August 2000
Back to the estimating basics
How much business are you losing because of poor customer relations
The last time I had to get a print quote it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I consider myself a knowledgeable print buyer (and estimator) and if I had a challenging time, how do customers with less print experience manage?
Without getting into specifics, this is a project that had been in the planning stages for 10 months. Our preliminary request for an estimate, based on common specs, was one tool we used to pre-qualify printers. (We also considered reputation, expertise, specialty, etc.)

When the final specs, images and details were known, we had to make a few minor changes to the quote before issuing a purchase order. It was the last stage that ended up taking three weeks, strained our relationship and jeopardized the project. This should have taken a day or so, and left plenty of time for the print production and the custom manufacturing that was also required for the job.
I believe that many companies regularly lose business because of this type of poor customer relations and sales approach.

Why estimate?
Printers often forget the reasons for preparing estimates. Customers require prices for numerous reasons and the reason may help determine how you prepare the quote.
The diagram summarizes and simplifies the quoting process. The first challenge is to determine what the customer’s understanding of the project is, since it can vary drastically. Some customers can provide very detailed specific requests, while others may ask you to quote using “shiny white paper.” (I haven’t found that brand in the paper book yet.) They also may have specific reasons for asking for a price, some of which include:

Budget price: Preparing budgets for future expenditures is a regular task. It may be a feasibility study, or an accounting budget exercise. Customers may say that you won’t be held to the price, that it is “just a budget,” however your price needs to be relatively accurate or you may not get the opportunity to fine tune it when the project goes live.
Pre-qualify suppliers: Often a number of printers with similar capabilities serve the same market, so price may be used as a determining factor in awarding jobs.

Tender: Many government organizations and corporations issue formal tenders to qualified print shops and in these cases the lowest price usually wins!

Check price: It might be that your customer has an established relationship with another printer, but may want to check the other shop’s price or use you to negotiate a lower price. In my opinion, it is unethical for a client to share your price with a competitor only to force prices down.
Fine tune price: There may be minor changes from a previous estimate, and now only minor adjustments are required to generate an accurate price. Before the price is submitted, make sure that you compare it to previous prices and rationalize any differences.

Sub contract: Experienced estimators issue many requests for quotes. Consider how often you subcontract creative, prepress, printing, bindery or finishing functions. In these circumstances, speed and accuracy are important.
Production changes: Once the project is underway, changes come up that are fair to charge back to the customer. Production or sale reps should identify these changes and request estimated prices.

Do you speak print?
A printer needs to interpret the customer’s requirements. This may be based on samples, conversations, or written specifications. In almost all cases, sales reps should review the specs and explore alternatives to benefit the customer.
Couriers and delivery charges are often billed as extras. However, if the customer asks for these costs to be estimated, it is important to do so. To state that “Our prices are always FOB our plant” is not suitable when details are requested.

When production begins, it is common for minor changes to come up. These could be spec changes or author’s alterations. If you wait until the project is complete to issue an invoice for the changes your chances of recovering those costs could plummet. You must inform the customer about these cost during the production process. Ensure that the prices are similar to the original quote, or your customer may question your integrity.
Throughout this process it is important for the estimator and the sales rep to understand the reasons for the changes and to communicate effectively with the customer. If this is not handled well the client may challenge every additional cost you present. This is already a touchy subject, so honesty, ethics, and integrity are required on all sides.

Remember that the estimating and sales team must consider the customer’s perspective. Unsophisticated buyers need advice. Sophisticated buyers need understanding and excellent support.
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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