As a general contractor, you wear many hats. Not all of them are hardhats, and most of them aren’t even on-the-job. In fact, a large part of your work day involves overseeing the multiple vendors (electricians, gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, and more) on your project.
Ensuring that all of these trades come together on-time and on-budget can feel, at times, impossible. You have subcontractors, but do you have truly good ones? The ones who won’t let you and your client down, and gum up the project in the process? And once you’ve found reliable subs, what happens if your go-to team is unavailable or your project, or retires from the business?
To answer these questions, we asked several of our team leaders at Giroux Glass to share their insights on how to find subcontractor partners you can count. Here are their top tips:
1. Ask for friendly recommendations—and cast a wide net
Obvious but true: Word-of-mouth works. According to Greg Wright, Director of Giroux Glass Nevada Operations, “I’ll often reach out to current or former clients and ask who they can recommend,” he says. “It seems there are about a million plumbers in Las Vegas, so if one of our client-partners is in search of a specialized trade, it helps to go the ‘six degrees of separation’ route.”
“I’ll usually put [recommendations] in an informal order, based on the sources” says Bob Linford, Vice President of California Operations. Suggestions from a trusted source who has worked directly with the person or company they’re recommending go to the top of the list, followed by more distant connections.
“Start in your current subs circle and go from there,” says Linford. “More often than not, you’re working in a close-knit area with businesses with similar demands and needs. They may be able to help.”
Once you have a list of your top picks, be sure to cross-reference with online reviews, even with the more personal recommendations. If someone you know has a great relationship with one company, but their online reviews are very mixed or poor, that can be a warning sign of inconsistent practices.
2. Google can be your friend—to a point
Barbara Kotsos, Director of Marketing and PR at Giroux Glass says she’ll often type things like “best plumber, Los Angeles” into Google and go from there. The trick then, is weeding out the recommendations based on how much you trust the voices and publications doing the recommending. Recommendations from publications and high-profile companies tend to be the most accurate, since they have a higher reputation to uphold. “If I’m reading a blog and it doesn’t look up to date and/or professional, I’m less likely to trust their reviews,” she says.
And just because someone’s at the top of the Google list doesn’t mean they’re the best. “I Googled someone once and the first thing that came up was an unflattering party photo,” so Google definitely helps, she says. “It’s just one tool of many in your toolbox.”
3. LinkedIn, GlassDoor, Facebook and Yelp—but in context
The best way to assess companies online is to look for quantity and consistency of comments. If the company has a large enough presence to have accumulated dozens of reviews, and most of them report similar experiences, it’s likely the reviews can be trusted.
Though Jacqueline Arbid, Service Estimator at Giroux Glass, says she’s certainly hired vendors that don’t have a social media presence, she does state that being able to read a number of positive reviews “clearly shows that [the company] has a history, a presence and a following.” She also prefers companies and reviews that include photos of the work that’s been done. “More evidence that they’ve done what I want done is helpful.” Before-and-after photos, in particular, can really demonstrate the quality of someone’s work.
And, she says, “trust your gut.” If a review seems too good to be true (or a group of reviews do) and feel like marketing material, it might have been written by the vendor—or their best friend. It’s also important to remember that many customers only post reviews when they have complaints, especially in business-to-business interactions. If you’re dealing with a company that only has a small handful of reviews, and one or two are bad, you may want to find other means of assessing their performance.
4. Don’t judge a company by personal references. Judge by how they answer your questions
While personal references can be great, they’re not always 100% reliable. A person you’re consulting might suggest a business that has a questionable past, or refer you to someone who is a friend or family member, rather than a former client.
In our experience, the best way to assess a potential subcontractor’s capabilities is to ask specific questions to speak with them directly. Ask detailed questions regarding the project and see how they respond. Listen to how they speak about their work to see if industry lingo rolls off their tongues. Present hypothetical on-the-job situations and ask how they would approach them, and be sure to leave plenty of time to let them talk and give you their answers. It may be tempting to jump in and complete their sentences, but you want to test what they can bring to you.
Conducting interviews this way requires a good amount of due diligence on your part, but the time spent researching your own questions and requirements for a potential subcontractor will save you time and headache in the long run. Define the characteristics you’re looking for, and do some online research beforehand to gain general knowledge of their area of expertise. You can start as basic as industry publications, association websites, and consumer publications. This way, you’ll get a sense of whether or not this company knows what they’re talking about rather quickly.
5. Don’t be lured by price alone
“If I had to choose between the cheapest, the most expensive or the middle option, I’d go with the middle or most expensive,” says Stephanie Lamb, Chief Operating Officer at Giroux Glass. “But they’d have to justify why they’re much more expensive.”
Stephanie says higher-priced companies should be able to produce a detailed proposal that explains what extra value or expertise they bring to the project. And, she adds, “I would also expect a higher level of customer service from the vendor charging a higher premium.” That’s usually something you can judge right away.
6. Make sure they’re familiar with construction in general, in addition to their specific trade
You want vendors who know the rules so they follow them. They should know—or at least know how to look into—basic protocol, like when you can and can’t use a freight elevator, where you can and can’t park a truck, when permits are required and how to obtain them, and the like. You don’t want a subcontractor asking for advice on where to park when you’re in the thick of overseeing an entire project. That’s an added headache you don’t want or need to take on.
7. Make sure all their paperwork is up-to-date
Some vendors have to be certified (contractors and plumbers, for instance) and others don’t (upholsterers or handymen). Find out who does and does not need a license, and whether the company in question has ever had their license suspended or revoked. If the vendor in question does, in fact, require a license, ask them to send you a copy. A current license usually indicates that the company is insured, that they meet the state, city and building standards, and that their skills are up-to-date.
When it comes to finding subcontractors you can rely on, it’s important to reach out to your network, check your references, and most of all, trust your gut. The teams you’ll want to work with again and again are out there, it just takes due diligence and a bit of legwork to find them. Hopefully after reading this article, you have a better idea of where and how to start.