by Paula on November 26, 2010

Wordle: UntitledThe Middle Man – an unnecessary layer of management or a vital portal through which to communicate with clients?

I have been in several situations over this last week that have left me pondering the role of the middle man and assessing whether this is a benefit or drawback?

Reviewing and refining a Job Description earlier today, a colleague and I were working to simplify the reporting structure and make sure that things were raised directly with the person that things affected, rather than some kind of triage to get the job done. In this case the middle man was something that was an unnecssary complication and meant that the message had the opportunity to be miscommunicated or not followed up.

Ideally in management, clarity in the message and feelings of commitment by the employee happen when they feel the person they are talking to is the person that can take some action.

I watched on the Apprentice this week as a team wasted time talking to someone who wasn’t a decision maker and by failing to plan and make an appointment they spoke to someone in between them and who they needed, and this meant that nothing was able to be achieved.

However I have also this week watched as someone made good use of a middle manager to express feelings and issues that they would have been unable to raise at a higher level. This third person was able to take on board the outpouring of information and put it into a clear and sensible format to take action above them. In this case the middle man was a vital point in getting something sorted.

In this example the middle manager acts as a type of funnel. Channelling information from several sources, up to one person. This worked well for the process and the middle man is vital when the ‘one to many’ ratio becomes too large.

So where does a Social Media Manager fit into this? Is it an unnecesary layer between the business and their clients or is it a great resource to assisting small businesses reach audiences that otherwise would have been unreachable to them? The answer is that it depends on the business. A large organisation will have a range of skilled people and often the time and resource to have someone taking responsibility for this. However a smaller business that is stretched for resource and is not in a position to recruit someone to a marketing role can benefit greatly from the support and new audiences that social media activity can bring.

As a business owner you have to assess all that needs to be done, work out what skills you are best at and most comfortable with, and then assess what’s left. If the skills that are not in-house are things you can do without then that’s great. If however there are skills you don’t have and these skills would bring new clients and increased business, then delving in and outsourcing these to a middle man bringing together you and your clients, can be a good move.

A good Social Media Manager will not act as a layer holding you back from their activity, and making you feel that things are out of your control. They will also not give your clients the feeling that they are dealing with a middle man. Rather a good SM Manager will work alongside you, involving you, explaining what they are doing and making your clients feel welcome and involved and closer to your business than before. If you find that you are considering therefore outsourcing this valuable marketing then make sure that the person you are working with both takes time to understand the way you do things, and time to help demystify what they are doing and keep you feeling involved. 

This way you can be sure that this middle layer becomes an integral part of your business and a natural part of your customers’ relationship with you, and the concern you might have of being removed from what’s going on should soon disappear and leave you seeing the benefits.


Paula November 27, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Thanks for your comments all. I wrote a blog previously about knowing when you can’t manage everything and knowing when you need to ask for help.

Without doubt that help needs to add value and not just be a drain on resources. I have been thinking about it today and there are definitely 2 kinds of middle men. 1 – “The Wedge” – someone whose presence between the supplier and the client causes misunderstanding, additional expense and offers nothing to the process. Then there’s the good type – “The Glue” who works to bring the supplier and client closer and makes things gel better, unblocks bottlenecks, and improves business.

As long as businesses are aware, keep involved in the process and are not held at arm’s length, then The Middle Man, or the outsourced supplier can be a great benefit. It can be frustrating to sit back and see people get involved and not add anything but the good ones offering a good, trustworthy and valuable service will always shine through in the end.

Susan McNaughton November 27, 2010 at 6:36 am

Well said. Organisations of all sizes have communication bottlenecks, and deciding to out-source to specialists makes it really important to identify them early.

Tony November 27, 2010 at 12:31 am

Human organisations should be teams, not machines!

Ross Gerring November 27, 2010 at 12:31 am

My 2 cents worth: In any business transaction, or business team, the ideal ‘mix’ is where all persons are adding value in excess of their cost. They must add more than they are taking away. Therefore it annoys me (intensely!) where you have middle men who insert themselves in a business transaction, team, or project for the sole or primary purpose of ‘taking a cut’ long after they added any value (e.g. in setting up the deal in the first place).

I’m not sure which is worse: someone who knows that they’re adding no value but insists on staying the mix because they’re being paid to, or isn’t aware they’re adding little or no value but thinks they are!

The moment someone is costing a project more than they’re contributing, then logic dictates that they should be removed.

Let me give an extreme example to make the point: I know nothing about building houses. Let’s say though that I insisted on acting as the middleman between the purchasers of house (the client) and a home building company throughout the entire project. I reassure the client that I’m in control, that I’ll keep those pesky home builders on the straight and narrow. I ‘attempt’ to project manage the home builders. It’s only a house for goodness sake – and I’m a project manager – how hard can it be? Who cares if I’m not adding value – I’m getting paid, right?! Of course what’s actually happening is that the home will get built more slowly, the client will end up paying more, and I’ll almost certain be giving the home building company a whole pile of stress.

But perhaps the above example isn’t so extreme or rare. As owner/manager of (although I say it myself) a reputable, award winning, and established website design and development company, I see it quite frequently in our industry. Typically a branding or marketing company or person says that “they also do websites”, but what they really mean is that they might be able to manage basic, simple websites in-house, but they’re way out of their depth when it comes to larger, more complex, transactional, e-commerce sites. The smart and honest ones know this, and know to get out the way at the earliest opportunity – or at least create a true partnership relationship with a web company (like ours) where both sides respect each other’s areas of expertise and experience, and don’t try to micro-manage each other.

Here’s a true story I heard on good authority last week. The business of building a new website for a well known West Australian charity was won by a local well known marketing/branding agency. End result: an ‘average’ (and I’m being generous) website that took an excessively long time to build, was in fact built by website company that the marketing company outsourced to, and cost the charity over $100,000. My understanding is that a fair proportion of that $100,000 was taken by the marketing agency. The charity has been well and truly fleeced, has lost confidence in and respect for the marketing agency, and is now exploring the opportunity for a direct relationship with us going forward.

So my plea to middle men is this:

1. Recognise and respect the experience and expertise of the groups you’re dealing with – and act appropriately.
2. Take an honest look at the value you’re adding to a project – and remove yourself (or at least pull back your involvement) when you’re no longer adding value.

If you can’t be a help – please don’t be a hindrance!

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