The Downsides of Working with Middlemen Clients

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?

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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8 thoughts on “The Downsides of Working with Middlemen Clients”

  1. Jenn, agents and other middlemen can look like a good deal to a freelance writer… and I gather some make that relationship work.

    I worked with, for example, a ghostwriting agency for a short while but they contributed more problems than they solved. Plus the client was paying over twice as much as I was getting.

    Back in the day I had some good results with… but it’s rare that I bid on a project there.

    I just started to bid on your ghostwriting gig over at elance and decided I didn’t want to submit references before I had a chance to bid…

    I seem to be a loner most of the time… and mostly it works for me.

  2. I am incredibly lazy so middlepeople clients are perfect for me. As far as getting paid less–that’s not always the case. Although, when it is, I don’t even care because they seriously make things easier. If they are saving me marketing time and bringing me consistent work, they deserve a discount.

  3. Most of my middlemen clients are billed my normal rates. The only exceptions are ones I’ve worked with for a long time where I chose not to raise them b/c of the hassles involved of explaining the big increases to their own clients. Eventually they’ll either be raised or replaced, but as long as someone’s a good client and I’m hitting my minimum target hourly rate pretty consistently, I try to cut them some slack. So I don’t really have the issue of less pay, at least not much on an hourly basis.

    That said, I have had some problems where some end clients insist on phone calls for every little thing (I don’t do calls with my direct clients much unless they’re paying the consulting rates). The problem is that I’ll spend 15-20 min before every call pulling up their site, their most recent project, reviewing the recent emails and notes, etc. so I’m prepared. So when they then chat for 2 minutes on something they could have said in an email, I get more than a little peeved. It also makes things difficult because I don’t have a written record of everything being said which I can copy my direct middleman client on.

    Fortunately the clients have been understanding so far about eliminating the one particular service that has caused the most problems. I did mention to one that I’m going to be looking for a way to tackle the phone / written records / wasted time issues next, so hopefully they’ll be open to working on a solution for that with me. If not, I also let them know I understand if the changes are too much, and I’ll refer them to someone else. I never go into a negotiation without being prepared to walk away. Would rather keep them because they’re a good client, but business is still business and I know I have to keep a good bit of focus on the bottom line too.

    I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with writers choosing to look for middlemen clients or choosing to go completely solo. It’s a matter of preference. Writers working for magazines for example will likely make out better for themselves. Those doing business writing, blogging, or content writing can often find very lucrative opportunities through SEO, Internet marketing, PR, or advertising firms. In those cases you’d just have to be careful to stick to your rates at the time. If the firm proposed a rate much lower, I’d just walk away. They can mark up my services if they want to. But I don’t mark mine down just because there’s a middleman involved. While they can bring in clients and save on marketing time, there’s often also more administrative time involved because there are more people to deal with. So it can almost balance itself out.

  4. I have both types of clients – I like middle men clients because I don’t have to constantly sell myself. The client sells my services for me. It’s like the ultimate referral.

  5. I believe having a middleman like those freelancing sites out there can help you focus your time in looking for work and working on the project. You get to use their site to promote your services and in return, you have to give a small share of your income pie. Unless you are already a big name in your field, a middleman may just help you get that deal. Nice sharing!

  6. Sorry if I wasn’t clear in the post. Freelancing sites aren’t middlemen clients. They’re just marketplaces. They provide a service you can choose to pay for, which is a very different thing than working with middlemen clients (like working for a marketing firm that has you write content for multiple clients of their own). Freelance marketplaces and content brokers are completely different beasts. 🙂

  7. I work with middle men all the time, but I insist that all phone conversations go through them. I am a subcontractor to write. If I need information, I give them a questionnaire. I explain to the middle man that it is their client and getting too closely involved creates confusion and misdirection. My clients like maintaining more control over the content and communications anyway. There is so much work to go around, why not set your own terms?


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