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GCs & Specialty Contractors: The Crucial Role of Communication

Construction projects are like giant puzzles, and frank communication is the key ingredient that helps stakeholders put them together.

In the intricate world of construction, the relationship between subcontractors and general contractors is fundamental to the success of any project. But in the effort to do what’s right, teammates can lose sight of what constitutes good communication and miss the mark.


“I’ll tell you a funny story,” says one AWCI member contractor, speaking in confidence.
“An estimator came to me the other day. He was real proud of himself. He said, ‘Hey, boss. I sent doughnuts over to XYZ contractor.’”


“Well, that’s awesome! Did you get to meet him and talk with him a little?’”


“‘No,’” the estimator replied. “‘I had them delivered by Uber.’”


Looking on in utter disbelief, the AWCI member said, “You missed the whole opportunity. The reason for buying doughnuts is to get some face time to find out what he’s working on and to establish your relationship with him.’”


Today, wall and ceiling contractors face an evolving construction landscape with team members not always at the top of their communications game. It’s a time that calls for a fresh look at one’s communications strategies.


AWCI member contractors contacted for this article, drawing from their extensive industry experiences, note a shift in the dialogue happening on the job site. Most see change among the general contractors they interact with.


“Across the board, they’re not as strong [at communication] as they used to be,” says the AWCI member relating the above story. “There’s just not that depth of construction experience with the majority of them.”


The observation underscores a growing concern among wall and ceiling contractors about what they see as a diminishing pool of seasoned professionals in the field. Sure, they see it within their own ranks as long-time field operators retire. But they also see it in the ranks of their GC partners. There’s no substitute, they say, for hands-on field experience, and there’s no better way to put that experience to work other than through good communication—in person, on the phone, through video calls, by email and via texting and direct messaging.


Good communication is key to working with GCs.


The Dilemma of Inexperience
The demographics within the construction workforce are changing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2003 and 2020, the percentage of construction workers who were age 55 and over nearly doubled, from 11.5% to 22.7%.


As those experienced professionals retire from the industry, they are often replaced by younger, technology-savvy individuals. Young professionals emerging from construction management and engineering programs bring technological prowess to their jobs, but they may lack practical on-site experience, sources say.


“They’ve been replaced by a laptop-wielding young guy,” says an AWCI member contractor. “It’s typically those guys who are working in project management roles. You’re out trying to do your job, and all they care about is what their schedule says.”


Despite the influx and adoption of communication technologies and platforms, certain essential aspects of construction knowledge are not always adequately addressed. This is where constant, collaborative and creative communication can make a difference. Technology can aid GCs and subcontractors in managing schedules, budgets, safety protocols and contracts, but it cannot replace the nuanced understanding shared through regular dialogue and that is required to build structures correctly. Furthermore, key nuances can be lost by limiting communication to text messaging and email. It’s the personal interaction that truly brings understanding of the perspectives of other parties. In other words, effective communication involves relationship-building, hands-on experience, collaboration and a balanced use of technology.


Communication Is a Cornerstone
Jerry Smith, president of Baker Drywall Austin (Texas) and an AWCI past president, says the importance of communication is increasing. Smith sees a shift in the frequency and nature of meetings with GCs, which has required more time-input on his part.


“The multitude of meetings we have with GCs has increased tenfold compared to what it was 10 years ago,” Smith says.


This surge in meetings driven by GCs requires that upper management, not just site superintendents, be present. But Smith sees a positive outcome to this: More meetings mean more opportunities for him and his team to voice their opinions regarding project details. Speaking up candidly at meetings and emailing detailed follow-up messages about job requirements comprise necessary communication. They just need to be supplemented with the personal touch, Smith says.


“Emails are prevalent, but not great,” he says. “Picking up the phone and fostering direct conversations to address issues, doing it often and promptly, that has enduring value.”


Personal interactions help build relationships with the GC, so Smith urges his team to get to know who they’re working with on projects. Showing up with doughnuts, lunches and other gestures has its place, because such personal touches foster rapport. They help keep the dialogue open with customers and, Smith says, serve as the driving force in navigating the complexities of construction projects.


The Documentation Power of Email
In this era where the frequency of meetings has surged, Mike Taylor, CEO of Liddle Brothers Contractors in Tennessee and an AWCI past president, imparts several strategies to his superintendents and project managers to secure more airtime with GCs. Email, he says, is the primary mode of communication for its ability to document details.


“All good communication is documented, and documentation is extremely important, these days, in every aspect of construction,” Taylor says.


Taylor believes face-to-face schmoozing has dwindled of late. In its place, construction companies are witnessing a surge in project documentation which, Taylor says, has been driven by the specter of liability and lawsuits. Taylor says specialty contractors should try to document everything through email messages and pictures.


“Taking pictures and emails verify what you’re doing,” Taylor says. “Documentation of agreed-upon details is extremely important because we all have the tendency to forget verbal conversations.”


Chip McAlpin, AWCI past president and division president of the Jackson, Mississippi, and Louisiana offices of F.L. Crane & Sons, also leans toward a digital communications strategy.


“It’s easier to remember with email, and you can always go back to it,” says McAlpin, acknowledging the value of a paper trail in the fast-paced construction environment.


Beginning about a decade ago, F.L. Crane witnessed a notable shift toward increased email communication at all levels. Tablets, now a staple for superintendents, have transformed the way they interact with the GC’s field representatives. Field personnel may not be fully onboard with the technology, McAlpin admits. But PDF markups and change requests being exchanged on tablets and phones is how details get documented, and that’s good from a liability protection standpoint.


Travis Winsor, AWCI’s current president and CEO and chairman of The Raymond Group, a California specialty contractor, says communication breakdowns are notorious in the construction industry, where the intricacies of project management demand seamless collaboration.


“Misinterpretation of communication is a very big issue,” Winsor says.


Acknowledging the diverse communication preferences among a project’s stakeholders, Winsor notes that the younger generation’s varied communication methods, which tend to be digital, include emails, text messaging and direct messaging. With myriad communication channels available, Winsor’s philosophy for his team revolves around “over-communication.” He encourages his project leaders to set the tone early on a project and establish a clear and consistent communication framework. The framework should involve a blend of personal contact and written correspondence.


In a candid revelation, Winsor acknowledges that putting discussions in writing, particularly via email, can be met with some resistance. But he contends the benefits far outweigh the discomfort the GC may initially feel.


“We’re just trying to make sure that the job is effectively being managed for all the stakeholders on the project,” he says.


Weekly production reports and the documentation of open items serve as invaluable tools, helping both Raymond and the GCs to manage projects efficiently. Indeed, the habit to document details becomes accepted—and appreciated—by GCs over time.


Despite the importance of digital communication in documenting production, Taylor like other AWCI member contactors wants his team members to remain personable.


“It’s extremely important to pick up a telephone and call a customer or to get in your vehicle and go visit a customer,” he says.


Taylor’s pragmatic approach, thus, underscores the need for a balanced, multifaceted communications strategy in an industry where time is both a commodity and an asset.


In-House Communications Training
With so much diversity in personalities on any job, communication styles surely vary. How can crews in the field avoid misunderstandings and potential conflicts? The Raymond Group takes a proactive approach by providing communications training.


While the company has engaged consultants in the past, Winsor believes that internal training, sessions conducted by experienced company personnel, yields better results.


“The credibility of the person giving the message or giving the training is much higher when it’s a known entity within our organization,” Winsor says.


He says Raymond’s communications training exemplifies a commitment to clarity, consistency and effective conflict resolution. The training reinforces the company’s belief that communication is not just exchanging words but orchestrating success on the job site.


Dan Wies, at the helm of both Wies Drywall and Wies Offsite in Missouri, also believes in organic, on-the-job learning. This approach, he argues, resonates with men, who learn best by doing than by watching presentations in formal classes.


“Have you ever been to a class where a bunch of tradesmen are sitting in?” Wies asks. “Ninety percent of them have their eyes glazed over after 20 minutes. It’s not functional.”


Wies arranges for experienced leaders from within his company to buddy up with those less experienced. Everyone appreciates the arrangement because they’ve seen their coach on job sites and enjoy working shoulder to shoulder and learning from them.


What aspect of communication does Wies want taught? He says every project is a collaboration, and effective communication is the linchpin holding the partnerships together.


“Our clients aren’t just our clients,” Wies says. “They’re also our business partners.”


Good communication, for Wies, boils down to having good soft skills. Soft skills, he says, encompass the ability of foremen to articulate their wants and needs accurately and truthfully when the schedules are tight and the job site shuffle between trades is complex. To foster soft skills, Wies runs an internal mentorship program.


“We pair guys who are really good at what they do so others can learn,” Wies says.


The Human Touch
Bill Ford, president of Grayhawk in Kentucky, who has over three decades of experience, says the role of general contractors is evolving. Ford believes it is important, and possible, to foster good communication with GCs. But doing so involves understanding a shift taking place.


According to Ford, the profile of the GC’s superintendent has been transformed as younger professionals enter the field more and more straight out of college. This change calls for specialty contractors, such as Grayhawk, to adapt to and enhance how they execute their communications strategies. The key is to better align with the customer.


For example, Ford highlights to his team the importance of separating roles, especially estimating and project management. General contractors often prefer to interact with specialized individuals, and that requires Grayhawk to streamline its business structure to allow for smoother collaboration on projects.
In small markets like Lexington, Kentucky, where Grayhawk is based, subcontractors often work repeatedly with the same GCs. And yet, with personnel frequently changing within all companies, Ford feels it’s important for his team to establish relationships that transcend corporate boundaries. Building a rapport with a variety of individuals in a variety of trades and, of course, with the GC, helps Grayhawk cover its bases, work collaboratively and earn it rewards—having fewer callbacks, lining up future work—all because it excels at communication.


Yes, the personal touch remains significant in today’s construction market. Ford says any opportunity to engage with the customer, whether through trade associations or meetings, contributes to the success of the project. While technology has undoubtedly made tasks easier, subcontractors face challenges when dealing with the duplicated efforts that may come by using different systems. Streamlining the communication platforms between subcontractors and general contractors can alleviate these challenges, Ford says.


And when dealing with less experienced individuals in the industry, Ford believes that subcontractors should prioritize listening and cooperation over expediency. Training teams to engage at the level of communication required, and making commitments and following through on them, all help to build trust and avoid confrontation, Ford says. A collaborative approach can ensure smooth negotiations in getting the work done, he believes.


Wies also emphasizes the importance of having personal interactions with GCs. Taking a client to lunch, grabbing coffee and other gestures helps to nurture relationships for the long-term.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” Wies says, highlighting the determinant nature of communication. “And the effort you put in dictates how you view the world.”


In a world where construction involves collaboration, partnership and feats of teamwork, Wies conveys to his team the belief that effective communication is more than just conveying information. It’s about building relationships, fostering understanding and ensuring that projects advance with clarity and purpose.


McAlpin, too, calls for balance between personal and documented communication. Digital communication can be a powerful tool. It’s the mechanism that puts everyone on the same page. But a truly collaborative effort, he says, requires that stakeholders take time to talk.


Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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