4 Ways to Communicate Better with Subcontractors

Your projects are only as good as the subcontractors who help you build them. And their work is only as good as the direction they receive.

When you find yourself facing problems with subcontractors, how often can these headaches be traced back to poor communication?

Since your work is only as good as their work, clear and open communication is key. But let’s be honest: That doesn’t always happen. Miscommunication, disorganized meetings and bringing tradespeople in late to the game can all lead to delays, rework and other problems, noted Scott Petre, branch manager for Banker Insulation Inc. in Phoenix and president of the American Subcontractors Association of Arizona.

But that’s good news because it means the solution is in your hands.

Petre offered four suggestions for improving communication with subcontractors and helping to ensure you get the project results you, and the owner, expect.  

Hold organized meetings

Many GCs rely heavily on email, Petre noted. But face-to-face meetings can accomplish so much more, including building trust and rapport, making communications clearer and paving the way for collaborative problem solving, not to mention avoiding the tone problems email can create.

Because disorganized meetings can be almost as bad as no meetings, Petre suggested building meetings around an agenda. In early kickoffs meetings that agenda might include introductions and establishing the preferred method of communication and chain of command.

For example, let everyone know that Monday jobsite safety meetings will be the norm so all parties will arrive onsite prepared. Or, if you’ll be meeting virtually, make sure everyone involved is familiar with your preferred software solution.

At these meetings, will you emphasize collaboration? Or will the meetings be more formal, with one person leading the team through a close reading of construction documents and fielding questions? Find the style that works for you and ensure everyone is prepared to follow your lead.

Keep your trade meetings small and targeted

Large meetings with a huge cast of characters may be easier for the GC, but involving all the trades at once often leads to communication breakdowns according to Petre. “These meetings are typically too broad in topic and are rarely useful,” he noted.

Aim to keep your meetings small and targeted. Use them to plan ahead and consider problems that may arise, along with potential solutions.

“One of the best approaches I have seen is when the GC conducts a meeting or creates collaborative teams on large projects specifically with the trades who have scopes related to one another,” Petre said. “Smaller, more topic-specific meetings followed up with written communications work well.”

Include in all trades whose work is connected

Yes, you want to keep your meetings small. But make sure all parties that will be affected by a certain trade’s work are included in meetings around that work. Will there be a delay in running the wiring due to a snag? Make sure your finishing contactor knows his or her schedule is going to change as well. 

“Often the person running the meeting will not include everyone impacted, then must have a side meeting with the vendor who did not get invited or failed to show up,” said Petre.

He also advised making sure all the involved people from a trade are included, not just the main point of contact or the person in the field. “Often the message is delivered to the wrong person.”

Develop ongoing partnerships

The most effective project communication, Petre noted, happens when two parties come into the project understanding expectations thanks to a standing relationship.

While some GCs treat their subs poorly and move on to another sub — likely the lowest bidder — for the next project, they’re missing out on the benefits of a strong relationship. (And they may end up with a list of subs who don’t want to work with them again).

“Get to know the trade partners involved and form relationships over multiple projects,” Petre suggested. This will allow you to understand the strengths and quality of work each subcontractor provides so you know the value they’ll bring to a particular project.

As Petre said, “This is the best approach for smooth-running projects.”