Freelancing lessons from the plumber
We’re lucky enough to have our plumbing done by Jesus. Before you start thinking I’ve got a serious attack of religion, or that this blog has taken an unpleasantly blasphemous tack, I should remind you that in Spanish-speaking countries, Jesús, as it should be written, is actually quite a common first name. But although he can’t do miracles, our Jesús is an excellent plumber and heating engineer. He’s mended our washing machine and our toilet, and last week he came to fix our sputtering water heater. And while he was here I started thinking about what translators could learn from a freelancer like him.
Because although we like to think of ourselves as professionals on a par with lawyers and architects, I believe plumbers and other self-employed tradesmen also have a lot to teach us. Now I’m not going to push the parallels too far and there are obviously many differences between a translator’s work and what a plumber does. But I like having Jesús work for me and I want to make sure people are happy when I work for them, which means it’s well worthwhile analysing what makes any successful freelancer-customer relationship work. So here are six things I think we can learn from Jesús:
- Follow up contacts, however vague. I phoned Jesús but got his answerphone. When the message cut in, I hung up, thinking I’d try again in a while, but before I got the chance he’d called me. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m very bad about following up calls. “If they’re really interested, they’ll come back to me,” I usually think. But maybe they won’t…
- Give a professional image. We made an appointment. Jesús turned up on time, dressed for work but looking clean and with his tools in a neat box. Obviously, as translators, we don’t have to go into other people’s homes, but we do need to make a good impression, especially if we ever go to meet clients.
- Be good at your job. Jesús found the fault in our water heater efficiently and effectively and fixed it. He obviously knew a lot about the machines, which are now full of electronics and nothing like the simple gas heater we had in our student flat years ago. That kind of knowledge requires study and experience, two key requirements that also apply to translators. Jesús also spent time testing his repair to make sure the fault had been fixed, and we could all benefit from taking that bit of extra time to check our work.
- Communicate with clients clearly. Jesús gave a clear explanation of what he’d done and its limitations. As with many different kinds of machine, it was possible that the fault he had put right was not the only problem, and if that was the case we were going to have to ask him to come back. That meant we’d have to pay again, and he wanted us to understand that a) the fault he’d put right was genuine and b) the work he’d done might not be enough. He got his message across firmly but politely, to prevent misunderstandings.
- Charge what you’re worth. Jesús has a minimum charge, which is non-negotiable. If you want him to do some work, you pay it. You wouldn’t dream of asking him to reduce or waive it. Now there’s a lesson for some! He’s also not cheap, but his price is his price: the cost of the parts you need plus his labour. You know there’s no point in trying to beat him down. I wish my clients always saw my prices as immovable, but I try to keep them that way.
- Get noticed and remembered. We found Jesús by word of mouth, always the best way to find someone in his profession, and probably the best way of finding a translator, although it only happens if you successfully achieve point number 3. Jesús has also thought of the most effective way of making sure people remember him. Unlike translators, he doesn’t work much with e-mail, which means people aren’t necessarily going to find his contact details easily. So he gives his customers a fluorescent yellow sticker with all his details, ready to be stuck on a water heater or washing machine. I’m not going to copy that idea to the letter, but the principle of thinking about how people are going to find you is well worth considering.
I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s not such a bad idea to try to learn from other kinds of freelancers. And in the meantime, if you need a good plumber…