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I develop software and sell licenses to a client in a relationship that is technically non-exclusive but so far has been exclusive in practice i.e. they are an important client to me.

My client (let's call them ABC solutions) now wants me to start interacting directly with their customer (XYZ solutions), but only through their own company email address (my-name@abc-solutions.com), and not from my own email. I'm not sure to what extent my client has clarified the nature of our relationship to their customer, but when talking to their customer, they call me "our developer". (It is true that I have occasionally consulted for them on unrelated work.)

My wish is to do whatever I can to streamline integration of technologies from all three parties, and for this reason I am prepared to interact directly with their customer. But I feel that this arrangement of interacting in a role of "their developer" through their email (perhaps allowing their customer to assume I am an employee) may be unprofessional and could lead to some unexpected pressures on me later on. Any advice would be appreciated. Is it reasonable for my client to request that I interact with their customer through an email address they provide?

Edit: further information drawn out in the comments:

My client is in Luxemburg, their customer is in France, and I'm in South Africa.

My client licenses each instance of the software from me. They've never paid me per hour except on consulting requests unrelated to the product they are licensing from me. I started building this software long before I had any relationship with the client.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jul 1 at 17:46
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So, first and most obviously, ABC solutions does not want XYZ solutions to know that you exist as an independent entity. They don't want to be seen as a reseller. They don't want you to develop a relationship with XYZ solutions independent of their relationship with XYZ solutions. Right now, you only have one client, and if I could venture a guess, I'd suspect that they would like it if things stayed that way. Further, for whatever reason, they want you to be the one troubleshooting for XYZ solutions... probably because they don't have the skills in-house. There's a good chance that they want to make money off of reselling your services as technical support.

So now, given that, you need to look at your objective set and decide where to go from there. You want money. You want to maintain a good relationship with ABC solutions and make your product more integral to their success. You want exposure to at least a few clients who are not ABC solutions (especially since it looks like ABC is not inclined to give you any word-of-mouth advertising). How much do you want each of these things?

  • If you care about the relationship with ABC solutions, and the rest of it isn't that big a deal, just go for it. Pick a reasonable price, based on your standard hourly fees. Make sure that you're not being taken advantage of too badly... and so forth.

  • If you care about the lack of exposure, but not enough to rock the boat too badly, then include that in your fee, and do it up front. You're a businessman, and exposure and reputation are important to you for obvious reasons. If they want you to represent yourself as a member of their company, then you'll do it, but they're going to need to pay a bit of a premium. Figure out how much that premium is going to be, and be consistent.

  • If it is important to you that this be a three-way relationship, rather than a pair of two-way relationships controlled by ABC solutions, then tell them that that service is not available - that you are willing to offer tech support as yourself, but only as a representative of your own company. Understand that this may damage your relationship with ABC solutions.

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    "but not under false pretenses" -- don't even say that, just say "I can offer tech support, but I do that as OP-software-inc, I don't offer to represent ABC-solutions". Once you're in the leg where the reason you don't want to do this is that you want XYZ to know you're a supplier, then it doesn't matter whether or not it'd be honest for you to instead contract to represent ABC. So no point accusing them of anything shady. – Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 21:42
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    Fundamentally, though, if their goal is to prevent you selling directly to XYZ, then fiddling about with your email address but not asking you to sign any kind of non-compete contract where you won't sell to their clients, is a pretty half-assed way of going about it! Maybe they're mostly thinking that since XYZ has a contract with ABC, not with you, and ABC is paying you, not XYZ, then ABC should get the credit for supporting XYZ. – Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 21:46
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    @SteveJessop good point about the false pretenses. There's zero benefit to adding unnecessary accusation/hostility/etc. For the other side... any way you slice it, either XYZ finds out, and ABC doesn't get direct credit, or XYZ does not find out, and ABC does get direct credit. If you assume they're going to find out anyway, there's very little benefit to his using company email... other than, I suppose, them maintaining the ability to read the emails for themselves. – Ben Barden Jul 2 at 17:55
  • As it turns out, your assessment seems to have been pretty accurate, so far. – Museful Jul 4 at 14:36
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But I feel that this arrangement of interacting in a role of "their developer" through their email (perhaps allowing their customer to assume I am an employee) may be unprofessional and could lead to some unexpected pressures on me later on. Any advice would be appreciated.

Whenever a client asks you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to discuss it with them.

After your discussion, you have a choice to make - either you become comfortable enough, or you refuse to do it and potentially lose them as a client.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong here. Every company where I have ever worked (as either an employee or consultant) has had contractors use company email. You are a developer/supplier for them. As long as you don't claim to be an employee, it seems fine. But we each get to decide what is appropriate to us and what is not.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jul 2 at 11:42
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Your customer wants to appear competent and able to their client, and so want to appear to have the resources to do whatever it is they do. Having a contractor appear to be staff by having contact go through the company isn’t that rare, and in the case of email, has the advantage of allowing them to access the communication after you are no longer with them. This isn’t unusual.

But you say you develop and license software, that sounds like you have and retain copyright and ownership of your work. I would consult a lawyer, to make sure doing this (or something else) doesn’t turn you into an employee not a contractor and causing ownership to shift to the company. There has been some famous examples of companies being told their contractors were actually employees and they needed to pay benefits, nothing says that can’t go the other way.

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    It's less need of a lawyer but just having a proper licencing and SLA in place, can get templates for those online for most states/countries pretty cheaply. – Tymoteusz Paul Jun 29 at 11:36
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    Still, getting that validated by a lawyer is never useless. – Walfrat Jun 29 at 11:39
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    @Walfrat but pretty darn expensive. Templates are much cheaper. – Tymoteusz Paul Jun 29 at 11:43
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    cost/risks, but personnally i can't says if the risks are worth the costs. – Walfrat Jun 29 at 11:53
  • Yes, I explicitly retain ownership of my work. They've never paid me for my time, except in unrelated consulting work. – Museful Jul 1 at 12:23
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What exactly is the nature of your relationship with ABC company, other than you develop software and sell it to them? Are you a vendor or a contractor to ABC company? Do you perform work for ABC company clients on behalf of ABC company?

I'm a contractor. I perform work for my client, ABC company. Oftentimes that work entails performing work for their clients. When doing so I represent myself as ABC company and use my ABC company email address and phone number in communications with these clients. There's nothing unprofessional or untoward in doing that. My client pays me to represent their interests with other clients. That's very often the nature of independent contract work.

It doesn't matter what the end client assumes as to the nature of your relationship with ABC company. The client engaged ABC company to provide goods and/or services. Unless specifically stated in the contract, ABC company is free to fulfill their obligation by any means they see fit. This is the very nature of business. What you're describing is common place.

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    I started building the software long before I had any relationship with this customer. I am a supplier to them, but a tightly collaborating supplier. – Museful Jun 29 at 17:05
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I worked as a contractor and when my manager presented me to clients in various meetings he introduced me as a contractor.

Was never an issue for any party and the software we built back then continues now - well the algorithm does but some parts of the software have moved on a long way.

I would definitely feel concerned if the manager passed me off as if I were an employee - to me it implies a more permanent relationship that is not true. A contractor can be out the door in 5 minutes but an employee takes longer to get rid of, but that varies by country.

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  • Thanks for sharing. In this project I am actually a supplier, though we collaborate closely on interfaces. – Museful Jun 29 at 12:42
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    Don't assume that contractors are that easy to dismiss. A judge may find that a 12 month contract is a perfectly valid contract that cannot be terminated halfway if one side gets cold feet, yet at the same time a permanent position may require just two months notice. – MSalters Jun 29 at 22:39
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In the United States, this arrangement is extremely common. Almost every company does it to some degree. Do not dismiss it out of hand. This is a way to provide additional value to your clients and at the same time, potentially provide an additional source of revenue/profit for yourself.

Just make sure to charge a large premium for your time, or a large premium for the time of your own employees or subcontractors. Otherwise, you might find yourself becoming first-level support for customers that are not technology savvy and/or for a product that is not even yours (I mean, the software is yours, but the hardware is not).

If you're not sure what to charge and if their prices are not clearly listed on their web site, get a friend from a different country to inquire about their prices to see how much top tier premium support costs.

Also, you must clarify what's going to happen if customers contact you directly on that email. Will you need to get the client's approval before you take care of their problem? If it were me, I would also push for this client to use Zendesk or some kind of issue tracker.

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  • It is not common for ISV's to have an email address from a client to correspond with that client's customers. Contractors and consultants might, but the OP is neither. – asgallant Jul 1 at 19:39
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    @asgallant, You make a good point. This change request makes a fundamental change in the underlying relationship between the client and the vendor. If the vendor accepts it, he'll be more of a consultant then. A software licensing agreement won't be enough anymore. An actual custom contract will be required. I'll have to alter my answer accordingly. – Stephan Branczyk Jul 1 at 22:28
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I use company mail adress all the time. BUT: It's usually something like: name.extern@examplecompany.com or name@partner.examplecompany.com

In Germany, it is required by law that email adresses make obvious who is an employee and who is not. Otherwise, this is one checkmark on the long list of possible signs for Fakecontractors who really should be employees.

Thus, If they insist on using their adress for communication, you insist on making your status obvious.

Edit: If you have to use a company footer, make sure this also makes obvious you work on behalf of that company. Though I have seen plenty of contractors which put their original company footer below emails. Both variants work from a legal standpoint (depending on jurisdiction of course), its up to company culture which one is preferred. And a point to negotiate which one you prefer ;)

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    "In Germany, it is required by law that email adresses make obvious who is an employee and who is not." Do you have some more information about this (e.g. which law exactly, or maybe a some article about that topic)? My understanding was that having a company email address as freelancer can be one (of many) indicators for 'false self-employment'. I haven't heard yet that just using such an address alone would be illegal. As far as I know you should just make sure to add a signature which makes it clear that you are not an employee, to avoid any misconception. – kapex Jun 30 at 9:02
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    its part of the "false self-employment" law. Scheinselbständigkeit und verdeckte Arbeitnehmerüberlasseng. And yeah, its one indicator, that alone is not enough. I tried to convey that with the phrase: long checklist. If you tick one sign of false self employment, thats not enough, but if you trigger to many, that's a problem. ANd email adresses are one easy thing not to tick. – Benjamin Jun 30 at 9:20

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