It's inevitable. In our industry, it's only a matter of time before even the most inexperienced translator will come face to face with a client who doesn't want to pay the going rate. Consider it a rite of passage, if you will. And make no mistake, this goes for all of us. Even the most experienced translators have cut their teeth on clients who were harder to crack than a Brazil nut. How many of us have been faced with any iteration of the following?
So, when a client comes back to you to say that s/he can find cheaper work elsewhere, what do you do?
First allow me to set the scene. You've spent the whole afternoon looking at a potential project from a promising client. You've worked the numbers, played around with your schedule and drafted a comprehensive quote. Satisfied in knowing your worth, you hit "send" and step away. A couple of hours later, it happens... you’re hit with the proverbial REJECTED stamp of doom. Sweat beading on your furrowed brow, you know that this is your make or break moment as you try to make sense of what just happened. Frantic, you look over your quote and make sure you didn't add a zero, only to find that it's just as you suspected: a fair, comprehensive estimate. Surely there's nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. The truth is, some clients just won't pay what you ask. Others will, but you'll need to put in some more effort. At this point, you've got to pull up your sleeves. But fear not; you have several tricks up your trusty translators' tool belt (yeah, I just mixed two sayings--deal with it).
In my experience, there are three types of clients who will not accept your estimate at face value.
1. The newbie: This is a client who just needs a little bit of education, especially if s/he has never used the services of a professional before. Personally this is my favorite client of all--someone who is thoughtful and responsive albeit a little confused. This is a perfect opportunity to explain a little bit more about what you do, who you are and why your services are priced accordingly.
2. The penny pincher: These clients generally want to pay as little as possible and expect the world of you. Some agencies can even fall into this category, expecting you to work miracles on a "very low budget, so give me only your best rates!" type of deal. In that case, it's really like getting blood out of a stone. File this client under "I-can't-pay-you-but-you-can-build-your-portfolio." In other words, abort mission.
3. The undecided: Sometimes you can give a client a little wiggle room if you can just get them to agree to use your services. A tool I like to use is to get them to sign a contract for services. Why? It works out to mutual benefit. If they know they can depend on me for steady monthly work, I know that I can depend on them for the same. Wrap that all up into a pretty little bow by asking a slightly discounted fixed monthly rate (assuming, of course, the workload stays around the same) and giving their accountant an easier time, and they'll probably reconsider.
That's all well and good, but what should you actually do when you're faced with a make or break moment?
1. Don’t even bother/just say "no."
As a freelancer, you should not be afraid of clients who are not a good fit. After all, we are the ones providing the service that our client needs and if we just aren't a good fit, there's nothing that we can do about it. I rarely ever respond this way, but if I do it’s probably because:
· what I’ve quoted and what they are willing to pay is so far apart. I mean, far apart--like I'm in New York and they're on the moon far apart. A little discrepancy is always means to negotiate, but if you are looking for someone at a third of my rate, it’s best that I look for clients that are a better fit (and that you find translators who are a better fit for you). No hard feelings;
· the client insisted that “[they] can’t pay right now but [they] can offer you portfolio experience and exposure.” This is an immediate burning red flag and screams, “I don’t want to pay for work and I do not take you seriously.” Any translator worth his or her own salt will already be working at marketing without the need of a client who may or may not ever be able to pay. Unless this is pro bono work (because let’s be frank; that is what this is) for someone you really want to work for and it would actually advance your career in spades to do so, it’s best to move on. Really. Don't take the bait;
· there was a really nasty response to my initial quote. It’s probably a given that if you are nasty within our first e-mails, you won’t really be open to a nice and fruitful professional relationship. Those aren't the types of clients I like to work with.
Quite frankly, in these situations all I want to do is repeat "the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price has faded" over and over until I'm blue in the face. But sometimes I don't have to, which brings me to my next point:
2. Educate and negotiate.
These are the kinds of clients I actually really like. I love it when someone seeks me out and wants to have something translated for the first time—some of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on came to me this way. One of my favorite jobs ever was translating a book of poetry written by a client's grandfather from Sicilian to English. Often, these clients aren’t well informed about the industry but do mean well, and if you take the time to explain your work and why you’re worth what you charge, they’ll happily pay. You can explain your relative speed of work, your experience, show some clients you’ve worked for and if you want, you can even throw in a reference or two. It’s really appreciated and I often find these clients come back to you, whether themselves or by referring you to others.
It’s my experience that people genuinely love learning about new things and if you’re pleasant and provide good work, they’ll come back every single time. And as a bonus, they’ll never even need to bother with contacting an agency for any further work. It’s a win-win: they have a go-to translator and you have a client for life.
3. Flip the script.
Want a better rate? Okay, then commit in writing to giving me x amount of work within y amount of time, and I’ll give you a little break. Commitment is, as they say, a two way street. You give them what they want, and they give you what you want. In the end everyone is happy. This is especially good for my Italian clients who love the monthly pagamenti a forfait (monthly fixed payments) because working with tax preparers is a nightmare for them. Knowing that I get an even 600 or 700 euros a month from them is like taking a weight off their shoulders in terms of invoicing and accounting. In my opinion, it is totally worth it to give a little “bonus” to clients who are locked in for your services. Why? They get a rate they are happier with and you get a steady paycheck. Don't be afraid to negotiate if the scope of your work changes, especially if your client tacks on more work for the same fee.
It can happen to anyone.
As I said before, having a client refuse your rates is not a reflection of your experience or your value. It happens to all of us no matter how much experience we have. I would venture to say that even the best of us get tempted from time to time to accept work that is underpaid in order to make ends meet, but it doesn't have to happen. What separates the boys from the men is how you respond.
Here are some simple ways to respond to a client when you're at a loss for words:
1. "If you're concerned about rate, may I ask why you haven't chosen (insert cheap freelancer's name here)?" This puts the ball in the client's court. If they're only concerned about price but they haven't actually yet chosen the cheapest option, your working relationship may be salvageable.
2. "If budget is your main concern, you might find it best to go with (insert cheap freelancer's name here)."
3. "Alright then, thanks for thinking of me. Please keep me in mind for future work." (I've done this before and won over potential clients by not even attempting the hard sell)
4. Tell them what you can do for them within their budget.
5. "This quote is valid for x days." I like this because it shows the client you are not going to spend forever negotiating, have other work to do, and that you are a serious player who will honor any commitments. It also gives them a cushion to fall back on should their negotiations with other translators fall through.
6. "Is there anything you're willing to live without?" Don't EVER skimp on quality, but see if they can make a concession--say, instead of a rush job, you ask for a normal delivery date, etc.
Stand your ground and keep marketing yourself. Even if you are going through a particularly dry period, don't give up. Someone better is bound to be out there—and it's up to you to go find him.
Inspired by the lovely post here at the Freelancers' Union.
About the Author
Audra de Falco is a freelance Italian, Spanish, French and Sicilian to English translator based in New York, NY. She has been working in the industry since 2003 and is an advocate of fair industry practices and translators' rights.