relate to estimators. In my opinion, a detailed knowledge of estimating is required for advancing into a progressive position within a printing operation, including management or sales.

In small and some large print shops, often an owner treats the operation as his own kingdom, with arbitrary decisions that are absolute. This may mean that whenever one of the owner’s customers initiates an inquiry, an estimator drops other reps’ work to do the owner’s quote, and production drops other work to ensure the boss’s stuff goes through first. This may be an advantage for the owner, however, as an operation grows, a more formal process is required that respects all inquiries.

Organizations of all sizes need to find the right balance between formal process and organizational flexibility. This is especially important in today’s challenging environment, with customers demanding faster turnaround and insane pricing pressure from competitors. Companies need to do more with less in order to ensure there is a profit at the end of the month. I recently heard a great expression that illustrates the challenges in our industry. “You can only sell $1.00 for $.90 for so long!” This is where a new approach is required, and estimators can help by streamlining the process and recommending more efficient ways to manage and produce print projects.

In some cases, an individual customer may be too disruptive and/or unprofitable, and may hinder your ability to deliver value-added services for other customers. This may seem like an extreme reaction, but you may need to fire that customer. This course should not be taken lightly and should include analysis like a Life Time Value review, and an exploration of ways to smooth over the relationship. Note that this is considered a management decision, not a sales decision, as an unbiased perspective is required.

Continuous learning is key
These columns have reviewed changing technology in estimating systems, changes from conventional stripping to computer-to-film and now computer-to-plate. If your company has not kept up with the technology changes over the past 10 years, odds are you’re not reading this column, because your company’s survival would be in question.

Columns have explored topics ranging from on-line file submission, to full e-commerce initiatives, and now with JDF, the key will become process improvement. It will be more critical to automate processes, to reduce production cycle times, and remove costs from the process.
The key message that I have tried to convey is the need for continuous learning. If you arrive at work, keep your head down and work hard without learning something every day, you will find in a few years that you have been left behind. I once did a study of a conventional prepress department with 16 professionals who did great work. But it quickly became clear that their knowledge level was at 30% of where it needed to be to stay current in today’s world of electronic prepress.

Continuous learning does not always mean that you have to attend night school for 13 weeks for years to get a certificate, although that is an excellent way of learning. Continuous learning comes from reading magazines like Graphic Monthly, and participating in trade associations like the Craftsmen Club, which is open to all, regardless of whether there is an active club in your community. Visit for details.
Attending trade shows should be more than getting posters and free samples. Seminars, demonstrations and meetings are all great ways of learning. Attending seminars, and participating in online forums are great ways of keeping current without investing a significant amount of time. Formal designation and training records are important and should be tracked and kept in your employee file and included on your resume.

Thank you, Graphic Monthly readers for allowing me the wonderful opportunity to stay current on technology, process and management issues and to share these experiences and thoughts with you.

I leave you with a quote from Dave Mainwaring, who leads excellent forums on

“To succeed, stay focused.
Do what you do best,
up-skill, prepare for
new challenges,
make time for learning”
Bob Dale is the president of Pilot Graphic Management Services Inc., a company providing management consulting and custom training for organizations. He is also on the executive of the Toronto Club of Printing House Craftsmen. Bob can be reached at (416) 410-4096, or via e-mail at
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