How to Keep Your Best Subcontractors

A good sub is hard to find…

Finding subs. Getting them to bid. Two challenges that precon teams—large and small—have in common. So, when you find a good one, it’s important to keep them.

To keep your best subcontractors, you will want to establish and maintain a partnership with them. Here are four ways you can do that.

CommunicateTwo coworkers talking casually.

There are so many touchpoints throughout the lifecycle of a project that you can take advantage of to maintain a good relationship with your best subs.

First of all, call them and be personable when soliciting a bid. Provide them with as much detail on the scope as possible. Be excited about the project and express how much you’d like to work with them. You can even go as far as asking them.

Second, bring them into the project earlier and leverage their assistance in the project before award . Sophisticated subs, just like GC’s, love to negotiate their involvement on projects.  If the project allows for it (probably not public works), bring them on and get them in front of the client on a case-by-case basis.

Real life example: There’s a sub I really liked to use, and our Ops teams seemed to appreciate them too (building envelope contractor). They were responsive, accurate with their proposals, gave clear explanations of what they saw, and owned up to their mistakes if there were any. I knew a specific client was more price sensitive than usual, but I also knew this job was going to need a top notch one-stop-shop envelope specialist. So, I specifically brought the trade contractor in a couple times during the design phase to walk the building and talk through the details that were being developed with the owner present. Even though we got competitive bids at GMP, the owner was totally okay paying extra to have the right team in place.

Provide feedback and tell them the truth. If they miss out on an opportunity, give them constructive feedback to make them better. And vice versa! If they have construction feedback for you, listen and commit to applying their feedback in the future.

Real life example: I got in the habit of trying to give subs (that asked for it, didn’t do it en masse) a bid tabulation summary. I didn’t tell them who beat them by how much, but I built a spreadsheet that pulled High Bid, Low Bid, and “Your Bid” so they could see where they were in broad terms. Subs really seemed to appreciate the transparency. In a couple more sophisticated trades I noticed bids coming in closer after about a year of doing this.

Don’t shy away from hard conversations. No sub or GC is perfect. When a difficult conversation is needed, leverage the relationship you have built in the past as a catalyst to continue building the relationship. If they falter on a job, bring in all parties and find an understanding of what happened and how the relationship can improve.

Treat Them as the Experts

“GCs thinking they know cost…Come on bro” –anonymous subcontractor

Because they are. Subs don’t like it when you act like you know more than them about their trade. If costs seem off, ask them about it and tell them why you think that. (With DESTINI Estimator estimating software you’ll have the cost history behind why you’re asking.)

Additionally, bring them in on an annual or semi-annual basis to update unit costs in your database. Having an accurate estimate is everything. Utilizing your subcontractor’s expertise is imperative to accurate budgeting.

Don't Play Favorites

Construction worker measuring wood.Treat your subs fairly. Spend time evaluating and analyzing all bids, not just your most likely or best candidates. Provide feedback to all subs, even subs you likely won't use. Providing feedback and spending face time discussing a sub's bid goes a long way in strengthening existing relationships and building new relationships.

Your best sub won't always be available, and subs talk. When your best subs know you treat them with integrity, it makes delivering hard news easier and keeps bridges intact. When your less-than-best subs know you treat them with integrity, they're more likely to continu e bidding on future projects, even after a few losses. Your best scenario is having multiple best subs per trade so that you're able to spread the love, which helps ensure good sub coverage on future jobs.

Pay Them

It should go without saying, but a sub paid on time is a happy sub. Obviously, you can’t pay your subs when you haven’t been paid and precon has no control over when invoices get paid but do what you can to protect yourself and your subs to make sure funding for the project is in place and pay app reviews are realistic.

Real life example: We gave feedback to Ops/Accounting leaders when we received comments from subs like “we are still waiting to get paid by you guys on XYZ project. I’m not sure we want to do another one right now” and “we love working with you guys because we get paid within a reasonable timeframe” really helps. It seems obvious and intuitive, but managers and leaders react to the data that’s in front of them.

Interact Between JobsMen playing cornhole on a bar patio

Subs are just as busy as you. Recognize that you aren’t their first or only priority. But that doesn’t mean you should only reach out when you need something. A good relationship is never one-sided. Not everyone wants to blend their personal life with business, but finding common interests with your subs and connecting with them on that level will support your efforts when trying to find the right market prices for scope at the eleventh hour.

Real life example: We hosted Sub Appreciation outings every few months to grab some of the subs we worked with and just have a good time. We encouraged them to send estimators, foreman, executives, etc. (capped at a given number per company depending on what we had planned) so that every face of their business got to have some fun.

Take care of your subs and they will take care of you.

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