Start building relationships
It may be a growing trend or it could be that I’m becoming more aware of it, but there seems to be an American-style sales logic creeping into the world of translation. I say “American-style” because, like many – perhaps most – Europeans I’m utterly put off by anyone trying to hard-sell anything to me. Phone me up and try to interest me in parting with my money and I’ll hang up on you. Knock on my door with something to push and I’ll probably slam it in your face. What I won’t do – never, ever – is buy anything from you.
So I’m fairly sensitive to the emergence of ideas along these lines, and utterly resistant to using them in my own marketing, simply because I don’t believe they work. The other day, for example, there was a discussion on a translators’ group on Facebook during which a claim was made that clients never reject us because of price. Apparently, price is just an “objection” we have to overcome.
To demonstrate just how ludicrous this statement is (and I’m particularly concerned with the “never”), I’ll use an example from my own experience the week before. An author wrote to me asking me to quote for the translation of a non-fiction book he had written. I made some calculations and quoted him a price and his response was unequivocal. “Thank you,” he said, “but your quote comes to more than all the money I’ve made from the book in Spanish. So I’ll have to say no. I’ll come back to you when I write a bestseller.”
So please don’t tell me this is an objection. It’s the bottom line. This potential client quite clearly recognises the fact that he can’t afford me. There’s no point in persisting unless I want to cut my price to something he could afford and it’s not in my interests to do that. Now, I realise that this is not always the situation when clients argue about price. Sometimes, they can afford it but don’t want to, in which case it may be worth trying a harder. But in the case of my author and in other, similar cases, the best thing to do is simply to move on.
I had a similar reaction to a discussion I was involved in about the translation of websites. This is one of the trickiest areas for translators because, when you’re asked to translate a site, it’s so difficult to estimate the scope of the job. If you are just handed the url of the home page, there is always a risk of missing pieces of text or even entire pages when trying to give a price for the job. And seriously underquoting could turn a potentially profitable job into a loss-making nightmare. There are programs that purport to download entire websites but in practice they tend to be so comprehensive that you end up massively overquoting and thus not getting the job.
So I adopt a cautious approach. I explain to the client that I want to give as accurate a quote as possible and that the only way I can do this is if they provide me with all the text to be translated in editable form, ideally in a Word document. If this proves impossible, I’m even willing to consider copying and pasting the text from the various pages myself, provided I’m given a list of the urls of every page to be translated. The purpose of this is to avoid awkward arguments about charging for text that might have been forgotten.
But in the Facebook discussion I mentioned, asking the potential client to make that small effort to help me provide an accurate quote was criticised as “punishing” them. Would I really, I was asked by a colleague, allow the client to get away just because I was reluctant to provide a price? When I said that if the client was that unhelpful I’d be quite happy for anyone else to have them, I was greeted with incredulity. This particular colleague’s approach was to provide a rough quote – it would take just ten minutes to cut and paste the text and it didn’t really matter if you didn’t get it all, he said. Then, if there did turn out to be more work than expect it, he would recoup the cost in the form of a surcharge. And I was apparently the one dishing out the punishment!
This isn’t the same as the “clients don’t reject you on price” argument, of course, but it comes from the same attitude. Clients are out there to be snagged at any cost. They must not be allowed to get away. Once you’ve got them, you can do what you like with them. The important thing is getting your hooks into them in the first place.
I see it differently. Obviously we have to get out there to find clients and we shouldn’t be unnecessarily difficult or obstructive. But securing a client for the long term is about building relationships, and relationships, as anyone who’s been involved in one knows, are a two-way business. So if we have a client who isn’t interested in helping us from the very start, they’re hardly the kind that we’re interested in working with in the long term. Seen this way, asking for website files in editable format isn’t just about trying to provide the client with a more reliable cost estimate and, ultimately, a better translation. It is a test of whether this is the kind of client we want to work with.
Because the old saying “The customer is always right” is possibly the most nonsensical and dangerous of business clichés. Customers are often wrong. and it is how we deal with them when they are that determines our relationship with them. If we fawn all over them, tugging our forelocks while secretly laughing at their foolishness, the relationship will ultimately fail. They may abuse our misguided desire to please, there will certainly be resentment, and we are not likely to give them our best work. In the end, they will go elsewhere and we will be only too delighted when they do.
If, on the other hand, we can, gently and calmly, point out to them the error of their ways, and if they are prepared to listen, the relationship can grow and move forward. Just as if we make a mistake in translation, we would want them to point it out to us. The key, as Aretha Franklin had it, is R-E-S-P-E-C-T, in both directions. Without it, there is no point in doing business with someone, and I would argue that, just as in life, it is probably the most important factor in any relationship.