Building Strong Relations with Subcontractors

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Kitchen & Bath Design News recently posed the following question to dealers and designers in the kitchen and bath industry: “How do you maintain an effective relationship with subcontractors with whom you work?” Following are some of the responses KBDN received.

“First and foremost, even before money, is to treat a subcontractor with respect. That goes a long way, as it should. I try to ask a sub about his/her needs in terms of information and being sensitive to scheduling issues and being ready to negotiate rather than to demand. On time payment is as important as the other pieces mentioned. There is still a fine line where one does not want to “pander” to a subcontractor, but to meet him/her halfway and to understand that a relationship can also be give-and-take, will show by example that both parties’ needs are important.

Givings the subcontractor as much advance notice as possible in regard to scheduling is important, and a follow-up closer to the [start] date is wise, to double check that the scheduled date is still doable for the subcontractor. When things go wrong, or a relationship breaks down, as they do, I will call a meeting to discuss/review [our mutual] needs. This way, responsibility for a breakdown is shared and diluted, and it also serves as an important relationship builder for the future. I’ve salvaged and also resurrected relationships that have not been active for years with good results. Sometimes breaks are a natural part of the business, but they don’t have to be permanent.

Susan Serra, principal
Susan Serra Associates
Northport, NY

“I think the best way to maintain an effective relationship is to not set them apart from your firm. Don’t take an “us and them” mentality. The keys are open communication and respect. I try to treat them the best that I can. Let’s face it: they are the ones in the homes making things happen. If I treat them badly, they aren’t going to like working with me and then my reputation and the reputation of my company is at stake. You need to be willing to invest some time into building a relationship with each other and, most importantly, you have to realize that you are all working together to make someone’s dream a reality and that’s a big responsibility.

Carol Barker CKD, CBD
Kitchens Unlimited
Memphis, TN

“I feel that we have the ability to set the tone and make it a rewarding and positive experience. It is necessary to work as a team and make sure to keep them “in the loop” by updating them on all of the details they will need to complete their job. It’s also important is to include them in that process of decision making in the field. Give the subs your input and allow them to give you their expert advice. When problems arise, instead of pointing fingers, be sure to work with your sub to get the problem resolved in the most cost effective and timely manner possible. Remember, your ultimate goal is the client’s satisfaction and happiness. As a designer, I treat subcontractors like any other relationship with open communication, respect and with the understanding that a “my way or the highway” mentality could get you into a battle where nobody ends up winning.

Jennifer Zarkos Conrad
Five Star Kitchen Designs
Ketchum, ID

“It is essential that you set some ground rules. School your subcontractors that pricing for all work should flow through you. Assure them that anything that is requested on the job site will flow to the subcontractor through your business to ensure that the relationship that you have built with the customer is kept consistent and straightforward. Be clear that the subcontractor doing “side” work with your customer blurs the relationship you’ve established with the end user, and will affect future business between your two organizations.

With this process, you still remain in control and provide in trade to the subcontractor a professional organization that represents the subcontractor’s business as well as your own. In exchange for subcontractor loyalty, as a business, you should also not blur the lines. If the project is completed on time, is of the specifications that were agreed to and does not have any installation loose ends, then the subcontractor should be paid regardless of your arrangement with the customer.

The practice of holding up subcontractor payments also blurs the lines between you being in control of the customer and the subcontractor needing a relationship with your end user. If you cannot complete a project because a vendor delivered a damaged door, or because of a design flaw, or other non-installation reasons, why should the subcontractor be subjected to late payments? If you expect them to act as professionals with your customer, shouldn’t you as an owner treat them as professionals and meet your obligations regardless of the customer paying the bill? With these ground rules in place and your business flowing regular projects through the subcontractor, a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship can exist for years.

John Valente, v.p./operations
Williams Kitchen & Bath
Grand Rapids, Michigan