Two cautionary tales
Are you ever tempted to do things for clients which, deep down, you know you shouldn’t really be doing? I’m not talking about translating the odd sentence for a good customer without charging them, or helping them with a little free linguistic advice, I really mean taking on jobs you don’t want to do or making commitments you really shouldn’t make.
I’ve done it – and I’ve always ended up regretting it. This blog was prompted by the latest – and I hope the last – of these cases, which happened to me just before Christmas. To begin with I didn’t see the danger signs. I had just done a job for a new customer, who told me he was also keen to have a website translated. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to help with a job unrelated to translation. He had some people to interview for a job and, as a preliminary step, he wanted to assess their level of English. The idea was that I should interview them on the phone, based on a questionnaire he would give me, and then rate their English. Although I normally wouldn’t be interested in work like this, I thought about the promised website translation and decided that rather than just say no I’d quote him an hourly rate he’d probably refuse to pay. That was my first mistake, although it’s one I’ve made more than once. The problem, of course, is that if take that course, you’ve got nowhere to go if the customer agrees. And in this case he did.
Even so, it still shouldn’t have been too difficult. In fact the job itself wasn’t difficult, despite the almost absolute lack of support from the customer, who didn’t tell me the names or even the exact number of people who were going to call me. They called, I interviewed them and represented the company I was supposed to be working for as best I could without any information about either the people or the job they were applying for. I just filled in the questionnaire and I rated their English. Unfortunately that day I had telephone problems, so the whole exercise took longer than it otherwise would have, and some of the nervous candidates had to call me back, but I didn’t think it had gone too badly. The problem was that the questionnaire was in Spanish but, as I’d been interviewing in English, my notes were in English too. All that was going to take time to put in a form the customer would understand. Feeling under pressure to get on with other work and concerned that the customer would be waiting for the results, I decided to make short reports on the quality of each candidate’s English, which I had been told was the most important thing. I sent these to the client, informed him of the cost to that point and hoped the questionnaires themselves wouldn’t be needed. Unfortunately they were, so I spent another hour and a half translating my handwritten notes into Spanish and inputting them into the computer. I sent them to the customer with the full cost.
The reaction I received was the last thing I was expecting. He said I couldn’t possibly have needed as long as I was claiming and told me, in so many words, to revise my inflated figures. I was furious. Negotiating with a client is one thing; being told you are a liar is another. That’s more or less what I told him, adding that, as far as I knew, my fee was nowhere near what a recruitment consultant would have charged him. His reaction: a rude repetition of his accusations with the added barb that recruitment consultants’ fees were none of my business. I wrote back insisting that I was not lying, that I had really taken the time I said I’d taken. By now, it wasn’t so much a matter of money: trust and respect were at stake. But money was all I won. The client’s final reaction was that he’d pay my bill, but never wanted to work with me again. By then, to be honest, the feeling was mutual.
I’m sure there are dozens of different ways I could have handled the situation better at various points. It’s also true that with a customer who turned out to be so rude and unpleasant a parting of the ways would have inevitably occurred somewhere or other. But I can’t help thinking that the real fault was mine in the first place for taking on a job I didn’t really want to do simply because of the promise of other work – that website translation. A simple: “Sorry I’m not really a recruitment consultant” or “Sorry, I’m really busy next week and I’m not going to have time” would have probably been understood and accepted, without compromising the relationship.
So you see how favours get you into trouble. Sadly, that’s not the worst example I can cite. Some years ago, there was a problem with a large translation I had done for an agency client. Their customer had complained about the quality of the work, part of which I had done and part of which had been done by another translator. I was sent details of the complaints and found, as tends to be the case when this happens, that the vast majority of those involving my translation were questions of preference and style. I reported this in detail to my client and thought that would be the end of the matter, so I was surprised when the agency asked me to go along to a meeting with the end customer and the other translator to discuss the problems. This was the critical point; the point where a simple “Sorry, I can’t do that” would have saved me a lot of time and money. But it was a customer I’d worked for a great deal and we’d always had a good relationship. I wanted to help and I felt it would be churlish to refuse. There was also a lot of money involved and I thought my chances of getting paid would improve if I showed my support. So I agreed to the fateful favour.
But the meeting was a trap, there’s no other word for it. For a start, the other translator, who I’d been assured would be there, didn’t turn up. That left me and a woman from the agency, who had little knowledge of French or English, the two languages involved, to face the onslaught from the end customer, who had suddenly found all kinds of other “faults” in the translation that had never been mentioned before. I was expected to combat these off the top of my head without any preparation or any reference aids. I quickly worked out that what they were trying to do was force me into a situation where I would have to admit, either directly or simply by being unable to rebut the challenges, that my translation was worthless. So I took the only course of action I felt was open to me in the circumstances: I walked out.
The result was a long dispute with agency customer in which there was only one loser: me. I won’t go into the unfortunate details, which were compounded by bad legal advice I was given. Let’s just say that not only did I lose the client (not that I was actually sorry about this after the way I’d been thrown to the lions), I never got paid and it cost me a four-figure sum. It was one of the worst experiences in my translation career and one which I’ll never repeat, partly because never again will I go anywhere near the Spanish legal system. But I’m in no doubt that all of it could have been avoided if I’d refused to go to that meeting in the first place. Because if I hadn’t done that stupid favour, the agency would have had to do its duty, simply taking note of all the complaints and passing them on to me for a considered reply, for which I would have had time and reference materials. Whether I’d have got paid everything I deserved for what was a perfectly decent translation, I don’t know, but I’d have had a much better chance.
The trouble is, most of us don’t just want to keep our customers, we want to be liked as well. But it’s a desire that should always be questioned and often resisted. What happened to me just before Christmas has really brought it home to me: those out-of-place favours really do no-one any favours at all.