Who’s responsible for managing the client when a contract agency places an on-site contract IT employee? It’s a difficult balance that depends on the client’s needs and expectations, the nature of the contracted work, and the interaction between the contractor, client, and contract agency. For the contractor, striking the right balance can build a productive and ongoing relationship with the client. Good client management skills make it happen.

Client management defined
For the purposes of this article, client management skills encompass the following:

  • Managing client expectations about project details
  • Identifying additional project requirements
  • Fostering a positive working relationship between the contractor and the client’s internal management and staff

On-site presence versus working through the agency
The amount of information the client gives the contractor or contracting agency affects the client relationship. A company may not want to give its internal plans to a third party, such as a contracting agency, which might use the information to build more business. The end client might even tell the contractor “what happens on-site, stays on-site.”

This kind of a situation requires a judgment call on the part of the contractor. For example, a client may tell the contractor that they don’t particularly like dealing with unsolicited sales calls. If the contractor tips off the contract agency about potential leads without the client’s blessing, the client may take it the wrong way. Only the contractor can decide on what to do in these situations, based on the particulars of the client relationship.

However, there are cases where the contracting agency should take the lead in dealing with the client. For example, Michelle Lodato, a technical writer with five years of contracting experience in the Washington, DC area, advised, “The only issues that I defer to the account manager are any contract-related issues, such as extension or renewal of contract, and to determine if other work is available at the client site if work for the project is coming to a close.” Lodato continued, “Usually, though, I’ve already discussed these issues with the client and asked the account manager to verify the answers from the client, since the agency may be required to submit paperwork.”

Jeff Grimm, Washington, DC, Branch Manager for Venturi Partners (formerly VITAL Computer Services), says that a contractor’s relationship with the client also can benefit the agency. “A contractor with a great relationship with the client is a credible ’sample’ resource for the supplying company,” he said. “All suppliers would like to have a corporate ’flag-bearer’ on-site at their clients’!”

How client management skills benefit the contractor and the agency
Nathan Walz, Senior IT Recruiter for Mindbank Consulting Group, concurs that it’s important for contractors to have client management skills, especially during these tough economic times. “Having good client management skills is one of the best ways for the consultant to get their  contract extended and to get the opportunity to be assigned more desirable work,” he said.

On-site contractors have the face time and strategic value that contract agency account managers lack, because they aren’t directly involved in day-to-day technology development projects.

“I definitely consider managing client expectations as part of my job,” Lodato said. “The account manager is often not onsite every day—or even at all—if the agency is out of state. So the responsibility for assessing client expectations and communicating how I can or cannot meet them is entirely up to me.” Her comment reflects one of the definite divisions between agency and contractor in regards to managing the client.

Dealing with the sight-unseen agency
While some contracting agencies have very active account managers who visit their clients often, there are agencies that support clients almost exclusively via e-mail and telephone because they’re out of state. There are also agencies that don’t take an active role and largely abandon the contractor on-site. Their only contact comes when a timesheet is late or an agency-to-contractor issue arises.

Contractors working through a “sight-unseen” agency need to consider the following:

  • What is the origin of the agency’s relationship with the client?
  • How much contact does the agency maintain with the client regarding business issues like contract extensions and renewals?
  • To what extent will you build a familiarity with the client that transcends the relationship between the client and the agency? (Keep in mind that, as on on-site contractor, you still represent the agency.)

The need for client management skills as a contractor
The true need for client management skills depends on the end client. Grimm uses the following example: “The role of the consulting assignment will often dictate whether this is an important qualification or not. That is, a consulting assignment requiring customer and/or user interface—like analysis roles, project management roles, presales engineering roles, etc.—would naturally require a candidate that can readily absorb a client’s culture and communicate that message effectively.”

But Grimm says that in technical roles not requiring involved personal interaction, such as dedicated programming or infrastructure support, client management skills may not affect the success of the contractor. “Clients may have a diminished interest in a candidate’s client relationship skills if they are interested only in a candidate’s technical competencies to handle workflow,” Grimm said.

In most cases, though, developing and using client management skills will give you an edge. If you can effectively manage client expectations and your role in their projects, you can differentiate yourself from competing contractors and foster some stability through contract extensions and renewals.