I lost a client a few weeks ago. It’s something that always seems dramatic when it happens, but the truth is they weren’t the first client I’ve lost and they certainly won’t be the last. In fact, if you think about it, we lose clients all the time, often without realising it. How many of our clients never come back to us after the first piece of work, however good a job we’ve done? It could be that we haven’t met their expectations, of course, but it could equally be that they’ve simply never have any more work for us after we’ve translated their website, or that they only have enough budget for that big initial translation that we thought might lead to so many other things. We’ll probably never know the reason why. But all those one-hit wonder clients are clients we’ve lost – if they could ever be counted as real clients in the first place.
This client of mine was a long-term one, though: a music venue in Barcelona. I’d been working for them for well over a decade. In fact I lost them once before, because they told me they no longer had enough budget for translations, but after a couple of years they came back. Recently, it seemed the relationship was becoming even closer. They asked me to upload my translations to a new system, and included me in a small group who received all the e-mails about all the texts being written for the venue.
Then, a few weeks ago, when I asked on the e-mail group about the texts for September, I received a message from the person responsible for coordinating the writing and translation. “We’ve been meaning to tell you, from September we don’t need your translations any more. We’re going to do them in-house.” What could I say? That they’re making a mistake? That no-one can do it better than me? That the quality of their translations will suffer if they use a non-native speaker? I could have said all these things, and they’d all most likely have been true, but I didn’t because I didn’t believe it would make a scrap of difference. Either they really had someone in the office capable of doing the job, or they were going to use Google Translate or ChatGPT. Whichever way, they were going to save a considerable amount of money by not using me any more, and I knew full well that like all live music venues they’d suffered badly during the COVID years. So I just said goodbye and sent them my last invoice.
What hurt more was the way it was done: in an e-mail to the group without a word of thanks for all the work I’d done over the years. In fact the writer of the texts (a fellow freelance) contacted me privately to say how sorry he was about the way I’d been treated. I appreciated his good wishes, but it also occurred to me that he probably knows he could be next. It also hurts that they haven’t even bothered to remove me from the e-mail group, so for a long time afterwards, until I told them to stop sending them, I was still getting messages about texts I’d never be asked to translate and concerts I no longer cared about.
In one of my favourite sports – cricket – there is a saying which I like. “You should always look at your score and add two wickets to it.” I’m not going to use this blog to explain the intricacies of the game to the uninitiated, but it’s meant to calm over-optimism and misplaced euphoria. It means that if things are going along well, you should imagine them after a couple of big setbacks. In translation, I invented my own saying, which comes from a similar place: “Your best client is probably your next ex-client”, because losing important clients is something that happens to us throughout our working lives.
The first time I was affected by it was very early in my translation career, before I even went full-time. I’d been doing quite a lot of work during the summer for a university and I realised that, if I continued with that volume of translation, I could say goodbye to the English teaching I hated. But I wasn’t sure. I went to see the head of translations at the university who’d just returned from holiday. And he told me, in no uncertain terms, that my work was short of the required standard. In fact, had he not been away, he wouldn’t have used me at all during that summer. It was a useful lesson for me, warning me that I needed to raise my standards if I was really going to make translation my career.
I started doing more work for agencies, not all of them very good ones. One of these became quite a big client, despite the fact that they didn’t pay well and often had to be nagged about invoices. This client I didn’t so much lose as tell to get lost, when they had the temerity to tell me – a freelancer – that I was taking too much holiday. Another agency which had at one time sent me plenty of work vanished after a dispute about payment for a translation. Over the years, many others have simply drifted away as I raised my rates.
Then there was the university which looked like a new, promising client, and even more so after they asked me to go on a training day. It was only when their head of translation starting looking sheepish when I thanked him for inviting me that I guessed everything was not as it seemed. After I pressed him a little, he revealed that I’d only been put on the list for the day in order to fill a quota, and it was highly unlikely I’d be receiving work from them in future. I haven’t. A similar thing happened with an important wine client. I did a considerable amount of work for them and decided to go and visit their winery one day when I happened to be passing. They gave me a very pleasant little tour and a tasting before revealing that they now had an Australian working in the office who was going to take charge of all future translations for them. Both these illustrate the point that it doesn’t matter how well you work or how close to a client you think you’re getting, it really makes no difference at all. Given the wrong set of circumstances – new ways of doing things, a change in personnel – you are absolutely dispensable.
One way of surviving, of course, is never to allow one client to become too important. My rule of thumb is that once a customer starts to account for close to 20% of my income, they’ve become a potential problem. Obviously I’m not going to start turning down their work, but I will start to actively seek and build up other clients, just in case. Even so, all the client losses I’ve described, and others I haven’t, seemed like serious blows at the time. None of them has been. Because when you don’t have work from one source, you have more availability to take work from another. And, just as importantly, as freelancers we have the liberty to reinvent ourselves if necessary, switching the emphasis in the work we do or even moving in entirely new directions.
Sometimes, it’s true, there can be a disconcerting gap between one client disappearing and one or more new ones arriving to take their place, but those gaps always end up before filled. Not that I’m taking anything for granted, of course, but when the holiday season ends (there really is no point in prospecting for clients in Spain in August), I will be nudging current and dormant clients to remind them I exist, looking for new opportunities, going to client events, asking for recommendations and introductions, making approaches to likely prospects, tweaking my website and social media profiles and running through a whole list of other options. Because if the time ever comes when losing a client doesn’t motivate me to take those steps, it will be time to retire. And I’m not ready to do that just yet. Oh, and by the way, I’ve taken a look at that music venue’s new English translations. Not surprisingly, they are dire. Who knows, they might even be back one day!