Don’t Gamble With Subcontractor Relationships: Eight Tips For Hiring Subcontractors

Get tips for outsourcing and working with subcontractors to grow your freelance business and build strong partner relationships.

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When you’re a freelancer, the amount of work you can take on is limited by the amount of time you have available. If you’re not ready to expand your business and hire employees, the best way to move past this limit is to outsource work to strategic partners and hire subcontractors.

Outsourcing often gets a bad rap from agencies and consultants who sell premium work then outsource the execution to unqualified (and often underpaid) subcontractors who deliver subpar results.

This doesn’t have to be the reality for your freelance business.

With the right approach and considerations, you can grow your business and help more people through outsourcing. The trick is building mutually beneficial relationships with subcontractors.

Eight Tips For Hiring Subcontractors

Over the years, I have done a fair amount of work as a contractor for other WordPress, public relations, marketing, and creative agencies. I have also hired specialist subcontractors to assist with my own client projects. Experiencing both roles first-hand — the person hiring a subcontractor and the person working as a contractor — taught me eight important lessons that have led to positive, lucrative client relationships.

In regards to subcontracting relationships, these lessons can mean the difference between projects that flow smoothly and projects that struggle to get finished.

1. Vet Contractors Well

Being present and visible on social media often equates to being well-known and “internet famous.” What you can’t forget, however, is that being “internet famous” doesn’t always equate to quality work, high performance, or being easy to collaborate with. Sometimes it just means they spend more time online than everyone else.

When hiring contractors, you must do your own due diligence:

  • Review their portfolio and dig into real work samples
  • Ask questions about previous projects, their role in the project, and the challenges faced
  • Ask for references, speak with them, and get first-hand feedback on their ability to meet deadlines and their communication style

It’s also a great idea to do a trial project to experience their work product and communication skills first-hand. Pay the subcontractor for their time, provide clear instructions, and see if they can listen, follow directions, and communicate clearly. Also, consider throwing a wrench in the mix on purpose to test how they handle unexpected obstacles.

2. Prepare In Advance

Preparation and planning is the key to successfully onboarding a new subcontractor and ensuring a project runs as smoothly as possible.

Without proper preparation, you’re basically throwing potential partners in the ocean and hoping they can swim. If you want subcontractors to excel and take work off your plate, you must provide the support they need and empower them.

This means having documented systems and processes in place that outline things like:

  • How you work, how you communicate, and what is expected
  • Required meeting attendance and availability
  • How progress updates, check-ins, and reporting will be handled
  • How deliverables will be submitted
  • Required quality of deliverables
  • How design revisions or code reviews will work
  • Project milestones and deadlines and what must be delivered at each one

3. Detailed Scope Of Work

Every project must have a clear scope of work (SOW) and functional requirements document, especially when outsourcing work to a subcontractor because they haven’t spoken with the client, don’t have your historical knowledge, and may not have access to the same information you do.

If you want subcontractors to deliver the right work on time and in budget, with nothing missing, they need:

  • A clear, documented scope of work
  • A checklist of deliverables
  • A firm yet attainable deadline

4. Clear Instructions And Expectations

There isn’t a single subcontractor on Earth that can read your mind, which means you can’t assume anything or leave anything to chance. Along with the SOW, provide subcontractors with crystal clear instructions and expectations at the start of the engagement.

5. Respect Your Subcontractors’ Time

You must be clear yet realistic about the project schedule and deadline requirements. Project timelines can have a huge impact on cost, especially if a challenging timeline requires a subcontractor to work nights and/or weekends to finish a project on time.

There are three tricks to building strong subcontractor relationships that will earn both loyalty and dependable quality:

  1. Pay them well. If you have a project with an aggressive timeline or crazy turnaround that will have them jumping through hoops and working extra long hours, don’t balk at their rush fees or premium rates. And, if they don’t charge you any extra, throw in a little bonus for a job well done when you pay their invoice.
  2. Build extra time into the project. Make sure the project schedule includes time to answer a subcontractor’s questions, provide feedback, and review their work — before you’re behind the 8-ball and everyone is rushed and stressed.
  3. Honor deadlines and commitments. “Hurry up and wait” situations — where a subcontractor works quickly to meet a deadline only to be ignored because you’re too busy — create unrest. And, if done repeatedly, it can cause resentment and damage a relationship

6. Document Everything

Provide all subcontractors access to a shared place where all project files and work product will be kept — GitHub, your project management system, or even a shared Dropbox or Google Drive folder. This ensures that at any time during the project, you can access all work completed to date, which is incredibly helpful if the subcontractor gets sick, goes on vacation, or ghosts you.

If the subcontractor will be working on something locally (on their own machine), set specific deliverable deadlines like the end of each day or the end of each week, where they upload everything completed to date. This will help prevent unfortunate client project delays that happen when subcontractors fail to deliver the work product on time or you need access to something but they are unavailable.

7. Be Proactive About Deadlines

Help subcontractors be great partners by checking in periodically throughout the project to see how they’re doing and answer any questions they may have.

Consider setting their deadlines a bit earlier than the actual project deadlines to ensure you have some wiggle room just in case something goes wrong. For example, if a client deadline is on Thursday, make the subcontractor’s deadline on Monday. This provides buffer to fix/address anything that may need to be tweaked before sending it to the client.

8. Provide Feedback And Praise

If you want your subcontractors to do great work and happily overdeliver, you have to ensure they feel valued and appreciated. Say thank you, provide feedback, and praise your subcontractors on a job well done.

As someone who has been in client services for more than 20 years and worked as a subcontractor:

  • I have worked my butt off for partners and clients who never said thank you or a single kind word about my work — even when I went out of my way to meet an unreasonable deadline or go the extra mile. It’s a terrible, defeating feeling.
  • I have worked with people who never acknowledge the work that went into a project and instead, jump straight to what they perceive to be wrong. It’s another frustrating and terrible feeling.

That type of behavior doesn’t inspire anyone to go the extra mile for you. Saying thank you isn’t difficult and it doesn’t take a lot of time, but that one simple act makes a world of difference. Even if the subcontractor made a mistake, taking the time to acknowledge their effort and work before pointing out what needs to be fixed can create a positive experience.

The Truth About Working With Subcontractors

Prosperous subcontractor relationships are a two-way street. They require both parties to equally respect and commit to the success of the project.

Remember, not every subcontractor will be a perfect fit. If a subcontractor isn’t working out, you can’t be afraid to have the tough conversations needed to bring the relationship up to par or part ways and move on.

It can take a few tries and misfires to find a subcontractor you click with and trust. When that happens, hang onto them, treasure them, and pay them well! Ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial and make sure they feel valued and appreciated. If you can do that, they’ll bend over backward for you with a smile on their face and you’ll be able to grow your freelance business with far less stress and greater ease.