The Business of Independent Contractors: Skilled at their Trade but Flawed in Their Business (How to Repair This)


By James D. Roumeliotis

For the last couple of years, I and several other people I know have been complaining about what it takes to reach out to a contractor for home renovations and landscaping. The idea of getting frustrated trying to obtain a quote or to initiate the work agreed upon is ludicrous. After all, shouldn’t a business be eager to get new business and build, as well as retain its reputation? Then there are contractors who do shoddy work, leave a big mess behind, and/or constantly delay completing the work.

While contractors are skilled, it does not necessarily make them great businessmen. As independent tradesmen, they evidently have not received much, if any, education on entrepreneurship including communications, sales, marketing, and customer service/customer experience. What they do practice is being all over the place with several simultaneous jobs, with no focus in sight, coupled with the present scarcity of skilled tradespeople to fulfill the work demand. They are a special breed of businesspeople. “Half upfront and I will get back to you.” Is their typical modus operandi. 

What Gives?

Many wannabe entrepreneurs (in this case ─ independent contractors) have too much on their plate while they lack adequate coordinating and communication skills. They are buying, selling, ordering, coordinating workers, suppliers, tools ─ and if they have a family, this also requires their attention. You get the idea. Furthermore, add to the equation the work truck which may have broken down. If your job is of less value than somebody else’s, you may be placed on the back burner or your request for a bid can be completely ignored while they work toward collecting money from another project. Sometimes obtaining parts specific to a job can be difficult to obtain due to the challenging supply chain. This causes long delays in receiving the necessary supplies. While waiting, the contractor, who needs to continue earning his income, goes elsewhere to work but will return to finish up a job once the item is in. “Juggling” and “prioritizing” is their default work ethic. That said, the customer is at their mercy.

Solutions to Reforming Their Business Conduct

The following are things contractors do that customers despise and how those missteps can be avoided.

  • Failing to Communicate

There is nothing worse than having a contractor with whom you can’t communicate or who does not respond to your messages in a timely manner. It lacks courtesy.  Not only can this affect customer relations issues, but also impact the entire construction team working on the project.

Solution: Be accessible and responsive to potential and existing customers. This is one of the best ways to gain their trust and build your reputation. Either obtain assistance from a family member, or better yet, hire someone to handle all communications.

  • Subcontracting

When a contractor delegates his work to someone else, the homeowner has directly no control of this. The customer has made plans with the initial contractor and the subcontractor may not have all the details and turn out to underperform.

Solution: A contractor should vet the subcontractor diligently and be on the same page in terms of the work specifications required to be completed along with a follow-up inspection.

  • Producing Low-Quality Work

Lack of communication and subcontracting can both attribute to low-quality work. If customers paid for a specific service and it was executed poorly, in their right, they expect to have it redone ─ and not have to pay for it again.

Solution: Contractors should only work with trusted and highly rated contractors, avoiding the cost and trouble of low-quality work.

  • Extending the Timeline

Before work on a project begins, an estimated completion date is usually given so the customer will know how long the job will take with the ability to plan appropriately. Disappointingly and often, a contractor will extend this time period not once but maybe even twice. It may be deemed acceptable if the weather has been worse than anticipated (such as a lengthy harsh winter), or there has been an unforeseen predicament. Oftentimes though, that isn’t the case. Usually, it’s a lack of being organized, issues with subcontractors and/or supplies, project challenges not envisaged during the onset, or undertaking too many jobs simultaneously.

Solution: Contractors should be well aware of the above outcomes and do a better job planning for the conceivable.

  • Lacking Cleanliness

Often, you will hear about how contractors and their crews leave behind a giant mess after they are done with their project. Homeowners should not have to pick up after the contractor’s workers, who can leave behind hazardous items, such as nails and broken glass to name a few.

Solution: Once the work has been completed, contractors ought to make certain they don’t leave their mess behind. A job well delivered is deemed professional and will lead to customer satisfaction along with referrals and a stellar image ─ priceless!

  • Unexpectedly Adding Fees

When all is said and done, customers get appalled soon as they discover that they are paying more than was initially established. There are times when these contractors won’t even have a reason for the price increase.

Solution: The work estimate should be worked on very carefully considering the worst-case scenario rather than spitballing.  Customers don’t care about your issues and underestimates. They want an all-inclusive and solid quote ─ in effect for at least three months).

  • Safety Negligent

Homeowners don’t appreciate when a contractor doesn’t ensure that his crew is following proper safety protocol. Not only are the workers subject to being injured, but the homeowner and his/her family coming and going from the house could also get harmed.

Solution: Safety should be a priority and contractors should maintain high standards including the safest, most up-to-date practices and procedures. They should be a member of a construction/renovation trade association.

  • Dividing Work & Attention

Contractors tend to be busy with multiple clients at once, thus their phones are always ringing. However, customers obviously hate it when contractors behave as if another customer and job seem more important than theirs.

Solution: Contractors should place their complete and total focus on the job at hand, as well as be honest about their workload. Once again, communication is key.

Bottom Line

It seems that the self-taught business ethos of independent contractors is: If they don’t need work right now or in the next few days, they don’t feel obligated to respond. From the consumer point of view, it’s definitely bad business. An MBA is not necessary to arrive at this conclusion. A small contractor has to wear different hats, but this person is usually only qualified to wear one of those hats. Here is how they get into this mess. Take on more jobs than can mentally and physically be handled/juggled at one time. Every customer wants it done now. “When can you start” or better yet, “When can you finish?”

The solution is to hire a full-time salesperson to price and provide service. Perhaps even hire a person to schedule work. In other words, separate jobs. However, the problem is that this may not be affordable for the contractor starting off. If applicable, a trusted member of the family, such as the spouse can be considered the best person to answer phones and undertake the scheduling until the business can begin to afford hiring staff. It’s the only way the business can scale properly.

The contents of this article were presented from a customer point of view and business advisor, along with frequent observation tempered with the knowledge of how many other businesses operate.

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