Standing Your Ground: A Short Case Study

If running a small business were easy, we'd all be our own bosses.  Running a small business is challenging and we have to make many difficult decisions on an everyday basis. Perhaps the hardest part is managing customer (and potential customer) relationships. While it's impossible to make everyone happy, we need to strive to attract and retain customers and turn them into repeat customers. However, sometimes there are potential clients with whom you should choose not to work. We don't really believe in the term "firing clients," but you do need to choose your customers very carefully.

This is the first in a series of short examples meant to illustrate one particular point and what we can learn from them.

Today, we received a phone call from a potential customer saying that he had several documents to be translated. They were, according to the caller, "simple, informal, not hard, do not need to be certified." We informed the customer that we'd be happy to look at them electronically and then issue a free, non-binding quote. 

Customer: "That's really not necessary. Just tell me how much it costs. It's six, of seven, or eight pages, and they are only half-full. If you have been doing this for more than a month, you should know how much this costs."

Judy: "Actually, in order to give you an accurate price quote, we will need to get a word count, as translation is charged by the word. I am unable to issue a quote on a document I haven't seen.  We need to evaluate the document, look at the subject matter, consider the format (PDF? handwritten?) and confirm that we are the right providers for your project. If not, we would be happy to recommend a colleague."

Customer: "Ah, forget it, you can't help me here." Click.

Why we feel we did the right thing:

  • Quoting on a project sight unseen always sets you up for failure, unless you are working with a trusted repeat customer whose projects are very similar. A page could be 800 words or 50 words. 
  • Working with a customer who does not want to follow the proper procedure to ensure an accurate product is probably not ideal. Just imagine: if he can't even send us the document he wants translated, will he pay us?
  • We don't like to be bullied. Perhaps the customer's tone was not the one he wanted to choose, but our request was reasonable, is standard in the industry, and is also meant to protect the customer by providing accurate estimates. 
  • We protected our business interests. We'd set ourselves up to fail by providing a legally binding quote on something we haven't seen. 
Although it's  disappointing to have an uncomfortable conversation with a potential customer and to not be able to help him, in this case, it all worked out for the better.With that, we are off to translate documents from another customer who had the same inquiry and promptly scanned and e-mailed the document for our evaluation.

Dear fellow linguists: what would you have done in this situation? We'd love to hear your input in the comments section. 


bonnjill on September 27, 2010 at 1:32 PM said...

There's nothing else you could have possibly done. Don't even give this "potential customer" a second thought. I never accept a job without seeing the document. Those six page could be six pages of nuclear fission documentation, math calculations or birth certificates. I would much rather be sure the documents fall within one of my specializations before accepting a job.

Anonymous said...

You didn't do anything wrong. You probably should feel happy you "lost" this "client" ;)

Ángel on September 27, 2010 at 5:17 PM said...

You did the right thing. If a client isn’t willing to take the time to do something as simple as sending the documents for you to review them, what can you expect when more serious matters come up?

I do DTP work and I often have to ask the client a long series of questions about the source files and the final file output; they are more elaborate than just requesting the documents for review, and any serious client will take the time to answer them and even to do some research if he/she doesn’t know the answers. So, again, well done.

Anonymous said...

"If you have been doing this more than a month"? Wow. I don't even know what to say to that. Yes, I do: what a jerk. How completely unprofessional.

Babeliane on September 28, 2010 at 12:24 AM said...

I would have done the exact same thing. If the customer refused to send the documents, it's probably a good indication that maybe they were not so "simple, informal, not hard"...

Anonymous said...

Better off without him, I think. I get the impression that he would not have been a repeat customer anyway.

Kevin Lossner on September 28, 2010 at 2:20 AM said...

Wow. What a loser. I wouldn't use the term "potential client" for someone like that, and I know few people I dislike enough to refer him to.

A more typical example of a time-waster is this inquiry I received from a agency today:

"Hi there,

We are expecting an German to English translation. There are 313 pages to be translated. I would like to know the BEST price you can give us and the FATEST turnaround time and the word count. Hopefully you can let me know by end of today (Singapore time)."

There were three scanned pages attached to this spam mail. Normally I flush e-mail like this straight down the virtual toilet, but since I know and like the Swiss division of this company, I sent a brief response indicating that this manner of approach was not up to the standard I knew from her colleagues. I especially liked the fact that she expected me to give a word count for a document I had never seen.

Other incoming trash mail included further requests for quotation without seeing the relevant source documents. This might be understandable from a client who does not deal with translations much, but it is rather incompetent and/or rude from an LSP.

Lisa Davey on September 28, 2010 at 5:08 AM said...

Mutual respect between client and service provider is essential. Your prospective client didn't sound very respectful to me. You acted professionally; he didn't. Why compromise your standards? A stressed-out long-standing client is one thing; an arrogant, impolite "don't-know-him-from-Adam" would-be client is quite another!

Anonymous said...

You certainly did the right thing. Based on the conversation you relate, I would say that he is either very naive about industry practices or he was simply fishing for the lowest price. In either case, you wouldn't want a client who bullies. The same conversation will probably take place with several other translators or companies, and I suspect he will get the same answers.

Cynthia on September 28, 2010 at 10:35 AM said...

My ex-boss did exactly the same thing like your client but the agency my ex-boss called actually sole cheap very unprofessionally. What happened next was he received a very bad translation (worse than Google Translate) and had to re-translate the document himself (not to spend over budget).

Caitilin on September 28, 2010 at 11:56 AM said...


Well done! Sounds like you came out ahead: integrity intact, and better-paid job on your desk.

I can't imagine that Mr Aggressive will end up very happy no matter who acquiesces to his demands.

LingoStar on September 28, 2010 at 2:58 PM said...

I completely agree that it was the right thing to do. It's just not possible to issue an accurate quote without looking at the document.

However, I think we should also keep in mind that most of the clients just don't have any idea of how a translation agency works.
We just had a quite amusing example for this when a client actually asked us if we can submit the translation electronically or if we only deliver handwritten files...

Brain on September 29, 2010 at 12:11 AM said...

Well, sounds familiar. And no: you did not do anything wrong.

Actually, this kind of customer chooses his translator or translation agency just because of the price - not considering services or level of qualification.

Tess on September 29, 2010 at 7:13 AM said...

It is the clients loss!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 29, 2010 at 5:21 PM said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone! We are still laughing about @Kevin's example. Looks like we are all in agreement on this issue.

We did want to take the opportunity to tell the client a bit about how the business work -- agreed with @LingoStar that many times, potential customers just don't know how it all works. We were ready to explain the process, but we didn't get that far.

LingoStar Language Service on August 8, 2012 at 3:46 PM said...

I completely agree that it was the right thing to do. It's just not possible to issue an accurate quote without looking at the document.

However, I think we should also keep in mind that most of the clients just don't have any idea of how a translation agency works.
We just had a quite amusing example for this when a client asked us if we can submit the translation electronically or if we only deliver handwritten files...

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