Painter uses 20% as a loose guideline. “If the bids come in and I'm around 20% higher or more than the low bidder, then I know something is probably wrong with their bid,” he says. “At that point, you check the blueprints and your math to make sure you didn't add in an entire extra building and then move on.”

You know why you bid what you did, but there is no good way to figure out what went wrong with someone else's bid. Assuming you didn't miscalculate, it's probably time to focus on bidding new work.

But when it's a smaller job, and you're in the bottom two or three and the bids are running tight, dig in and see where you can trim the excess fat.

Examine material costs

The first place to look is the unit cost of the materials. Try to find out if the people you're bidding against are buying their materials from the same vendors. Maybe they found a vendor that has CMUs cheaper by 20 cents per block. Or maybe they got a deal on their sacks of mortar or the steel reinforcement. The point is, shop your vendors around. On an average job you can start to save some serious money.

Next, look at your operations. How efficiently is the job set up and managed? You can affect your labor costs by changing the type of scaffolding. Would it be more cost-effective to use a piece of equipment that you own or should you rent it, have it delivered, and not have the responsibility and costs of transporting and maintaining it?

Also, stay current on emerging products and technologies that can save time, money, or both. This can be huge in giving your company the competitive edge.

“Unit costs and operations should be evaluated before the final piece can be addressed. That piece is productivity,” says Clint Horn, owner of Sturgis Tuck-pointing Co. in Saint Louis, who happens to also be my father and the person who taught me the business. “After a certain amount of time, you, as the contractor, should know the business and know your workers well enough that the total man-hours should be a pretty accurate part of the estimate, with not a lot of room to cut costs.”

The simple truth is that no one is going to win every contract, but in certain situations, it is worthwhile to analyze your unsuccessful bids. Interestingly, the steps you take while doing this are also the steps that the successful contractor is going to take on a regular basis anyway.

In a healthy economy, it's very important to keep your operation as competitive as possible. However, in a poor economy like we are currently experiencing, keeping your costs low and streamlining your operations are not only important, but necessary for survival.

Matt Horn is a manager at Sturgis Tuck-pointing in St. Louis. You can e-mail him atmatthorn@rocketmail.com.