I've mentioned before that middlemen clients -- SEO firms, marketing firms, etc. -- are some of my favorite types of clients to work for. They bring a group of their own clients to your door which saves on marketing time for you, and they tend to bring in bigger orders than most single clients. They also often go for regular monthly work rather than short-term or one-off projects.
There are downsides of working with middlemen clients too though. I've been thinking about them a lot lately as I consider whether or not to replace a specific contract or two. If you're considering taking on middlemen clients, here are some of the not-so-hot aspects of those relationships that you might want to consider.
It can be an all or nothing deal.
After finishing a current project, I've already decided I won't offer a specific service through any middlemen clients anymore. But while I can choose to offer some services and not others, I cannot say "I'll work for all of your clients except for so-and-so." Well, I could, but chances are that I'd lose the contract as a whole and they'd go with someone willing to take on all of their clients together. When you work with a client directly, you can "fire" them if they become overbearing, are the never-pleased type, or if they're simply really difficult to work with. With middlemen clients you can't do that. You can't cut off ties with one of them. You have to take things through your direct client, and if you bail you put their business at risk. You don't want to cost your client clients of their own.
Your policies might have to adapt.
When I work with end clients directly, I very rarely accept phone calls. While my rates might look high to some buyers who are used to working with extremely low rate content writers, they're actually very low compared to people with similar credentials (especially when it comes to things like PR and marketing copy). I'm able to do that and still keep my hourly rates where I want them by streamlining my process. That means being able to deal with client communication in dedicated blocks of time via email. When I have an end client who insists of regular phone conversations, they're billed a $125 per hour consulting rate with a minimum half hour billed for each call. (It's amazing how they often realize those calls are unnecessary and a 5-minute email will suffice when they see the time they're taking out of my day in the form of a bill.) With middlemen clients, there isn't as much freedom in billing out things like this or "inconvenience charges" where you might charge more to a client you know is regularly a pain to work with. The middleman client has a rate they've negotiated with their clients and that includes the fees you've settled on with them previously. You would have to go through two levels of clients to get other charges approved and paid.
You might have to walk on egg shells.
Let's go back to the issue of losing one client meaning you could lose all of those end clients through the middle man firm. While not being able to fire a client is a tough situation to be in sometimes, so is knowing that you have to be extra careful not to piss off any of those end clients. The clients who find me directly know I'm blunt. They come to me for that fact. But sometimes their own clients don't have the stomach for it. They don't want to hear a professional opinion that disagrees with their own. If you speak up, you risk them getting pissed and canceling their contract with the firm. Then you risk the firm canceling their contract with you because you cost them a client. Personally I find myself keeping my mouth shut more than I should when working with end clients through a middle man, and that's not why I went into business for myself.
Payments for several clients can be lumped as one.
This can be either a blessing or a curse really. If a middleman client pays on time all of the time, then you'll receive payment for several projects in a timely manner -- no chasing down invoice after invoice with end clients. However, if one of your middleman clients starts paying invoices late on a regular basis, you're getting late payments not for one client's work, but for several clients' projects. You take this risk with any client. With middlemen clients it might just be a slightly bigger risk.
Things will be better with some middlemen clients than others. Some will try to micromanage everything you do. Some will leave you pretty much free to handle your side of things. Some will let you work directly with the end clients. Some will require that everything go through them (meaning you never hear the end client's actual thoughts on a project). Middlemen clients can be one of the best things to happen to a freelance writer. Then again, sometimes they'll prove to be an excrutiating headache. In the end, it comes down to remembering that they're still a client. You can still fire a firm as a client.
You just have to be prepared to fill that contract time with something else. You can still be open and up front with a middleman client. You just have to be prepared for the consequences if doing so costs them contracts of their own. It can be a difficult path to navigate. How do you do it?