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Subcontractor - Me, my younger brother and my father, Scranton, North Dakota, circa 1949

Michael, younger brother and father in Scranton, North Dakota, about 1949

I have a great deal of respect for subcontractors. My father was an electrical contractor in North Dakota. I was a licensed plumber before I moved into remodeling. I’ve lived both sides of the relationship.

One of the questions we’re asked most often is how a subcontractor can get jobs. How do you go about meeting general contractors and letting them know you’re available to build their jobs?

Remember that you are both in business and there needs to be mutual respect between both parties. You both have families to feed, you’re both doing your best to provide a needed service in a responsible manner and make a profit doing it. If you’re a subcontractor working for a general who looks down his nose at you or the type of work you do, it’s time to find someone else to work for. If you’re a general contractor who thinks that plumbing is work for the lowly, you need to find another career. The next time you need the bathroom, remember to thank a plumber.

It isn’t easy for subcontractors to get started. But the best way to meet general contractors is to go where they go. Association meetings are a great place to meet new business partners. There are any number of civic organizations that you could join. Always be careful about volunteering too much of your time because there are only so many hours in a day, and running your business needs to be the priority. All the same, being a part of associations will definitely help produce business for your company.

After you meet someone you’d like to work with, a thank you card is a nice touch and always well received. Job signs, vehicle signs, and developing a good referral network are also ways to attract more business.

A good friend of ours used to deliver a box of Krispy Kreme donuts to the offices of general contractors he wanted to meet and work with. If you’re more health conscious, how about a fruit tray?

Marketing and advertising your business takes time. Don’t spend $1,500 on a radio ad and expect dozens of phone calls. That rarely happens. Find someone who can help you develop a good marketing plan and get to work on it.

Subcontractors need a website, just like any other contractor. Make sure it shows what you can do and have done in the past. That’s why you should always take good before, during and after photos or videos of your work. Yes, that applies to subs as well. If you’re an electrician, take pictures before you drill out, show your set up for speedy rough-in, show your clean up at the end of rough-in, show your finished work including the inside of the panel and, with permission, pictures of the owner using the equipment you helped install.

If you’re a plumber, show the work area before you start drilling or breaking into existing lines, show your meter connections, your shut off valves, your manifolds for water or gas.

Drywall guys, show the generals how you keep the job clean and picked up as you go, how you don’t fill their outlet openings with mud when you’re taping, show the evenness of your spray finishes and what you do to be sure you don’t have nail pops. If you have special finishes you can do like sun bursts or barking, let the general and his or her clients know about them.

Remember that a general contractor wants the same thing from their subcontractors that a homeowner is looking for in a contractor. Will you do the job they want you to do, when they want it done, and for a reasonable price? Can they count on you to show up on time, to get the work done without excuses or problems, to keep the job clean, and to respect the work of the other subs?

As in all of life, your attitude has a lot to do with your success. A very wise man (Zig Ziglar) once said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” Always portray a good attitude in your dealings with others, even if it hurts. A forced smile is much better than a sincere frown. A kind word is always received better than a cutting remark.

Remember to always look your best. You are on display 24 hours a day when you’re in business. Don’t crawl out from under a house and go meet someone to look at a job. Schedule your time so that you can get your sales calls all done in a day or less, but look good when you go. Drive a clean vehicle, don’t use tobacco, drink alcohol or use drugs. Remember, if you want to be paid like a pro, you must think, speak, dress and act like a pro.

Once you get the opportunity to show a general what you can do, little things matter. Don’t hound them for money. A good general will pay his subs every two weeks. You should set your company up to operate on that income schedule and if the general doesn’t pay on that schedule, you need to find another general contractor to work for.

If you’re doing small jobs, I wouldn’t ask for a down payment from the general. If a job is going to take more than a week and you have a payroll to meet, then a down payment is fair. Generals, I hope you’re listening here. Your subs have bills just like you do and if you got a down payment from your customer, then you should be prepared to give your subs a down payment as well.

Subs, when you quote a price to a general, make it the price you need to do the job. If they want to negotiate price, tell them no. Real simple, NO. They can tell you what they want done, when and where. You tell them what the price will be. If they don’t like that, once again, move on. The last thing you want to do is get into bidding on jobs. Bidding implies that you must submit the lowest number to get the job. That whole process is just plain dumb. Let’s see, I give you the lowest price and I win? Oh joy.

So don’t bid jobs. Show up, find out what the general wants to have done and give them a firm price quotation on that work. Along with your quote, tell the general that if the job changes, your price will change, guaranteed. Make your presentation better than any other presentation by any other sub and you will get more than your share of the work in your area.

Don’t try selling to people who are looking for the cheapest price. Avoid any general contractor who shops prices. If you hear they’re getting quotes from multiple other companies that do your type of work, just walk away. It has been my experience after 55 years in this business that general contractors who continually shop their subs for the lowest price are often on their way out of business anyway.

If you are introduced to a general and they ask for a quote, tell them you get one of every three jobs you quote. You will find out real quick if they are the type of general you want to work with and for. And generals, if you get a quote from a sub and you get the job, that sub gets the job. Don’t use a sub to price shop other subs. Period.

Start marketing your company to the people that know and understand they have to pay for a job well done. The good ones know and understand that principle.

It really all comes back to mutual respect. The ancient rule still applies: treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

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