The Art of the Middleman

From brokers and lawyers to head-hunters, agents and consultants, and the modern economy is awash with “middlemen”. It’s a word that is often used derisively, but in a market largely defined by its almost endless choice and unlimited demand, the ability to facilitate the relationship between supplier and customer remains a vital function within almost all sectors.
To be an intermediary and mediator, to facilitate and enable transactions, clearly requires a unique and crucial skillset. But how are these skills best applied? What separates individuals who struggle as a central link in the business chain to those who flourish?

Quality not quantity.

To put it simply, A middleman’s value is derived from the value of the relationship they can generate between the supplier and end-user, and the volume of these relationships they can cultivate. The most successful third-party relationships however are built upon trust. Whilst a reputation for supplying a trusted service at a high volume can be useful, the long-term viability of providing a high-quality boutique service for returning customers is self-evident, as there is room for a more comprehensive relationship between facilitators, end-users and suppliers to develop.
There is often a tendency in business to reach for a large quantity of deals made and relationships brokered to drive profits. However, this can repeatedly come at the expense of cultivating a relationship which will yield loyalty and repeat business. The best business-to-business partnerships should be more than just transactional.

The “intangibles” that underpin continuous relationships.

There’s a reason retained executive search companies, and not contingency firms, are considered the gold standard of recruitment. Any intermediary actor is largely valued on their expertise and ability to address an end-user’s business needs. But these needs are usually complex, not immediately obvious and often not entirely known to the client themselves, especially in high-stake transactions. Individuals who can retain the services of their client over a long period are only able to do so because of this greater appreciation of the depth of their client’s needs. This involves appreciating the intangible variables that may affect the circumstances of a business partnership. Too often when brokering a deal or relationship, we tend to focus solely on fundamentals such price, margin and contract length, with little consideration for other needs that are not as fundamental but also of interest to the client. The skill here is not only to be in possession of excellent market knowledge so that you can identify trends and contingencies that should be considered, but also a measure of strategic and emotional intelligence.

Keeping an ear on both sides of the table.

Facilitating a relationship in this sense requires a considerable measure of neutrality. Being a middleman invariably involves bringing two parties together for the purposes of negotiation, but it is not enough to merely perform the function of a bridge between two parties. The middleman that survives is the one who has something to offer well beyond the making of introductions. Crucially, professionals must consider their suppliers and resource-holders as clients just as much as the end-user. The aim of an intermediary party should not only be to facilitate discussions between the two camps but also to effectually manage them. the needs of the supplier should not be overly side-lined to suit the preferences of the end-user, so the aim of the intermediary should always be to “tease out” an arrangement or outcome that suits both sides.

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