10 Ways to Find and Keep the Best Subs
As a general contractor, your subcontractors can make or break your schedule, your budget, and even the entire project. Years of building as a GC has taught you the value of a good sub. The right subs will save you from headache, construction delays, and profit losses. With years of construction experience under our belt, these are the top 10 tips to finding and keeping subs and suppliers loyal to you.
1. Pay on time. This sounds obvious, and all contractors understand this at a superficial level, but it is extremely important that those working for you are not taking the backlash of your project funding delays. The best subs are in high demand, and no subcontractor is going to stick with a GC who can’t get them paid on time, especially when they can get paid weekly by a contractor just down the road. It isn’t enough to try to or usually pay them on time. Keep in mind that some amazing subs are new in their businesses and have no cash on hand to float to their own employees. With this lack of leeway, a reliable payment schedule is critical. You need to pay your subs on time, every time.
2. Try new subs. Don’t be afraid to take chances with new subs. Not necessarily a new-to-the-industry sub, though you certainly can, but try branching out from your usual subcontractors. It’s so easy to call up the same plumbers and electricians you’ve used in the past since you know how they work and that they’re trustworthy, but it stifles your ability to grow your own business when you rely on just a select few to complete their project segments. Now, if you’re delighted by the performance of your current subs, don’t rush out and try to find a replacement. Instead, take a look at your subs and find the ones that do an “okay” or “adequate” job. They’re the ones you want to look at replacing. If your sub isn’t blowing you away with their work ethic and their work quality, it’s well worth your time to try out an alternative. That’s capitalism, baby.
3. Find specialists. When most GCs start their business, they find a few subs that “do it all.” Maybe you have one sub in particular that does painting, drywall, siding, insulation, (and probably a bunch of other stuff you don’t even know about). Certainly it’s nice to be able to place a few phone calls and know the work will get done, but is the lack of quality worth the headache? Who wants to spend their time redoing everything their subcontractor did a shoddy job at? Subs who are a jack of all trades are usually a master of none. When you look for a good sub, look for someone who does one thing, and does it well. As a rule of thumb, the more specialized they are, the better their work.
4. Improve your communication. Once you’ve scored the best subs in your area, you’re going to want to keep them. The easiest way to keep your subcontractors is to improve your communication. Give them explicit instructions, written down, if possible. As a GC you have to be a master communicator. Eliminate change orders and redo’s as much as possible (easier said than done). Subs don’t like to redo the same job, even if they’re being paid for the redo. Give subs more details than they need, then ease off after a few jobs, after you’re “clicking” with them. Once you’ve worked with a great sub for a while, you begin to get in sync with them. You’ll soon have relationships with your subs where you’re in the sweet spot of giving them a few instructions and knowing the work is done right and on time.
5. Hire family and friends with caution. Quit hiring poor subs even if they’re your family or friends. Yes, practically all building projects are driven by personal relationships, so this guideline can be difficult to adhere to, but you won’t regret it. As a matter of integrity, if you can get better quality for the same price elsewhere, you absolutely should. It’s okay to take a chance on a family member or friend, but don’t make them your go-to sub if you aren’t pleased with their work. Look outside your regular circle of friends for subs who go above and beyond with their work. Some would simply call this “doing the job right” but we all have a different definition of “right.” There are a million ways to cut corners on a construction project in order to save time. Some subs (often your friends and family members) will cut a few corners - you want the guy who doesn’t.
6. Beware of sub “tunnel vision”. Subs with tunnel vision are those that inadvertently slow down your project with thoughtless errors that lead to collateral damage. They may make a cut that they shouldn’t, which may not affect their job but will definitely affect someone else’s. A good sub knows how to do their job without hindering someone else’s. Do they leave their materials behind for others to throw away? If a sub cannot understand the full scope of the project and how their actions will influence the efficiency and timeline for everyone on the job, let them go.
7. Be open to feedback. If you want to keep your subs, then listen to their suggestions. This will help them feel valued and will bring additional expertise to the table. More often than not, their advice is invaluable if there’s something you’ve inadvertently overlooked. Build the relationship by being humble and realizing you don’t know it all just because you’re the general contractor.
8. Be thoughtful. Little acts of kindness will go a long way with your subs. These subs are, in essence, your employees - your temporary project family. Be friendly, but professional with your subs. Bring them donuts in the morning, or drinks in the afternoon. Greet them by name. Nobody gets into construction because they want to talk to people, but going out of your comfort zone with your subs goes a long way.
9. Speak their language (literally). When it comes to language barriers with subs, only work with a sub if you or a member of your team can speak their language. It may very well be that most of the best subs speak Spanish in your area, so be sure you have a foreman or super that can communicate clearly with them while you take the time to learn their language. Do all you can to avoid miscommunications due to language barriers.
10. Be ready! Be prepared for your subs when they come. Make sure you have materials ready for them and that they know in advance what to bring. Your time is absolutely valuable, but so is theirs. With less tradesmen entering the construction industry, subs are overbooked and in very high demand. Respect them and their expertise by being ready for them to arrive for their assignment and don’t waste their time.
Building your relationship with your subcontractors will pay off in the long run. Loyalty takes time, so put in the effort. Be as flexible as possible, understanding that they have a life outside of your jobs. Hold them to their word and, in turn, keep your word. Be loyal to subs who are loyal to you in their work, word, and deed. These tips should help any builder find and keep the best subs, remembering that without them, you wouldn’t be in business.