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Summary:

Many freelancers I know, including myself, have outsourced tasks to subcontractors at least once. From a virtual assistant to the odd “extra hand” you hire from time to time, it’s common to have someone else help you with a project. Doing so makes you more productive, and allows you to take on large projects that you can’t handle yourself.

Still, it’s tough to keep an effective relationship between the primary contractor (you) and the subcontractor (your hired help). Subcontractors can make mistakes that interrupt your workflow, hurt the project, or altogether defeat the purpose of hiring them.

So, what are these subcontractor mistakes you need to watch out for?

968820_keyboardMany freelancers I know, including myself, have outsourced tasks to subcontractors at least once. From a virtual assistant to the odd “extra hand” you hire from time to time, it’s common to have someone else help you with a project. Doing so makes you more productive, and it allows you to take on large projects that you can’t handle yourself.

Still, it’s tough to keep an effective relationship between the primary contractor (you) and the subcontractor (your hired help). Subcontractors can make mistakes that interrupt your workflow, hurt the project, or altogether defeat the purpose of hiring them.

So, what are these subcontractor mistakes you need to watch out for?

They defer all decisions to you. What’s the point of hiring a subcontractor if they’re going to email you every time a minor decision needs to be made? I’ve had subcontractors who contacted me several times each day, asking me to decide on things that they should take care of on their own. This made me feel like I might as well have done the work myself if I was going to spend several hours guiding them step-by-step.

While it’s possible that the subcontractor you hired may be indecisive by nature, you can minimize this problem by creating rules that your subcontractors can use whenever they’re hesitant to make decisions. Let them know the boundaries that separate your area of responsibility from theirs.

For example, during a recent e-book project, I told my writer that adding, subtracting and rearranging sections of the e-book was fine, if she thought such modifications would improve the final product. But if she was going to add or remove whole chapters, she should let me know and wait for my approval before proceeding.

Establishing a clear line between the things I hired her to control (sections and smaller units of the e-book) and the things I want to control (chapters and larger units), meant that she knew whether a particular issue was important enough to defer to me.

If you’re worried about losing control, don’t establish boundaries that are outside your comfort zone. Let your subcontractor’s area of responsibility start as something small, then give them more decision-making power once they gain your trust. But as you’re doing this, be clear with them about the changing boundaries.

They break their contract. They might try to steal your clients, break your non-disclosure agreement, or re-sell their work to others. Prevention is always the best way to get deal with this problem. Before hiring someone, do an extensive online search and ask for a list of references you can talk to on the phone or via Skype.

Establishing a solid two-way relationship between you and the subcontractor is also a good way to prevent them from harming your business. Remind them that they need you more than you need them. Let them know that you can refer them to your friends, give them bonuses for very successful projects and provide them with stable long-term work.

They miss their deadlines. I’ve been disappointed several times with subcontractors who miss deadlines. One of them even took the responsibility of hitting the deadline so lightly that she said to me, “Oops! I forgot to do it, I’m so so sorry.”

So was I. I never hired her again. I avoided this problem with succeeding subcontractors by emphasizing the deadline using boldface or capital letters. I’ve also moved it from the last line to the first line of my project specifications template. It also helps to include a line or two about the consequences of missing the deadline.

For large projects, you can request regular updates, say, every day or twice a week. If you’re working with a particular subcontractor for the first time, don’t just ask for a report, see the actual draft — even if it is far from perfect. Let your subcontractor know that the point of regular reporting isn’t necessarily to correct mistakes. You only want to ensure that the project is progressing at a reasonable pace.

Hiring subcontractors doesn’t have to mean that you’re leaving yourself open to these types of problems. By taking the right preventive measures, you can treat your subcontractor as your partner rather than just someone who does the grunt work for you.

Have you ever hired a subcontractor? If so, what experience did you have with them?

Image by Ginny Austin from sxc.hu

  1. I’ve been burned by one sub-contractor who claimed to be available for a project during a given month, then at the last minute they canceled. That effectively put me behind a week as I scrambled to source another talent.

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  2. Developing a good relationship is essential with any subcontractor – be they a company or individual. I end up on both sides of the coin, my company does web development mainly for design agencies (they sub out the build to us) however we also use sub-contractors for specialist bits of work we can’t cover in house.

    If your subcontractor knows that you are always trying to drive them down on price, will go somewhere else for a better deal, are rude in emails or call late at night they are unlikely to care about your projects. You become a problem in their life. You should try to build a relationship with your sub – a mutually beneficial one where you both stand to do well out of the work you do together. If they feel respected and feel part of the team, they will be far more likely to go the extra mile for you when you need them. Also, if you have a good relationship and something happens that means they can’t deliver they will be far more likely to come to you early on, rather than the day of the deadline, and explain. This gives you time to sort things out and get extra help in or manage expectations at your end.

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  3. There are a couple of things you can do to avoid problems:

    – Once you find someone good, keep them. It’s really only on the first project that you have to worry about whether everyone’s expectations match up.

    – Stick to work that you could do yourself if you had time, or at least know what work is involved. Daily status reports aren’t much use if you don’t know what progress should have been made at that point.

    I’d disagree on the need for reference checks and emphasizing deadlines – A bit of trust helps a lot in building a good relationship, and it’s more important to be able to track progress during the project when you can do something about any problems – once a deadline is missed, having someone to blame for it doesn’t really help.

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  4. My niche is subcontracting for other virtual assistants. It’s really helpful to read articles like this so I can learn prior to the mistakes:)

    After hours of research I’ve come to the conclusion the first goal of mine, being a subcontractor, is establishing a good relationship with a contractor. Starting on small projects for them is a plus for both us. Proving what I can do for them makes them feel at ease. We can also figuree out if we are a good fit as a team. Signing a non-disclosure statement is a must because I feel it shows I have no intention of stealing clients but helping them grow their business. Sometimes it’s ok to be a team player instead of the team coach. I like the grunt work:)

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  5. I agree with Collette. I *rarely* hire subcontractors as I’m used to doing most of the work myself, however it something is outside my expertise, or if I’m anticipating a time crunch, I would delegate the “small stuff” out which then give me time to focus on the more challenging projects.

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  6. [...] or assistants can be helpful — but only if you hire and train them well. There are many things that can go wrong with such an arrangement, especially if it’s your first time to work this way. To ensure that [...]

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  7. Should subcontractors have a performance bond.

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