Middle-Man Muddle

what's the proper way to structure your relationship with someone who's your go-between with the end customer? August 29, 2005

Forum Responses
I recently started to work with a designer who was building cabinets for his clients. He handles the marketing and I assist him in the sales, but I do all of the design, layout, and fabricating of the cabinetry. He does not want me to have any direct contact with his clients though he is promoting all my work under his company name. He has been asking me to give him photos of my work and design some standard layouts so he can make a portfolio to promote his business.

My thoughts are that at any time he can find another shop to service his customers while he uses my designs and photos, though he says he won't. I had asked him to at least use my name but not my company name in the photo credits but he refuses to. His response is to the effect of "I'm not making a lot of money off of you and you should give the photos to me as a courtesy for using you in my projects".

My attorney thinks I should charge him a fee for the photos and the designs. Part of me thinks my attorney is right. What are everyone’s thoughts?

(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor K:
This is a weird situation. I work with designers all the time and when they need a kitchen they work directly with the customer and design everything, then send me over detailed drawings even with measurements. Granted I always go out and re-measure everything - that's what designers do, design. Why would you ever work with a designer and design the work for him. So he can make $150 an hour to tell the customer about your design and how hard he worked on it.
That sounds absurd.

If I were you I would tell him that it's great to work with him and that you would love to build his designs for his customers. But you need to take your designs and get your own customers. Being the middleman is not good in these cases. You could and should be making the money off of your own work, directly with your customers, with your name on the design. Find a different designer who does his job, work with them and they will refer you to people even if they won't work on the project. This guy needs his certificate taken away for using you like that.

From contributor J:
I should of classified him as a decorating consultant /salesman rather than a designer.

From contributor K:
If he is a consultant/salesperson then why can't you have contact with the customers? Is he a decorating consultant for a construction firm? No matter what, I think you should be represented as the cabinetmaker. It sounds to me like you’re almost a sub to this guy. If you are doing the designs for this guy now matter what the situation really is, you should get some sort of commission for each design. Also if you give him pictures you need to basically sell the rights to your work. In any situation I wouldn't design something for someone unless my name was going to be involved.

From contributor D:
All excellent advise above - your being used. Once this guy sees you have wised up, he will have nothing good to say about you and will be a bad mouth. Promote yourself, for you’re a total package and there are other good people to work with as a team.

From contributor R:
Make up your own portfolio and find another designer to work with. This one is going to rip you off. "My thoughts are that at any time he can find another shop to service his customers while he uses my designs and photos, though he says he won't". He will. You brand your product with a metal plaque or stamp with your phone number and business name. Or it can look real classy to have only a small metal plate with a design or collection name on it.

From contributor W:
I would suggest that you dump the guy as soon as you figure out how best to market your work without him. You're designing, fabricating and installing. He's acting as nothing more than a broker, and a broker who recognizes the risk to him of having you attracting clientele without him. Sounds like he's adding little or no value in the arrangement at present.

And you're right to be worried that he can take your designs, market them as his own, and have them fabricated wherever he'd like. The value is as much in the design work as it is in fabrication and installation. So far, he's treating you as a low-cost source of creative and production services, holding your pricing down so he can make a margin for himself. Let him find a way to earn a living by creating real value rather than stealing creative and productive value from you

From contributor E:
I agree with most of the responses above. If you want to continue with this person then draw up a legal contract where he will sell cabinetry for you as an agent. A contract is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself. What if the job turns out to be a disaster? Are you the one they are going to come after or him. Another way would be to find out who his clients are and circumvent him. In my business as a designer, I work with many shops and bring the design to them for advice and pricing. I act as a representative of the client. In the end, the contract is between the client and the shop. I do not make money on that deal. I make money on my design time spent with the client helping them to plan out the final product that they want

From contributor T:
I am in almost exactly the same situation. The designer shows me a picture ripped out of a magazine or a very quick sketch and I build it. He gives me dimensions, type of wood, stain and finish desired so that it fits his needs. I am often asked to give the project my own touch so it becomes redesigned to suit my style. At first I was given credit but now I am asked not to talk to the clients. I do know what is going on and I don't care because;
a) He's my best client and pays well.
b) I have my own clients to lean on when my prices become too high for his liking. I tried working exclusively for him but was getting chiseled down too often and left without any backlog.

Keep your quality super-high and he will come back to you, especially for his pickiest clients. Trying to go directly to the designer's clients could ruin a good business relationship and hasn't worked for me. It's better to be smart about each mutual situation as it develops, but be prepared to make some mistakes. It's the best way to learn. Your design work and drawings should be built into your estimates and based on past time studies. Your lawyer is right. And, yes, use pictures of your work for him to promote yourself. If the designer did a lot of actual design I give them credit for it. I often re-use these designs or parts of them for my own clients.

From contributor G:
I don't think there is anything wrong with this guy keeping the business he solicits for himself, as long as he is paying you what you want and isn't totally inept. There are tons of under qualified hacks calling themselves designers out there, but does he sell jobs? If he is keeping his end of the deal, I don't see a problem.

From contributor P:
The reason this guy is doing this is because most designers or consultants don't want to get caught by their clients on over charging. I have seen it over and over on what they do. They tell their client that they will charge so much an hour or a lump sum for the project and up the cabinetmakers price also. Or they ask the cabinetmaker for a kick back. I can see if the designer is paying the cabinetmaker to add 10-20% to the price because if something goes wrong it on them but I have seen 50-70% or what is even better is the want you to take on 20% for them and you sign a contract with the customer so they wash their hands if something goes wrong because the contracts with you. I would tell this guy to design and you will build or have your name out there too.

From contributor H:
The way I see it you either make him buy the photos and designs from you at whatever you determine they are worth or you put your name on it so the customer knows that it is you that is doing the design. I know that the people that I do work for make money of my work. I would explain to him that you understand this and want to protect his profit but you also need to protect your work. If he buys it from you then it's his, if not then it should have your name on it. If customers saw your work in his showroom then add a percentage to the job and cut him in he won’t mind if he knows he wont be left out of the loop. I would not want to ruin a relationship, but I wouldn't want to leave myself open to be abused either.

From contributor A:
Let's call an apple an apple and a salesman a salesman. If he likes to call himself a designer than that's his prerogative. As far as you are concerned he is your customer. His customers are not your customers - end of story. It is no different than working for a general contractor. In these cases you may or may not meet with the customer, but it should always be a three party discussion. It is often easier to have group brainstorming meetings. I actually enjoy working with designers and contractors. For the most part they usually know what the want and can easily convey their wishes. When it comes down to money, I would never even discuss kickbacks/finder fees/ etc. It is a fee for service business. You provide the service (cabinetmaking) they provide the fee. They then markup your price as they see fit.

Also about the photos, let him take photos of the projects that he paid for not ones he never laid a hand upon.