Strangers in Your Project: Managing Third Party Relationships

Have you ever felt like a third wheel on a project? I’m talking about those projects where a client brings in an outside vendor – typically a marketing company – to help with the process. It’s not common, but it does happen, and when it does, you have to be prepared handle a completely new layer of relationship management – or else you may blow a gasket.

I don’t mean to rag on marketing companies, but I’ve encountered far too many that needle their way into web projects and then overcomplicate decisions by attempting to add their “unique” perspective to everything. And then I’ve encountered marketing companies that really know what they’re talking about – and they especially know when to stand back and let the designers and developers do their job.

In both types of encounters, I had to employ new relationship tactics separate from normal client communications.

Figure out the agendas

Marketing companies, IT vendors, web designers, and developers are all brought in to serve a specific function on a project. The marketing company may provide branding direction, while the IT vendor’s responsibility may entail provisioning a server. Regardless, there should be definable roles for each outside entity involved in a project.

People always have an agenda when it comes to projects. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We all have our own goals and objectives that we want to see through to the end. It’s when these goals become misaligned that conflict arises. The marketing company may be giving you a hard time on a homepage concept you designed. Or perhaps an outside developer doesn’t agree with your interface ideas. These situations could all easily spiral out of control – but they don’t have to.

The most powerful tool in your arsenal – and one which most people fail miserably to employ – is the telephone. Pick it up and have a candid conversation with that marketing company or developer. Determine what their goals are for the project and then dig deeper and find the answer to the ultimate question: Why? Why do they want to achieve a particular goal? Significant insight can be gathered by asking the simplest questions.

Draw a line between capabilities

Web designers create websites. Marketing companies perform higher level strategic consulting. Developers code. IT companies make sure the hardware is in place.

The problem: None of these definitions are true.

Web designers sometimes dabble in software development. Marketing companies employ graphic illustrators. Developers have their own design guys. IT companies try to do everything.

I know. It’s a mess. And that mess becomes even scarier when you try to get two or more of them to work together. I’ve had marketing companies scoff at my designs and insist on using someone from their network. When it comes to the web, it seems like everything is a free-for-all.

But the fact is, most successful people and companies have reached stellar status because they focused on a niche. Web designers don’t excel by trying to illustrate, code, and market. They excel because they create the best web presences.

I know this is a little preachy, but the point I’m trying to stress is that there must be a line between the capabilities that you and other parties have been tapped for. If a client brought you on to develop a new website, they don’t need the marketing company wasting time doing the same thing. This isn’t to say the marketing company can’t or shouldn’t have input on the design of the new site. Rather, it should be the opposite. You want their input. But you must remain in control of that piece of the overall project.

Right from the beginning of the project you need to sit down with all parties involved and lay out what your capabilities are. The other parties should also identify their capabilities. Some overlap will occur, but you’ll immediately know what you do and what they don’t do. For the overlapped items, you can compromise with the other party to determine who will have authority where, and you can use the client as an intermediary to establish final rule over how the project will progress.

The client is the decision maker

There’s only one person signing the checks: the customer. Any vendors participating in the project are there at the pleasure of that client, including you. Therefore, when you begin to hit a bit of turmoil with one or more of these third parties, your best bet is direct communication with the client.

Of course not all disagreements merit the client’s attention, but as with most aspects of working life, you must protect yourself from the politics of the project. A marketing company miffed at your design direction may secretly consult with the client to undermine your efforts. It’s petty and rude, and you’re deluding yourself if you think it doesn’t happen.

Regardless of disagreements, you should always be communicating with the client. If relationships with project partners are going well, let the client know. Singing the praise of others may not provide immediate dividends, but it will go a long way in building solid frameworks for long-term relationships.

Think with an open mind

We’re all protective of our work. Criticism is not easy to swallow. That’s why when another party in the project dismisses our designs or prototypes, it can be a painful experience. But instead of taking that pain personally, use it to your advantage.

Having an open mind is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish. It requires concentration beyond the limits of what you know and trust in the ideas of others. But sometimes this is what you have to do. Trust others. Trust that the criticism they flop toward you – whether it’s friendly or not – may actually be in the best interest of the project. Don’t sneer at the recommendations of others, even if you think their presence in the project is wholly unnecessary. Embrace their ideas as a potential means to deliver the best possible solution to the client.

Stand up for yourself

On the flip side, open mindedness does not mean you have to lie down and take a beating. You should stand up for your principles and defend your work as if it were your first-born – well, maybe not to those extremes – but you get the point. Your work is your work, and it deserves a strong defense, especially from its creator.

Cultivate partnerships

Whenever you collaborate with others, there’s always an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of your skills or services. Think of that marketing company you’re working with as a potential partner instead of as a hindrance.

I’ve managed projects where near completion the marketing firm involved wanted to talk about working on future deals. I didn’t aim to impress them. I just did the work at the level of quality that I demand from my projects. But a side benefit to this (a big one, I’ll admit) is that you attract people who in turn want to team up with you. People gravitate toward success, so work your projects as if it could open new doors – as if failure was not an option – and do everything to attain your best output.

Third wheels, whether it’s you or another vendor, don’t have to be a bad or annoying aspect to a project. It can be an opportunity, and it can be a path toward generating high-value end results. The key is keeping an open mind. Don’t let frustration cloud your thoughts if you think another vendor is getting in the way of a project. Treat it as a way forward and learn to tap those third party relationships as resources.

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