The Power of Price Quotes + Contracts

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We have oftentimes lectured on the importance of price quotes and contracts in our industry, including Judy's recent session at the 55th Annual American Translators Association Conference in Chicago in November 2014 (Quote This!), but haven't blogged about this topic in a while, so here we go (warning: it's long). Please remember that this is merely our point of view, and that we very much welcome others' opinions as well (just leave a comment). As always, for legal advice, please make sure you talk to a lawyer. 

In general, during most business transactions, the vendor sets the price and the buyer agrees to it, usually in writing if it's a service. This is even the case for something as simple as plumbing services, or agreeing to a monthly pool cleaning service. The customer calls and asks for an estimate, and the vendor issues it, states the terms, and has the client sign off on them. Very few professionals in any profession would consider working without such an agreement. Remember that our experience is limited almost exclusively to direct clients, but there's no reason we cannot get agencies into the habit of signing contracts as well (we gladly sign our subcontractors' terms/contracts, but few send them). The law is usually a good thing, and contracts are great. They spell things out and make them official. They also come in handy during disputes.

The few times a year we work with interpreting agencies, we are happy to sign their purchase orders, but don't ever enter into a working agreement without our own signed contract as well. Oral contracts are worth the paper they are written on, and back-and-forth e-mails are a poor substitute for a proper contract. Not that our direct clients would want us to skip the written agreement: they want a document where all the pertinent details are spelled out so there are no surprises. This even applies to customers who want something as simple as a birth certificate translated. The issuance of price quotes is so widespread in any business transaction that pretty much every potential client we come in contact with expects one. A contract is the cornerstone of a professional business agreement, Sadly, in our industry, the vast majority of translators and interpreters skip this step, which can be detrimental for their businesses. We think that most non-payment situations can be made much easier if a signed document exists -- it also strengthens any legal case if it comes to that.

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Now, when we work with interpreting agencies for conference interpreting assignments, we issue a very straightforward price quote that neatly summarizes all the details (which we copy and paste from e-mail conversations; it's also great to have all the information in one place). Our contract was drafted by an attorney and is routinely reviewed and updated, but it's very standard. It specifies the details, the time, the date, the booth partner, the location, the equipment to be used, preparation material, overtime, breaks, our payment terms, etc. The idea here is to agree to everything in writing so both parties know what to expect. We will post more on the actual essential elements of a quote in a future post, we promise! In the meantime, here's the ATA's great model contract. In general, the document should be concise, easy to read, and thorough without being an undue burden to the client (no one wants to read 1o pages). And of course the agreement has to work for both parties, so there can certainly be some back-and-forth negotiating until everyone is happy. There is a signature section where we have the client sign first and then we counter-sign. Once signed, that document becomes a binding contract. We really don't see a downside to it.  In 99% of cases, the client signs and we move on. We recently had an agency refusing to sign, but they could not come up with a reason, so we wished them best of luck on the project and amicably parted ways. We took the refusal as what it was: a red flag.

Freelancers really must get into the habit of issuing legally binding documents to protect themselves, and agencies will get used to it once it becomes standard practice. Perhaps some clients don't want to sign contracts and want to convince us to waive it, but basic business skills include knowing that working without a contract is usually a risky endeavor at best, and a disastrous decision at worst. For the record: for repeat customers we oftentimes have long-term contracts and/or don't make them sign each price quote for each project (we oftentimes accept an e-mail reply telling us to proceed). Of course you also have to be reasonable and make things convenient for your client -- all while protecting your business interest.

We would love to hear your thoughts, dear colleagues. Simply leave a comment below.


Jo Rourke on January 21, 2015 at 1:56 PM said...

I took the time to draft up a contract a few years ago with my solicitor and I find it invaluable. Spending the time with him made me realise the terms that I could and could not include and also, like you say, that a contract doesn't have to be the length of War & Peace!

I have had a few instances of agencies refusing to sign them as it was "against company policy" but I took this to mean that treating their outsourcer colleagues fairly and legally must also be "against company policy" so I steered clear of them :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 21, 2015 at 7:10 PM said...

@Jo Rourke: Thanks for your lovely comment. It's great to hear that you invested the time and money to hire a solicitor to draft a contract and that it has served you well. And great point that if someone refuses to sign your contract, that's probably a good sign to stay away! Thanks for reading and for commenting. We honestly have no idea why signing any reasonable agreement that gives peace of mind to both parties would be against company policy...

Alina Cincan on February 12, 2015 at 1:04 AM said...

Excellent points! I too believe in written agreements, but I guess this also comes with experience. There have been a few instances where translators had started working on the translation before even receiving the PO for example.

Some of our translators sent their own T&C and I had absolutely no issue in signing those. They were reasonable.

It's a business relationship, there are two parties involved, there's no reason for one to blindly accept the other's conditions.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 12, 2015 at 11:55 PM said...

@Alina: Thanks so much for your insightful comment and sorry about the late response. We have had some technical issues with publishing these wonderful comments, but we are back! We really think your last line is excellent -- great point about not having to blindly acccept each other's conditions. It's called agreement for a reason: both parties have to agree. :)

Helene on June 16, 2015 at 1:21 PM said...

When a client approaches you with something to translate, do you send him a quote to be signed, and then a contract to be signed too?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 16, 2015 at 1:27 PM said...

@Helene: Good question! No, we send her or him the quote, and once it's signed by both parties, it becomes the binding contract between us (at least here in the U.S.). We hope that answers your question! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

Helene on June 17, 2015 at 7:32 AM said...

Thanks for your reply. I was starting to wonder if it was worthwhile to prepare contracts for 800-word translations...!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 17, 2015 at 9:02 AM said...

@Helene: Our pleasure! Issuing a price quote should take less than 10 minutes if you use TranslationOffice 3000 or similar program. Of course we agree that it's important to maximize time, especially for very short projects.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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