Managing From the Middle

Small businesses often rely on independent contractors or other organizations to provide services that they don’t offer or specialize in. I think this is a great model for clients and service providers alike, but incorporating other providers into your work for clients requires management skills that might not at first be obvious.

This situation crops up if you engage a website developer for a rebrand you’re conducting, bring in a designer for a logo project, or hire a researcher to help you and your client better understand their customers — any situation in which your client and vendor are working with someone besides YOU. And if you don’t understand and own your responsibilities in the relationship, you could be in for a heap of trouble.

Understand Your Role

When you connect a vendor and a client for work on a project you’re managing, you take on responsibilities to both of them. To your client, you are providing assurance that the vendor is reliable, responsible, appropriately priced and the right person for their job. To your vendor, you are providing assurance that the client recognizes their contribution and expertise and will pay their bills. To both, you are providing assurance that their objectives and opinions will be heard and respected.

Even if you have a long history of working with either your client or your vendor (or both), don’t assume that your job is done once the project begins. You are a gatekeeper, not simply the person handling the invoicing. Your job is to ensure that both your client and your vendor stay on track and that the relationship is as valuable for both of them as you imagined it when you hooked them up in the first place.

Don’t Be a Mouthpiece

Your job is not just to pass paper (or emails, or whatever) back and forth between the other two parties. Your job is to MANAGE THE PROJECT and protect both parties from each other. Your client may ask questions that you can answer more quickly and easily than your vendor can. You may need to translate a vendor’s request into something your client will understand. Sometimes requests, issues and recommendations need to be framed in a particular way to keep the project moving forward effectively. That’s YOUR job.

Don’t Abandon Your Post

You can’t just check yourself out of the action. Fail to pay attention, and you might find that your vendor is being asked to do things not included in the project scope or budget, or that your client is being offered services they don’t need (or that you intend to provide yourself), or that your timeline is shot, affecting other work you’re doing for your client.

Don’t Violate Their Trust

In the worst possible scenario, one of the other parties starts acting crazy. If your client decides to cancel and wants a refund, or your vendor wants to fire your client, YOU are the one that has to manage the outcome. The weak or inexperienced manager in this situation will turn to the offended party and say, “I hate to ask, but my client wants a refund.” Or, “I know you have already paid, but my vendor doesn’t want to finish.” The minute you start acting as a mindless conduit for either of the other parties in this relationship, your value to both of them evaporates.

If this happens, you will lose the goodwill of both parties. And if you think it’s hard to overcome bad reviews from an unhappy client, try dealing with the grapevine effects of bad word of mouth from a vendor. We all rely on the support of our communities to be successful, and treating a partner poorly is the fastest way to torpedo that support.

If the request from one party seems unreasonable, it probably is. STOP, and try to resolve with that party before you even involve the other. A talented manager can find the way out of any issue with a minimum of resentment or frustration for either side.

Do Better

When speaking with your client, keep in mind the needs and contributions of your vendor. When speaking with your vendor, represent the best interests of your client. In the middle, your best service to both is to make the project as seamless as possible. Use your role to ensure that molehills don’t turn into mountains, and both parties end the project happy to work with each other again — and to recommend you, and each other, to their friends and business contacts.

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