Subcontractors: Your Foundation for Success; Top Tips for Building Long-Term Relationships

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It has become common experience to find construction subcontractors who are unreliable and inept. They are known for doing the wrong work, working too slowly and charging too much, and usually the result is always severe embarrassment for the contractor who hired them. To avoid this, a contractor needs care in choosing subcontractors and refrain from simply taking the lowest bidder. Rather, it is necessary to do thorough research into the available options. A contractor is obligated to provide not necessarily the cheapest work, but rather the best value, and therefore needs to thoroughly investigate each subcontractor’s pricing proposal and reputation before deciding.

From the electrician who showed up three days late, to the carpenter who put the wall in the wrong place, to the building supplier who sent doors that didn't fit everyone in the construction industry seems to have a story about a subcontractor that missed deadlines or overstretched the budget.

Contractors, architects, maintenance supervisors, and retail executives alike have probably encountered negative experiences like these at some point, and chances are that business relationships were weakened. Still, despite the delays, subcontractors are a key component to the completion of any construction project. Without the contributions of capable, reliable subs, projects will not open on time and the owners will want answers.


How can construction professionals manage with subcontractor issues that appear beyond their control? By doing a little homework, choosing the right sub, and building lasting relationships that help boost your bottom line. Your connections with qualified, dependable subcontractors are crucial to your superior reputation and long-term success.

The first lesson: Take time to select the right subcontractor. After the choice is made, construction professionals should treat subs with consideration and fairness. With these basic tenets, construction professionals build productive, lasting relationships and ensure timely, quality work for years to come.

The following are some tips for choosing a subcontractor that will meet your needs and will cultivate an enduring relationship.

Get Detailed Estimates

Smart construction pros take the time to get bids in writing from multiple subcontractors. By obtaining estimates from a variety of service providers, you'll get the job done for the right price. The more detail the subcontractor can provide when responding to your bid, the more likely it is that you can trust them. To get your project started on the right foot, be sure your bid specifies the exact products and services required to achieve your vision. Ask to see a sample of the product that includes the manufacturer's label as part of the sub's estimate. When service providers' estimates include these mock-ups, there is less room for confusion or errors. Finally, ask for referrals as part of the bidding process. Optimistic testimonials from other contractors will give you a better idea of the sub's strengths and abilities.

Don't Let Price Rule Your Selection

Successful contractors agree: High-quality work is worth a little extra cost or an extended deadline. Getting the job done right the first time may sometimes mean budget and time concerns, but you will save a lot of hassle and money in the long run. For example, my team took on a project that involved completing another subcontractor's window treatment installation. The company, which was the original lowest bid supplier, had started installing a model that was not approved for use by the owner. We had to remove the treatments that had been installed and start over with new materials. In this case, the wrong materials and lack of subcontractor's oversight cost the owner time and money. I often pose this question to contractors requesting bids: "Do you really want the lowest bidder working on your multi-million dollar project?" It's better to avoid being pennywise and pound foolish.

Find a Subcontractor with Well-Trained Employees

Subcontractors can make or break your reputation with existing and future clients. If their employees' work is incomplete or sub par, you'll hear about it from the owner or retail executives — and it will reflect poorly on your business. Second-rate work also results in project delays and busted budgets. Ask your subcontractor about employees' training, experience, and relevant certifications. If you aren't content with the answer, move on to another sub.

Involve the Subcontractor from the Start

Once you've selected your subcontractor, hold a personal meeting at the beginning of the project to establish your working relationship and develop a shared vision for the task ahead. This initial meeting allows subs more time to review specifications of the architect or owner. Additionally, first-rate subcontractors are able to offer valuable guidance and product suggestions to enhance the project. A word to the wise: don't call in a subcontractor at the last minute. You'll set your project up for failure without enough time to schedule quality work from a skilled subcontractor.

Agree on Start and Completion Dates

As part of your initial subcontractor meeting, be sure to supply service providers with a clear timeline. If the start date or deadline changes, inform your subs. In the past, my team has arrived on schedule to install window treatments only to find a site with wet paint or unfinished floors. The bottom line: If you demonstrate respect for your subs' time, they will respect your schedule and meet your deadline.

Set a Schedule … and Stick to It

Each contractor, architect, and maintenance supervisor has a particular schedule and procedure for completing projects. But it is the projects with the strictest, most uniform schedules that run the smoothest. That's because the subcontractors are provided with a short, specific timeframe in which to complete their work — there is no room for delay. When construction executives develop consistent project schedules, subcontractors can count on the fact that they won't be given unreasonable deadlines.

Forming lasting connections among qualified, reliable subcontractors is worth the extra effort. These relationships will not only make life easier during your construction project, but they will enhance your reputation among other subs, help boost your company's bottom line, and build a solid foundation for the future.

About the Author

Sandra Saft is CEO and founder of Window Interiors, a full-service window treatment company founded in 1989 and based in Altamonte Springs, Florida.
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