Stay on the right side of the two-tier system
I think I’ve said so on this blog before, but it is my firm belief that your biggest client is more often than not your next ex-client. I’ve lost count of the number of times that, shortly after identifying that one customer or another is bringing me most business, I end up having to say goodbye to them for one reason or another. It now seems to be happening again.
I have an agency customer for which I do a large volume of work. It mostly consists of small jobs but there are always lot of them. We’ve always got on reasonably well and at the beginning of the year they agreed to a rate increase without argument. But this good working relationship has been dynamited by the agency’s demands that I sign a new contract on the pretext of concerns about GDPR.
It’s true that the agency has some big customers and I can well imagine it may have been pressed to demand some sort of commitment from its freelances concerning data protection. But it appears to have used this as a pretext for slipping through some clearly abusive clauses. One of these states that if I, the translator, breach the provisions concerning data protection or confidentiality I will immediately be liable to pay the agency 10,000 euros. I immediately queried this with the client and was told that the sum was intended as a deterrent and in any case was nowhere near the sum for which the agency would be liable if there was a data security breach. This was no comfort at all, as the clause clearly states that the 10,000 euros is in addition to any damages and losses that might be claimed.
I refused to sign and, although all bridges have not yet been burned, I am not hopeful of continuing to work for this client for much longer. Although it is the only one I have experienced, this is far from only case I’ve heard of in which translators have been asked to sign a new agreement concerning GDPR only to be faced with something utterly unacceptable. Some clients have added bizarre non-compete clauses provisions that are impossible to comply with into the mix, while others have insisted that translators open up their offices, usually in their own homes, to data security auditors on demand.
All this is another symptom, I believe, of a huge divide that’s opening up in the translation world. On one hand there are the bulk market translators, working mostly for agencies, increasingly subject to unreasonable demands like the one I mention and not in a position, or not feeling they are in a position to refuse. Their rates are continually under pressure, they feel like hamsters on a wheel, and they’ll most likely have to find some other way to scrape a living when their clients eventually switch to machine translation.
Then there are translators who realise that the way to survive is to move upmarket. They’re perhaps not dumping all their agency clients but they are aware that the only way forward is to look for more direct clients at higher rates, and that the only way to do that is to build a reputation by providing excellent work and an excellent service.
Now you might be reading this and thinking that I’m fortunate that I can even consider getting rid of my biggest client. Except that it’s nothing to do with luck, it’s attitude, and more than anything else it’s attitude that puts you in one group of translators or in the other. I’ve always had a policy of having as many clients as I can possibly handle and one reason for that is the maxim I mentioned at the beginning of this post: when I see a client becoming important what I want to know above all is how I would survive without that particular customer.
I’ve never been able to understand translators who say: “I don’t want any new clients. I’ve got enough.” To me, that’s not freelancing, that’s inviting slavery. Because once you stop looking for new customers, you’re dependent on the ones you’ve got. And, clients being clients, they don’t always behave as we’d like them to. The luxury of being able to say: “I don’t like the way you’re treating me and I don’t want to work for you any more” is worth working and planning for. Not only that, if you’re not constantly renewing your client base, you’re not improving the customers you have, because it’s much easier to recruit new clients at higher rates than persuade existing customers to pay more.
So if I lose a client I’ve always got others waiting to fill the gap. That doesn’t mean slotting one in as a direct replacement, it’s more a matter of being able to say yes to a little extra work from five or six others to solve the problem without really having to try. Over the years I’ve lost or fired plenty of clients for one reason or another and I’ve always been able to come through with hardly a dip in income, so it definitely can be done.
And once you know that you can survive without any particular client you can negotiate much better. Or rather, you can choose not to negotiate. You can say “My rates are my rates”. You can say “No, I won’t sign”. And you can mean it. Sometimes you even win and the client gives in or comes back. But even if you lose, you simply move on to the next opportunity, which, if you’re doing things properly, will be a better paying, better behaved client.
So develop a good, broad client base while always looking to attract better-paying customers and next time a customer asks you to drop your rates or sign a ridiculous agreement, just say no. It could be the first step off that hamster wheel.