The Design Project Middle Man and the Dark Alleyway of Miscommunication

For a freelancer, understanding the thoughts and opinions of crucial decision makers isn’t just a boon to a project; it’s integral to its progress. Having a middle man absorb information and then translate it as s/he sees fit can dangerously destabilize the project, resulting in missed deadlines, technical problems, undoing and redoing of work, and much worse.

Hiding in the Shadows

Middle men can be emotional, appealing to the freelancer on a personal level and saying things like, “I know you’re in a rush, but I don’t want to bother my boss,” or alternatively, “My boss is really on me about meeting this deadline! When can you get me those changes because I have to leave around 3 today?” In a delicate balance, the freelancer has to validate the person’s role while trying to effectively communicate business, and that can be disruptive and distracting.

Pay attention to when a middle man communicates with the decision maker through you, i.e., when she sends an email with some instructions for you along with questions for the decision maker about those instructions. That’s a clear indication that their contact with each other is fragmented. State up front that it’s best if they submit to you any instructions, revisions, etc. only once a final decision has been made between them, unless they’re looking for your advice, of course! (This is also a great way to decrease the margin of error caused so often by back-and-forth.)

A middle man can often assert herself as an authority figure. While she can certainly point you in a direction based on information you may or may not be privy to, the decision maker is king. Particularly aggressive or pushy middle men will simply make a decision without consulting the decision maker. Unless the two parties are on the exact same page, you’ll likely be redoing some work, so use caution when making revisions without a clear idea of who has authorized them.

Let Confidence By Your Guide

If you must communicate through a middle man, assess that person carefully and factor them in as you plan. Their personality, business sense, and work ethic will play a huge role in how the project is carried out.

If the middle man is a friend – a situation I would caution you to avoid – be even more critical before you agree to take on the project. Evaluating a friend might seem harsh or too subjective, but it’s well worth it because if the working relationship isn’t ideal, the friendship will undoubtedly suffer. Be sure you’re willing to take that risk up front.

CC decision makers on all email correspondence relating to evaluating and signing off on work.  Oftentimes, a manager will be reviewing the emails, even if he isn’t responding directly to you, so be specific and share some level of accountability with the middle man. The decision maker might occasionally pipe up when the middle man is out of the office or working on other things. Keep careful records of changes and sign-offs, including who authorized them.

If possible, especially when working with small businesses, try to avoid communicating through a third person. Any small business owner who involves a middle man probably thinks him/herself too busy to coordinate with you. Notify the client that the project will go more fluidly if you have some level of direct communication with him. Assure him that you will make the process as non-invasive as possible. You may be able to negotiate a compromise where you gain some closer contact with the decision maker while relying on the middle man for day-to-day communication. For instance, the decision maker might be the only person who can sign off on various stages of the project.

Emerging Victorious

Not every tri-part relationship involving a middle man is a recipe for disaster, but some can be much more dangerous to your business and its reputation than others. If you cannot work together amicably with the middle man, you may have to fire the client or decline finishing the work. Pay close attention to any red flags, provide directives from the beginning to promote success in the relationship, and you’ll likely emerge unscathed on the other side of the project.

Do you have any other considerations or advice when dealing with middle men? We’d love to hear it!

22-year veteran of strategy: brand, business, organizational, communications. Certified in project management and regulatory compliance. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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