Ask a group of remodelers what they can learn from trade contractors, and you'll likely get a lot of muttering and more than your fair share of smirks. Trade contractors —more commonly known as subcontractors — are not perfect, of course, but they do some things very well, even better than (gasp!) general contractors.

In this, the second of a four-article series, REMODELING spoke with trade contractors with the goal of learning which of their best practices might be useful to full-service remodeling firms.

Blending In “The subcontractor's challenge is to be a chameleon,” says Dan Pitcock, owner of Roberts Electric Co., in Oakland, Calif. This past year, Roberts Electric did more than 1,100 jobs. Pitcock says that 17 contractors, and a handful of property managers and institutional customers, provided roughly 250 of those jobs, while the large majority came from homeowners and small commercial customers. All told, Pitcock and his staff had more than 930 “bosses” this year.

Full-service remodelers aren't likely to have that many masters, but they can take a lesson in how to adjust to different personalities. Much is made of choosing your clients carefully and only working for people you want to work for, but even within that select client base, you're likely to run into a smorgasbord of personalities.

“The contractors we work with run the gamut,” Pitcock says. “Some are very organized, with good plans and specs. Others shoot from the hip. And within each company, the employees have different personalities.” Because of the diversity of the people Roberts Electric works for and with, the company culture might be best summed up in a single word: “flexible.”

This is most apparent in the way Pitcock lets his employees form their own relationships. Pitcock will check on a job once a week or so, but his foremen are the ones meeting daily with the general contractor or job supervisor. Pitcock is available if they absolutely need him, but “we have our own processes and system of decision-making, so that whoever ends up on a job knows what our goals are.” Familiarizing his employees with the details of running a job allows Pitcock scheduling flexibility and ensures that all jobs run smoothly.

Similarly, if you're a full-service remodeler who does a lot of repeat business and is fortunate enough to have limited field crew turnover, you might arrange for the same lead carpenter to handle the second job for a client. (Or not, depending on how well the first experience worked out.) Likewise, if your client is a good friend, relative, or neighbor of an existing client who referred your company, it could be smart to put the same field crew on the new job. It's not unheard of at many established remodeling companies for clients to wait six months or more for “their” lead carpenter to become available before breaking ground on a second phase or a new project.

Little Things Shane O'Harra, owner of Timbercraft, a Boise, Idaho, cabinetmaker, says he's observed that general contractors often don't give homeowners enough options. One reason is that, in the midst of designing a complex addition or whole-house remodel, it's easy to think “big picture” and lose sight of the details.

For O'Harra — who, in addition to working for GCs, runs his own projects — the solution is to spend a lot of time listening to homeowners. “A lot of my customers will have ideas,” O'Harra says. They'll have looked at their friends' new cabinets or flagged photographs in magazines. They have an idea of what they want, but they don't truly understand that sinks can be moved, walls removed or relocated, and appliances repositioned. “They think everything has to stay in the same place,” he says. “Their options are a lot broader than what they think.”

O'Harra tries to get beyond what homeowners think they want by learning as much as he can about how they are going to use the space. As a trade contractor specializing in cabinets, he has a broad and deep understanding of the available options and, more importantly, which of those options fit different homeowner needs.

For example, a homeowner who requests a drawer for the microwave is sending off signals to O'Harra that she doesn't want her kitchen to be cluttered by unsightly appliances. O'Harra can then make additional design suggestions that take space and aesthetics into consideration.