Sub-contracting and client communication

I get ‘flown in’ for team augmentation on a fairly regular basis now. The team has something that’s outside of their regular abilities and it’s right in mine so we work together for a week or two.

Out of that I’ve had a few experiences with communication with the clients.

Setting the ground rules

First let’s establish a few things.

  1. I don’t work for the company I’m contracting with
  2. They have heard of me and maybe worked with me but I may not actually be ‘friends’ with anyone
  3. There is a 3rd party client here that may/may not know that I’m augmenting the team as a sub-contractor

I say that to set the stage.

No talky talk

The worst case scenario for client and contractor communication is to not be allowed in any fashion to communicate directly with the client. Not through a project management system like Basecamp or via email.

Typically in this scenario I have a Project Manager who asks the clients my questions and gets me anwsers.

The bad part about this is that something is always lost in translation which means the client doesn’t quite get my question and I don’t quite get their answer. We often end up burning extra cycles just clarifying what we are talking about.

Second I often end up waiting. I send my question over to the Project Manager who then puts it on their list to do. They get to it in order of priority for them and they send the response through when it’s the most important thing to do for them.

I’m not knocking their priorities at all. They have 1000’s of things to do and I’m just a small part of that, but it’s those burned cycles that increase client budgets and my costs.

I will almost never agree to this type of communication dynamic. It’s built on a relationship of mistrust (the person paying me doesn’t trust me to deal with a client) and typically just results in lost time and confusion on both ends. 99% of the time projects with this communication dynamic have ended up being just plain terrible.

PM only

The next best solution is access to the client via a project management tool like Basecamp or Trello. Then we can at least actually read exactly what the client said, and ask our own clarifying questions.

This direct access also means that we don’t have to wait for the Project Manager to get to our needs. We can just make sure that the Project Manager is kept abreast of the events as they are ongoing.

Some things are just better communicated via voice though. When you us the PM tool you are put on the client’s priority list, which may or may not be fast enough for you.

I have done a bunch of projects like this. For my first year I was a sub-contractor and was only allowed to communicate with clients with our PM tool. Yes there is possibly more room for miscommunication, but it can also work 99% of the time.

Free for all

If you’re super lucky you get to communicate with the client however you want. So use the Project Management tool, or jump on the phone with them meet in person if that works.

I have been lucky enough to do this with a few agencies as well. It can make so many things go so much easier.

If I can’t trust someone working as a sub-contractor to talk directly to the client, then I just don’t hire them. Why on earth would I let them touch code or my client’s business? Yes you read that right, all of the sub-contractors I use can talk to the client on the phone (or Skype) if needed.

Danger Will Robinson

There is a huge danger to FFA client communication as a sub-contractor. You can commit the company you are sub-contracting for to things you shouldn’t and you could ‘steal’ the client.

The biggest thing I get concerned about is commiting to something for the company. Often times I’m being called in for 1 specific piece of a project. That means that I get to focus hard on one item, but also means that I may not have all the pieces for the rest of the project.

They may have had 3 discussions about all the technology stack that I wasn’t around for. If I suggest something else the client could get fixated on it, but I may be giving terrible advice based on other things I’m not aware of.


The biggest thing to do is to write everything down when you get to do FFA client communication. You need to write down everything that was said and post it in Basecamp or Trello so that the Project Manager knows what’s going on.

The fastest way to kill your relationship with the agency is to make them feel in the dark about what is going on with their client.

Client overstepping

On one project I was technically allowed to call a client but this client took it a step further. I was continually getting text messages about the project. Eventually they were sending me text messages about giving me the project instead of the agency I was working for. They went so far as to suggest paying my wife for the work to get around my non-compete clause with the agency.

First, crap like that is just a red flag. When it was suggested that we pay my wife instead I had to get super firm and say that they were not welcome to contact me ever again and that any further email would not be answered just forwarded on to the agency. This final email was copied to the agency owner as well.

Second, it’s not worth damaging your reputation by ‘stealing’ a client. Agencies and freelancers talk. We find out who is good and who acted with integrity and who didn’t. You may make more money that one time but it’s going to get harder and harder to get any sub-contracting work because your reputation will suck.

In this scenario my first line of defence was to never respond to the text message via text. I always put the response back in Basecamp so it could be logged by the agency. I actually never respond to clients that text message me. It’s simply one of the mediums I tell clients I’m not available on.

Any other tips for sub-contracting and client communication?

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