The work your subcontractors do on your construction projects reflects on you. Effective subcontractor management and good work can lead to repeat business, referrals and positive online reviews, while subpar performance can negatively impact your business.
So, how do you make sure the subs on your projects keep your clients happy?
It starts with hiring the right people and setting expectations before the job even begins. Once construction starts it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open so that you can address any bumps in the road quickly.
How to find subcontractors: 4 tips to try
DIY manufacturer, woodworker and owner of Wilker Do's April Wilkerson explains being open to giving people who show a passion for the job a chance. “Anybody who shows a willingness to want to be on my team or be in my world — I say, sure let’s give it a try,”
But willingness isn’t the only thing to look for. Hiring good subcontractors from the get-go can make construction management a lot easier.
Here are some tips for getting the right people with the right skills on board.
1. Ask for referrals
If you were looking for a doctor or real estate agent, you'd probably ask your friends and family if they had any recommendations. You can use the same strategy when hiring construction subcontractors.
Start with the subs you've worked with in the past to see if they can recommend anyone who's looking for work.
2. Keep a list
You may not need to look outside your organization to find the right person for the job.
Kyle Shirley, owner of Sol Vista Roofing, says many subcontractors contact him looking for work. He keeps a master file of subs he may be able to use on future projects.
But before hiring someone who contacts you (instead of the other way around), it's important to make sure they're legit. Shirley says that’s not difficult.
When someone contacts him, he asks for their business name and whether they have insurance. "They may appear really legit, but if they don't have a business entity name, and they don't have insurance, they don't get called," he said.
If everything checks out and a job matches their skill set, they get a trial run.
"We want to see how they operate before we use them on a regular basis. We'll test them on a job or two to see if they make the cut of becoming a regular part of our subcontractor network," Shirley said.
They get added to the regular rotation if they do a good job.
3. Do your own vetting
You don't want workers on your project if you can't count on them.
Bill Samuel, owner of Blue Ladder Development, says you should evaluate subcontractors from your first interaction to assess their responsiveness and reliability.
He also recommends asking potential hires about current projects they're working on, so you can visit the site and see their work for yourself.
Checking online reviews and asking other people about their experience working with a specific sub can also help you decide whether a subcontractor is right for your project.
4. Check licensing
Cities and towns often require certain types of subcontractors, such as plumbers and electricians, to have a license before beginning work.
You need to make sure any subs you want to hire have the appropriate licenses before hiring them to avoid fines and other penalties.
Cities and counties often have lists of registered contractors who are licensed, insured and bonded, which can help make finding qualified subs easier.
Samuel contacts the building department in his area when he needs a licensed contractor.
"I'm using a short list of people that I know for sure have the appropriate qualifications to get the permit to perform the work properly."
There’s no standard department across the country that gathers this type of information. But if you find out who is responsible for permit applications in your area, that person will be able to give you a list, Samuel says.
Or you can do a Google search for “registered contractors” in “city name.”
Managing subcontractors effectively
Finding the right person for your job is just the beginning. Throughout the project, you need to keep up with the subcontractors’ work to ensure they meet deadlines, complete quality work and stay on budget.
Here are some tips to help make sure that happens.
Set up an independent contractor agreement
Whether you call it an independent contractor agreement, statement of work or something else, it's important to get the project details in writing to help avoid confusion down the road.
Here's what the agreement between you and your subs might include:
- Scope of work. Provide as many details as possible on both side’s deliverables. Clearly outline what you will handle and what the sub will be responsible for. If it's not in the agreement, the subcontractor may require you to submit a change order, which costs more and could slow down the job. Have your subs review the agreement in advance, so you can address any questions or concerns before the project begins.
- Payment terms. Outline how much you will pay your subcontractor and when you will release payment. Samuel also includes a financial penalty if the project isn't completed on time. Be sure to pay on time. If you don't, the sub may not want to work with you in the future.
- Timeline. The work agreement should include the project schedule and deadline for completion. If it’s a large job, include checkpoints to keep the project on track.
If you have questions about developing an agreement or statement of work and what to include, consult with a legal professional.
And if you’re working off of spreadsheets or multiple files (both digital and paper), you might consider using contract management software to help you stay organized.
Incentivize good work
General contractors depend on high-quality work to maintain a good public image with their customers.
Wilkerson believes in incentivizing her best workers to stay. “I’ll give you a royalty of whatever it is that you bring me or a commission,” she says. “But ultimately, it comes down to treating people decently.”
Shirley offers incentives to his subcontractors to help maintain that public image and encourage his subs to do their best work on every job.
His company uses a perfect 10 checklist. At the end of each job, someone from his team inspects the work, and if all 10 boxes are checked, the crew chief earns a bonus payment.
"That lets them become a partner with us in making sure quality is not compromised," Shirley said. "But we're also looking for things like speed and efficiency while maintaining that quality."
Make sure they carry insurance
Verifying your subcontractors’ insurance coverage helps protect your business. Subcontractor rules and regulations vary depending on where you live. The law may require subs to maintain certain types of insurance, such as general liability and workers' compensation.
Even if the law doesn’t require insurance, it can help protect you, your business and your subcontractors.
Get a copy of the sub's certificate of insurance to verify the coverage terms, and make sure the coverage applies to the project they'll be working on.
For example, if a sub only has coverage for residential projects and you have a commercial job coming up, they won't be covered if something goes awry. And you could be responsible.
While checking their policies, it's a good idea to make sure your insurance coverage is up to date.
Let software do the heavy lifting
You might already be using construction management solutions to manage clients, cost forecasting, project lifecycle, procurement, project progress and milestones, and more. Software could also help with subcontractor management.
Many existing construction software solutions already come with built-in functionality for the subcontractor management process. Or, you can look for subcontractor software integrations to add to the tools you already use.
With these solutions, you can typically set up workflows, view project Gantt charts to help with scheduling and track subcontractor performance.
Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your subcontractors is critical.
Because if something isn't going according to plan, you need to know as soon as possible. In turn, you can let the client know and take the necessary steps to get the project back on track.
Shirley gives his subcontractors a single point of contact for every job to streamline communication on a project. "If they have any issues with the schedule, the materials, property access or anything, that point of contact is who they call at our company."
He also uses a cloud photo app called Company Calm. When a subcontractor takes a photo in the app, the general contractor can see it instantly. "That has become a very helpful part of communicating with our subcontractors," he said.
At a minimum, Shirley requires a daily check-in to stay on top of what’s happening on site. Since residential roofing projects usually only take a day, his subs must send a “job complete” notification at the end of the job.
For larger commercial projects, subcontractors must provide a one-sentence recap at the end of each working day.
Having a way to communicate with your subcontractors when you’re not at the job site is essential to keep projects moving forward. However, there’s no substitute for seeing things in person.
"You have to be on-site regularly to see kind of what's going on," Samuel says. At a minimum, he visits the job site a couple of times a week and adjusts his schedule based on how much he trusts the subs working for him and the type of work that’s taking place.
"We have times when there are five different trades over there at the same time, working on the house. You'll probably go over there every day," Samuel says.
When he's not on-site, he favors FaceTime for keeping in contact with his subcontractors.
Use visual reminders
An easy way to minimize mistakes is to post the plans on-site in a prominent place for everyone to see.
Samuel also posts a reminder on the door with a list of things the subcontractors need to do before leaving each day. Tasks such as turning off lights, locking doors and windows, and plugging in the sump pumps are included on the list.
Inspect the work
Shirley and Samuel hold their subcontractors' final payment until inspecting the work to make sure the sub completed it properly. Holding back the final payment gives the subs an incentive to complete the work on time as agreed.
Know when to cut your losses
Sometimes things don’t work out. Regardless of the issue, Wilkerson advises that moving on quickly is best. “If it doesn’t work out, then cut your losses fast,” she says, referring to both subs and managers. “Take it as ‘I tried it.’ But if you’re going to fail at something, then fail fast and move on to the next thing.”
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