Do you think you know who’s calling the shots at your client’s office?

If you’re like most contractors, you’re assuming that the person who brought you in, set you up in the office, and is now accepting the work you submit is solely evaluating your performance and is the only one you need to please.

That’s a dangerous assumption.

More often than you think, what I call “the hidden client” may be lurking in your client’s offices. It’s someone you probably haven’t met or even heard about, but he or she is responsible for approving your work and ultimately your project’s success or failure.

What makes hidden clients so dangerous is that their decisions, evaluations, or directives will probably never reach you until it’s too late. Your first inkling that a problem even exists may come in the form of a termination or breach-of-contract notice, ordered by an angry, hidden client.

At best, you want to find out who’s really in charge; at worst, you want to cover yourself in case you can’t.

In this article, I’ll take a look at methods that help you ferret out the real decision maker and how you can protect yourself at critical points.

Where does the hidden client live?
If you’re still cutting your teeth on the ways of corporate America, you may wonder why a company wouldn’t do everything to ensure the success of your project. The climate that creates this kind of situation, however, is usually irrational at its core.

The natural habitat of the hidden client is a very large company riddled with bureaucracy. Hidden clients think they don’t have time to work directly with or even meet a contractor. However, they’re also unwilling to relinquish control of the project to a subordinate.

I met my first hidden client when a corporate vice president showed up 15 minutes into a meeting to review the second draft of a software acceptance test I’d written. He was impatient and annoyed that I hadn’t included test scenarios for a number of functions—absent from the product’s functional or technical specifications—that he wanted tested.

When I asked how I was supposed to have known about these specific functions, he said, “Well, I don’t know!” However, he made it quite clear that I was still accountable.

On the whole, this potential disaster turned out as well as could be expected: I was given time to make the revisions and paid for doing so. (Fortunately, I was billing an hourly rate instead of a per-project fee.) But I worked evenings and weekends, and it took a long time to persuade the vice president—who subsequently became very involved in the project—that I was competent.

Avoiding the hidden client
How can you avoid this situation?

As with all problems, finding the hidden client up front is far better than attempting to remedy a bad situation later.

First, set out to include all decision makers by name in your contract. It can take a surprising amount of work to track down this information in large companies, where you’re often handled mostly by human resources until you actually start working. Even so, you should always meet with the people responsible for the project.

When you do, ask them to tell you the names of everyone who will be reviewing your work. Then ask for the names of everyone who will be signing off on the project. Ask if there is anyone else that might be involved in any way with the project. Find out who has ultimate responsibility for approving the project, and get the name of that person’s supervisor.

Once you have these names, include them in a clause in your contract that specifies that:

  • They (and only they) are responsible for reviewing and approving your work.
  • Every named person must sign off on every scheduled draft or review of your work to indicate that they have reviewed it and either found it satisfactory or informed you of all required revisions.
  • You are not responsible for implementing revisions from anyone other than those named.

If the client balks, add a statement noting that new reviewers can be added as a contract addendum but that you will be allowed adequate time to make their revisions and that you will be compensated for doing so.

If necessary, appeal to the company’s best interest by explaining to the client that having all reviewers on board from the beginning helps avoid missed deadlines and cost overruns.

Telltale signs of the hidden client
Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to track down the real authority. Here are some warning signs of an impending ambush by a hidden client:

  • The person to whom you’re submitting your work takes an unusually long time to review it and either can’t articulate why or makes vague references to waiting on someone or something.
  • Your work is returned to you with a slew of negative comments or extensive revisions despite earlier, consistently positive reviews.
  • The person reviewing your work does not seem appropriate for the job. For example, he or she may lack an adequate level of technical skill.
  • Feedback on your work seems to be coming from someone else—the reviewer is unable to fully explain the review or answer questions about it.

When these warning signs appear, it’s time to be blunt. Ask if someone else is involved in reviewing your work. If the answer is “no” when you think it should be “yes,” ask the reviewer to account for the discrepancies you’ve noticed.

Keeping the paper trail
Even if you’re certain you’ve located the person who’s really in charge, always keep a record of your reviews and any subsequent approvals or requested revisions by taking the following steps:

  1. When you distribute your work for review, include either a cover page or an e-mail that states what the work is, what you expect of the reviewer, and when the review is to be completed. Record the date you submitted it, to whom, and in what form, such as an e-mail attachment or a paper copy.
  2. Until the end of the project, keep a copy of your work as it was on the date you submitted it for each review.
  3. If you don’t receive the review by the requested date, show up in the reviewer’s office and politely ask when you can expect it and if you can answer any questions. Don’t leave until the reviewer commits to a date. Send a follow-up e-mail asking the reviewer to confirm the new date.
  4. When you receive comments or feedback on your work, summarize them, send the summary to the reviewer, and ask him or her to sign off on the summary to make sure that you have a complete list.

You can keep your paper trail however you like—it doesn’t have to be so formal that the reviewers feel like they’re signing a contract after every review. You could distribute a memo and have each reviewer sign off and return it. An informal e-mail is fine, but print it out and file the copy.

Between this paper trail and the reviewer clause in your contract, you’ll have an excellent case if a hidden client materializes and starts to make unreasonable demands. If worse comes to worst, this evidence will be invaluable if you’re served a breach of contract notice, terminated, or even sued.

Meredith Little runs WriteWork, a documentation consulting business she started in 1998. Based in Colorado, the company provides procedural documentation, knowledge management expertise, and solutions such as user manuals and online help to IT companies nationwide.

Who pulls the strings?

Have you ever had to do some digging to find out who’s calling the shots on a project? Do you find yourself having to please two “bosses” on many of your contracts? Share your experiences in the discussion below or send us an e-mail.