Point of Beginning

The Business Side: Working Smart

January 26, 2002
Having now been five months since the World Trade Center disaster, I hope most of our readers’ companies are back on track providing survey products for their clients. Don’t ever forget, when all is said and done, what we do as surveyors to make a living is to sell data to the general public. The nice thing about starting a new year is that we get to leave all our past mistakes behind and start anew—what I call Working Smart.

A New Year For Contracts

At the beginning of this New Year, maybe we can take a few minutes and reflect on a number of ideas that seem to be common to all successful survey and mapping businesses. While I know many surveyors resist the idea of asking the client to sign a contract, maybe we can take a little different approach to the problem. Most of the companies that make money seem to be able to get the client into some type of formal arrangement. This arrangement may not be called a contract, but may be presented as a checklist of services needed. The truth is, it contains the most important part of any contract, which is a scope of work. In other words, you and the client have an understanding of the work needed, and maybe the time frame with some agreement as to the cost. If you are one of the surveyors that just refuses to present a contract to the client to sign, try a scenario something like this: “Mr. Jones, please take a few minutes and go over this checklist of services needed. If we understand your needs and time frame, I am sure we can make you one of our long-term satisfied clients.” Does that sound hard? Make sure you have a place for the client and yourself to sign. Presto, you have a contract that will hold up in most any court of law.

Make sure you have all the right questions on your form, such as:

  • Who will be responsible for the money?
  • When and how will the invoice be paid?
  • What is the time frame for the work?
  • What is the cost of the work?
  • What, if any, are the unique standards that the survey needs to meet?

Along with the standard survey related questions, what does this scenario remind you of? How about the ALTA/ACSM standards? I feel the successes of these standards, having become the preferred method of contracting title surveys, are related to the order forms. The forms lay out in detail the services needed. If you follow the form, it guarantees you will have a successful ALTA/ACSM survey.

Let’s move on to other ideas for a new year. If you have risk management insurance, use it as a marketing tool. Let the client know that all survey companies do not carry this insurance, and it is in their best interest to hire a firm that has this coverage. I will also say something you have heard me say before: Do not get talked into taking a job for less money than you know the work is worth. Many clients tell me that a lesser fee is a good price. How do they know? It is a little bit of a con job they are pulling on you—the surveyor. Nothing is more important than having the right price at the start of the work.

Managing a New Job

Let’s now say you have negotiated the right fee for an ALTA/ACSM survey. Over the last 10 years I have seen a switch from hourly rates to a lump sum fee for most surveys. But, how much of that fee becomes profit, and how much gets paid out in wages and overhead is the result of project management. Engineers have been working at developing project managements skills for the last 25 years or more. This seems to be an almost new concept to most surveyors. With the switch to lump sum fees, it is paramount that we develop project management skills if we are ever going to realize the profit we as surveyors need in order to develop our potential.

The following are some of my ideas on how to manage a survey project:

Before we get started, I need to add a few guidelines on management. The most costly part of any project is the fieldwork. Do not just send a crew to a site to take a look around; for the most part it is a waste of money. Make sure you ask a client if they have more than one survey you can perform. What starts out as one job could end up as 10 surveys.

Setting up the paperwork

If you do more than one type of survey work, have employees who specialize in each type. Make sure you have all the important questions answered. Have a person complete a paperwork package for the field crew to take with them to the field. Today, this most likely would be a computer file on a CD-ROM that may contain the horizontal and vertical datums, location maps, and a final checklist before leaving the site to come home. It may also contain letters of permission to be on the site including keys for locked gates. Set dates for the start of the fieldwork and maybe an estimate on how long the job should take to complete the field part, with instruction to contact the office if problems are encountered that may delay the completion of the work. Remember, additional time spent on the site is money out of your pocket.

Helping the crew minimize time spent at the site

Have this same person who sets up the job do all the legwork possible with the telephone or on the Internet. If the job is out of town, contact all the utility companies, county courthouses and city government concerning all the documents and information needed before the crew leaves for the site. Many governmental agencies now have a website with land title and other information. Get names with telephone numbers to contact at the agencies if other information is needed. The field crew can call and pick up additional data when it is ready.

When using tools like DeLorme Street Map to help find convenient motels at the best rate, also make reservations for the survey crew. You may also be able to negotiate a special company motel rate at some motel chains. Consider making your crew a list of local restaurants.

Doing the fieldwork

Fieldwork is where most of the money in any survey estimate is spent, so it makes sense that this is also where you can reduce costs. Make sure your crew has a well-maintained vehicle. More and more crews are using pickup trucks with a special built survey cover. I think what makes the pickup attractive to survey companies is initial lower cost of trucks and the many different options available. Make sure you load up the crew with the latest technology, such as total stations and data collectors. I still see survey crews without data collectors; they sure need to get their heads out of the sand. More and more crews are using robotic total stations with a growing number using GPS. Most companies use two-person crews loaded to the teeth with technology. One of the most important tools is the cell phone.

Another important tool that is cheap to purchase and produces great rewards is the hand-held GPS unit. On a large boundary survey, corner locations can be stripped off of digital quad maps and programmed into the hand-held GPS unit to help with finding the corners. The vehicle can be set up with a laptop computer mount running DeLorme Street Map and a GPS unit for navigation to the jobsite.

All survey crews need a digital camera. I have used mine for everything from taking pictures of documents at the courthouse to making a picture document of the site before leaving to go back to the office. CAD operators love digital pictures of the jobsites. I always try to climb on top of buildings to take aerial shots and also take pictures from across the street. All of these tools may save your crew a trip back to the site, which in turn saves you money.

Preparing the final map

This is where checklists are worth their weight in gold. Have a good system set up to produce the final map. Leave time to do final checking and send preliminary copies before you make 10 sets of prints. I cannot tell you the times I have had to redesign 10 original maps because of some small change. Have a price for extra prints and an hourly rate for services for extra work. You should not have to bare the cost of changes made by the client, lawyers or title companies.

The Business Challenge

All the surveyors I talk with say the survey workload is almost back to normal. The amount of work is just not as crazy as it has been for the last 10 years. This is most likely good, as it will give the company owner time to start a better project management program. This should result in a better-organized and profitable company.