Bidding and workloading software has become a must-have product for building service contractors who want to hone in on their labor, time and material costs and write more professional-looking customer proposals.

Although the market is flush with software embellished with bells and whistles, one of the most important considerations in the purchasing decision is whether to buy a packaged software suite that comes on a physical hard disk and is installed onto hardware, or if it's better to subscribe to a Web-based solution accessible by logging in with a username and password on a browser.

Packaged Suite

For BSCs with complicated bidding and workloading jobs that require specialized functions and formulas, the format decision comes down to how much control they have over their software. They may want a package software suite that they can manipulate and tweak to fit their needs.

"When you are on a Web-based system, you are tied into everything they have to give you," says Leon Holmes, owner, Excel Janitorial Services, Jacksonville, Fla. "Ninety percent of the (software) is good, but 10 percent of it, I like to put my personal touches on."

Holmes, who has been using a packaged software suite since 2007, says he has altered it on a couple occasions.

"We started using it for something that they didn't sell it to us for," says Holmes, regarding a back-checking function that he created in which he compares the labor output to his invoices. "Since that time, we asked the software vendor to do some things and they have actually converted their system to pick up on what we were doing."

Holmes says the software vendor he works with is extremely responsive to his needs in terms of fixes, updates and suggestions he has for their product.

"They support us. If we see something that we think that can be done better, they will accept that and, at times, come back with a better program," Holmes says. "It's a partnership."

Packaged software suites are also advantageous since they, in some cases, can be incorporated with other software packages throughout the BSC enterprise. For instance, data from a packaged software suite typically can be exported into a spreadsheet application or accounting program to get a better picture of expense and revenues.

"I can go to my spreadsheet software and transfer the data to it to see how I am doing with labor costs and bidding," says Chris Kendrick, owner, Handy Hands Janitorial in Mayfield, Ky.

Owning software that resides on servers and computers also takes away some of the headaches that can happen if Web-based software providers run into problems or worse, go out of business. For example, when Internet servers go down, BSCs are out of luck in terms of logging into their bidding and workloading data.

"You could have problems for a day or two if their (network) goes down," Kendrick says. "If they go down and you need to get some information, or have a bid that needs to be turned in as soon as possible, you may have problems."

Security issues can arise when staffers are working on non-secure WiFi networks, where the possibility of someone hacking into the company's Web data is greater.

"You don't know if (someone) can hack into it and see what's going on with what people are bidding on or how they are bidding," Kendrick says.

Online Service

The most overt benefit to Web-based bidding and workloading software is the relatively low initial and ongoing cost associated with the application. A Web-based solution does not require an expensive network administrator who installs and maintains software on the BSC's servers or personal computers.

"It was a low-cost start-up for us. That is what latched me on to it," says Larry McMillian, owner, D&K Fresh Start Janitorial Services Inc., Winston Salem, N.C. "Software packages would have been much more expensive."

Another strong benefit to Web-based bidding and workloading software is that it does not need a place to reside. If a BSC purchases a packaged software suite, they will also need a server or server space to place the software and the data. This can also increase the overall implementation cost of software.

"A lot of the data that we enter into our software is on their server. That means we keep our space on our hard drive and won't load it up," McMillian says. "I know some software has a lot of data and you have to make sure that you have enough space to store it on if you had a software package."

Web-based software solutions are also easier on the staff. Most employees probably understand how to open a Web browser, go to a Web site and log in with a username and password. Training is also easier since it typically resides on the Web site where staff can easily refer to it on their own.

A Web-based software package is also, in many cases, just a username, password, browser and an Internet connection away. Which means that a salesperson or an office manager can tap into the company's bidding and workloading data remotely.

"The (owner) can work on a bid on my day off and have me do some editing on it...from my house and save it on the Web site," says Matt Crawley, office manager, Provost Building Services, Golden Valley, Minn. "When we re-installed our computers, we got all new computers for the office, that was just one less thing we had to install. All they had to do was bookmark that page again on their browser."

Another advantage of a Web-based product is that the subscriber typically does not have to concern themselves with software updates and maintenance. Rather, all changes to the software happen on the provider's servers, which can save a BSC from the cost associated with having staff administer the solution.

"When they update it, it is pretty straightforward and the training is available online," Crawley says. "They have videos about how to use the software."

Whether BSCs choose a software package or online service will depend on specific and personal needs, but one thing is clear: no matter the format, software can help provide a clear understanding of costs and staffing, which allows for a more accurate bid.

Brendan O'Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.