Students in WSU Vancouver’s Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program (MAP) helped a local moving company create a video conferencing option for moving estimates.

As the owner of the moving company, Ben Hoskins needs to know how much stuff customers have.

“Someone can describe what they think is a small move or a big move,” said Hoskins, owner of the You Move Me franchise in Vancouver. “But you don’t know what’s hidden in the cupboards or stashed away in the garage.”

To avoid surprises, You Move Me typically sends an on-site estimator to the prospective client’s home or business to get an accurate accounting. But when COVID-19 hit, Hoskins knew it was time for virtual estimates.

The company created its video conferencing option for moving estimates with the help of the WSU Vancouver MAP students. The MAP program pairs students and a mentor with local businesses or nonprofits, where students take on a consulting role.

Hoskins had toyed with using iPhone’s FaceTime for estimates, but wasn’t sure what to do with customers who had Android phones. The students helped him figure out which video conferencing programs were the most popular and easiest to use. They also worked on an email the company sends to potential clients, providing links to different options.

“The customers don’t have to worry about downloading a new app for the virtual estimate. They can select a product they’re already using,” said Nolan Yaws-Gonzalez, the MAP program manager

Creating virtual estimates

You Move Me in Vancouver started offering virtual estimates during COVID-19.

MAP gives WSU Vancouver students insight into how small businesses operate. As part of the MAP process, students review three years of the company’s financial statements. Working with a mentor, they meet regularly with the business owners to discuss challenges and opportunities.

Hoskins, an Association of Washington Business board member, signed up for MAP to support hands-on learning for students. In addition, “we were interested in how they could help us,” he said.

Hoskins initially asked students to evaluate expansion opportunities for the company. He was interested in a cost analysis of providing service in the Portland area. Then the coronavirus struck.

“Moving is an essential business, so we were still able to operate,” Hoskins said. “But we had to change how we interacted with the clients, for their safety and ours. The estimate process was a big part of that.”

In the early days of the pandemic, prospective clients were hesitant to have an on-site estimator in their homes. But they also had become more familiar with video conferencing.

“Clients who wouldn’t have been as comfortable with the technology in the past were now using Zoom or Google Hangouts,” Hoskins said.

Besides developing the email with links to video conferencing options, the students helped the company create a checklist for conducting virtual estimates.

“It’s easy for a client to wave their phone around, but you have to make sure you’re getting enough detail to produce an accurate estimate,” Hoskins said.

You Move Me started offering virtual estimates in mid-March. More than 60 percent of clients were requesting them through the end of April, although that’s tapered off a bit, he says.

A dynamic situation

Jerry Petrick, who works for WSU’s Small Business Development Center, was the volunteer mentor for the team of six students.

“This is one of the most unique MAP experiences we’ll see for years,” he predicts. “The situation was so dynamic, and the students were pivoting right along with the client.”

Students were deep into recommendations for an expansion into the Portland market when the pandemic hit.

“It was nerve-wracking to switch focus at that last minute,” said Lindsey Garner (’20  Mktg.), one of the team members. “Our teachers and our mentor said we didn’t have to switch, but our team was really emphatic that it needed to happen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be meeting the company’s needs.”

In less than a month, the students had researched and crafted the new plan.

The experience taught Garner to be flexible. “You and your team might be working on ideas you think are really great. But sometimes you have to say, ‘Let’s scrap everything and find the best solution for right now.’”

Even after the threat of COVID-19 passes, virtual estimates will remain a useful option, Petrick says. Part of the cost of producing an in-person estimate is the travel time. In the future, You Move Me will encourage the use of virtual estimates for more distant locations, Hoskins says.

He recommends the MAP experience to other business owners.

“The students were so professional and knowledgeable,” Hoskins said. “It’s great to see how sharp and with it the next generation is. We found their technological expertise very helpful.”