Sunday, June 7, 2015

The expert sub-contractor

This is a true story. The company names have been changed.

Engaging the sub-contractor

When Acme Consulting was preparing to implement a work order management and call centre processing application at Standard Limited, Acme had several staff resources with expertise in the work order application. However, their only employee with call centre experience had never implemented this particular package. Acme had asked a sub-contractor to participate in the sales process and, now that they had won the contract, to work on the implementation.

Acme’s project manager had used the sub-contractor once before. On that previous assignment, the client staff had made some vague complaints about the sub-contractor, indicating her documentation and follow ups were inadequate. However, the client wasn’t very specific, and didn’t complain very much. The project manager knew that many other companies had used the sub-contractor and that she was generally recognized as having a lot of experience with that particular call centre system.

Standard’s project

As soon as the project started, the sub-contractor was dissatisfied.
·         As planned, Acme did hire the sub-contractor to do some of the call centre module work, but because this was a larger engagement, Acme also assigned their own resource to work on the team. The other resource had industry experience, but he did not have experience with this particular package, so was assigned a more junior role on the team. The sub-contractor complained to the project manager that she was not assigned enough hours on the project, as she expected to be assigned all of the call centre tasks.
·         The sub-contractor worried that her performance would be monitored by the more junior Acme resource.
·         The sub-contractor did not want to use Acme’s implementation methodology, but the project manager, the Acme resource and the client insisted on following it.
·         Differences in approach and work habits, such as attention to detail and quality of documentation, caused additional friction between the sub-contractor and the junior resource.

The project manager met with the Acme resource and the sub-contractor together to clarify roles and responsibilities. The sub-contractor agreed to follow the Acme Consulting methodology and both agreed to work together on ensuring the implementation was delivered according to the client’s requirements.

The problems continue

However, the client liked the more junior person’s work habits and approach, and over time, the junior resource informally led the team. In addition, although the sub-contractor appeared to be knowledgeable about the call centre software, the client and the junior resource did a lot of detailed analysis and didn’t always need the sub-contractor’s expertise.

There were occasions when the client felt the sub-contractor had given incorrect information about how the product worked, so the junior resource corrected the problems and did not charge the client for the time spent in re-work. Although the client was not overcharged, she felt that the sub-contractor should have been more knowledgeable so the work would not have to be re-done.

During the project, Standard Limited required some custom programming work to be done, and Acme Consulting had no resources of the right type available to do the work. So, when the sub-contractor proposed using her own staff to do the custom programming, Acme’s project manager did not object.

As the project continued, it became evident that the sub-contractor had continued to provide additional staff for more custom programming projects at Standard Limited. The sub-contractor team’s custom work became a source of confusion on the project. Who was responsible for delivery? Did Acme Consulting guarantee the work of the sub-contractor’s staff?

At the end of the project, Standard was generally pleased with the work done by Acme Consulting resources. However, they were very unhappy with the work done by the sub-contractor. In addition, when there were problems with the custom work, Standard called the Acme Consulting project manager, who had to refer them back to the sub-contractor.


Although the project manager had a queasy feeling about the complaints regarding the sub-contractor at the previous client, he ignored them because she was generally known as an expert. That queasy feeling was an intuitive recognition of risk and should not have been ignored. The project manager could have inquired further about the vague complaints at the previous client, and made a more informed decision about whether or not to use the sub-contractor at Standard Limited.

The sub-contractor assumed that Acme would use her for all of the implementation work because had no specific agreement had been made. Acme Consulting could have used the sub-contractor during the sales process and paid her for her time instead of agreeing to put her on the implementation project. Alternatively, a different resource could have been used, perhaps a different sub-contractor, or an Acme Consulting resource from another city or country.

Once Acme Consulting did decide to use the sub-contractor, she should have been managed more rigorously from the start. For example, a written agreement should have been drafted, covering the amount of work that was awarded to her, the methodology to be used, the quality of work expected, and how it would be measured. The agreement should have also specified how to terminate the sub-contractor in the event that the work delivered did not meet the standard required by the client.

The sub-contractor should have been specifically prohibited from presenting her own staff to work on other projects at the same client. The confusion caused by this practice led to a lack of satisfaction with Acme Consulting that was not directly attributable to Acme’s own work. 

In retrospect, the project manager says he made too many allowances for the sub-contractor, and should not have “fluffed off” his vague feelings of discontent with the sub-contractor’s work at the previous client.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher