Eight Tips for Healthy Contractor Relationships with Clients

By Saul Carliner | STC Fellow

One of the most challenging relationships for technical communicators is the contractor-client relationship. Contractors work for a period of time on a defined project, sometimes directly contracting with the client and sometimes going through an agency. That arm’s-length relationship creates much of the stress in the partnership.

Both the contractor and client play key roles in ensuring healthy relationships. Following are some tips to help contractors manage their relationships with clients and, in doing so, strengthen the health of those relationships.

1. The client is always right.

If this is true in retail, it’s especially true when providing a service.

Although clients nominally hire contractors for their expertise, they really hire contractors for a relationship. Key elements in that relationship are the ability to grasp the messages the client wants to communicate, the audiences to whom they hope to communicate the messages, and the technologies that form the subject of the communication. Furthermore, although the contractor does not work for the organization, the contractor’s work must still integrate seamlessly with it—consistent in style and terminology, and using the same publishing systems as the rest of the organization.

In some instances, the client does not provide sufficiently clear instructions. In such instances, work with the client to clarify their needs and, if asked, offer suggestions.

In other instances, clients want to approach work differently than you might. But challenging clients too forcefully on these issues is not a sign of professionalism; it’s a sign of rude customer service.

Even if the client is always right, they might not make things easy. In such instances, rather than challenge the client, ask the client why they choose to do things in a particular way. In some instances, they have a valid reason. In other instances, ask if they are interested in learning about alternatives. When they are, you have a teachable moment. When they’re not, concede the point. (Of course, you should refuse any unethical or illegal requests.)

You don’t work for the client organization, you work for a service organization that works for the client and your employer, or yourself.

2. Document everything.

As the best products offer clear, easy-to-understand documentation, so the best client-contractor projects are based on clear, easy-to-understand, and formally agreed-upon documentation.

As Geary Rummler and Alan Brache—who studied work processes that cross organizational boundaries—observed, clarifying the “white spaces” illuminates expectations so the work provided by one party (the contractor) matches the expectations of the other (the client). Such work also clarifies dependencies (such as the timely completion of reviews).

To fully clarify expectations, project plans from a contractor should address the following issues:

  • Responsibilities of all parties, specifically identifying who produces which deliverables (like drafts) and the types of contributions that other stakeholders are expected to make to those deliverables (like reviews).
  • Schedules for submitting deliverables, reviews, review meetings, and other pertinent events.
  • Quality standards, which should specify editorial guidelines (such as style guides), design guidelines (such as corporate identity requirements and templates), technical guidelines (which specify publishing software and versions to use, file naming conventions, and similar production requirements), and viewing requirements (such as the types of devices on which users can view the content).
  • Content included and the audience(s) to whom that content is geared. If possible, also document which content will not be included and which audiences will not be addressed.
  • Handling of problems, including changes of scope (who approves, provisions for extra time and cost to client), failures to meet schedules (both failures by the contractor to provide deliverables and failure of the client to provide reviews), and failures to meet quality standards (who pays for do-overs).
  • Reporting of status: who reports it, what the report covers, the frequency of reporting, and who receives it.

Depending on the nature of the contractor relationship, the contractor prepares the project plan in some instances; a project manager or account manager for an agency prepares the plan in others. If someone prepares the plan on your behalf, request clarification on all of these issues. If the person preparing the plan does not have answers for some of these issues, request that they seek clarification.

3. Allow direct communication among all relevant stakeholders.

Agencies with accounts often like to control the communication by their staffs with clients. So, for example, rather than a technical communicator interviewing a subject matter expert in the client organization, the account executive passes along questions from the technical communicator to an intermediary, who sends them to the subject matter expert, who passes the responses back through the same channel, usually in written form.

One can appreciate the instinct to control communication. It reduces the likelihood of miscommunication between the client and contractor organizations, and it might even seem more efficient.

The problem is—when it comes to technical information about the product—the person who writes the content must fully grasp the material, including nuance of use. That ideally comes from direct interaction with the product or service, and subject matter experts. That nuance is almost always lost in the chain of communication.

The result is disappointing drafts that require extensive—and probably avoidable—levels of revision. The benefits of clear and simple communication lines are obliterated by the misunderstandings and off-track content that results. This, in turn, erodes trust between the contractor and client.

Allow client SMEs and contractors to communicate directly.

4. Build confidence by sending status reports.

Clients contract for technical communication services because they lack the resources in-house to produce all of the content they need. But they depend on the projects being completed on schedule, because the content usually supports a much broader effort, like the launch of a new product or organizational initiative. So the client maintains an ongoing interest in the status of the communication project because it affects the success of the broader effort.

Expect clients to ask about the status of the work. Status updates should therefore be included in your initial project documentation.

But if not, provide reports anyway to address the natural concern of clients that you will complete their work on time and within budget. Take the initiative to send reports. The reports should identify:

  • Most recently completed milestone and whether that occurred on time, early, or late (and if late, why).
  • Next milestone, who has responsibility for meeting it, and whether it is likely to occur on schedule, early, or late (and if late, once again, explain why).
  • Major issues that need to be resolved.

The frequency of reporting varies by project and client, but should occur at least once a month. The first status report might take time to prepare, but subsequent reports can leverage the first and will take less time to prepare.

By taking the initiative to report the status of projects, you also build trust in the client that you can produce the content for which they contracted on the agreed-upon schedule.

5. Meet your deadlines.

One of the best ways of building confidence in your skills and trust with clients is meeting your deadlines.

But deep trust also emerges from the sensitive handling of problems. And one common problem on projects is missing deadlines.

When that happens—take the initiative to tell the client. Don’t fool yourself: clients notice missed deadlines. What they also notice is whether anyone told them. If you have a good reason for missing a deadline, clients will understand.

When telling a client that you will miss a deadline, in addition to telling them, also state when you will have the materials and thank them for their patience. Ideally, tell clients at least one business day before missing a deadline, or earlier if possible.

6. Seek feedback.

Because contractors are not employees of their client organizations, employment laws often prevent clients from providing a formal performance appraisal of the work.

That’s too bad, because an appraisal of the work provides valuable developmental feedback and can help strengthen the contractor’s long-term employability.

But nothing prevents you from asking for feedback on your work. So do.

Don’t just ask for positive feedback. Growth as a professional and long-term employability emerge from addressing the problem areas. So ask questions like: “What could I have done better?” and “If you were to recommend one or two areas for me to strengthen, what would they be?”

7. Clients pay.

Occasionally, clients will ask to see work before hiring a contractor. A portfolio is certainly acceptable.

But producing something new and of value to the client (such as an audience analysis or a graphic design) is not. This is the work you do for a living, and you have a right to be paid for it. Furthermore, the types of clients who request these free samples will use them without paying for or acknowledging them.

This is called spec work and some professional codes of ethics bar it to ensure that individuals always get paid for their work.

8. Listen.

The best way to build a strong relationship with clients is to simply listen to them. Acknowledge what they say by using their words when describing their goals and expectations for the project.

SAUL CARLINER (saulcarliner@hotmail.com) is a Professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University in Montreal, a Fellow and past international President of STC, and Chair of the Intercom Advisory Committee.

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