No matter how meticulous you are about a) your translations and b) your business practices, you can’t work as a freelancer without dealing with disgruntled clients from time to time. First, let’s say this: unless you love interpersonal conflict, dealing with unhappy clients is awful. Running your own business means caring very deeply about your work and putting your reputation behind every translation that you do, and it can be a truly horrible experience to have a client question your competence, integrity, whatever. But since this situation is bound to occur, let’s look at what you can/should do after you receive that angry phone call or e-mail from a client.
For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that the client’s complaint has at least some basis in fact. Maybe you don’t see the problem as being as serious as the client does, but you agree that there’s some shred of an issue to be dealt with. Baseless client complaints are another issue altogether, and one that I’ll save for another post (or better yet, another translation blogger can take that one on!). I think that resolving legitimate disputes boils down to three basic steps:
- Admit to the mistake;
- Try to make it better.
Admittedly, I’m a pretty conflict-averse person, and I’m also very committed to maintaining a good reputation in the translation industry. Therefore, I probably go a little further with these steps than some translators do. For example, if I make a legitimate error, I nearly always offer the client some sort of compensation: I once e-mailed a client the wrong file for a (thankfully) very small project the night before I was leaving for a vacation. When I returned from vacation and realized what had happened, I told the client that of course I didn’t expect to be paid for that project, but that I also wanted to do a small job for them for free in the future. I think that this type of gesture shows the client that I get it: that freelancing can be a “one strike and you’re out” type of business, and that I am very committed to client satisfaction.
A few other dispute resolution tips that I’ve gleaned over the years:
- When you receive an angry e-mail from a client, first, do nothing. Don’t respond when you are angry too. Wait until you’ve cooled off a bit, then compose your response. Or compose your response and let it sit for an hour, then read it over before you send it.
- Always ask for specific examples of quality issues. It’s really hard to know how to make it better with a client who says “The tone isn’t what we wanted,” “The terminology wasn’t right for our audience,” etc. Always ask for an edited version of your translation, or for a few specific examples of the kind of issues the client is talking about.
- Resist the urge to write a lengthy explanation in response to a client complaint. When you respond, be concise, be kind and admit what happened. “I really apologize for neglecting to fully comply with your style sheet; I agree with the changes that you made to the document and I want to assure you that I will be more meticulous about this in the future” is enough. Save the venting and ranting for your trusted circle of friends and colleagues!
- Don’t complain about the client’s requirements after the fact. If the client sends you a 12 page style guide for a 1,500 word project, or expects you to go through an arduous QA process with no increase in your rate, the time to lodge your objection is before the project starts.
- Don’t take it personally. Clearly, this is easy to say and very, very hard to do. But when you’re dealing with a business issue, try to keep it businesslike. Stay calm, stay polite and try to see things from the client’s point of view.
- After the complaint is resolved, decide whether this client is a good fit for you. Sometimes the client’s complaint reflects the fact that their work style and yours are not a good fit. And really, that’s OK. There is enough other work out there for you, and there are enough other translators out there for them.