“I feel like a cog in the machine!”–What to do?

Here’s an issue that several readers have asked about lately: What to do when a client treats you like a cog in the machine? A podcast listener recently referred to this as “dehumanization” in our profession. Examples may include:

  • Applying to work with a client without ever interacting with a human–the application process is a series of online forms, DocuSign documents, and auto-responses
  • Translation projects assigned by mass e-mail (“Dear translator”) or through an online job portal
  • Inability to talk to a human, even when you want or need to

For us as freelancers, the real question is what to do about this if it bothers you. Here are a few suggestions that may help:

  1. Adjust your mindset. These kinds of interactions are a) transactional, and b) impersonal. No question about that. However, they are not objectively wrong and horrible. For every freelancer who longs for a personal relationship with their clients, there’s a freelancer who sees those personal interactions as a waste of time in a relationship that is fundamentally about exchanging a service for money. Feeling critical every time a client treats you impersonally will only subtract years from your life and is unlikely to change the client’s behavior.
  2. Set boundaries. When you work with a client, you are telling them that their way of working is OK with you. If their way of working is not OK with you, it is not a good use of your time to try to change the client, or–worse–to expect that they will change on their own. The best option is simply to set boundaries about what kinds of client relationships are–and are not–OK with you.
    Examples of boundaries:

    • “If you typically assign translation projects via mass e-mail, please be aware that I will not respond. I respond only to project requests sent directly to me.”
    • “Before working with you, I’d like to have a five to ten-minute Skype call with one of your project managers, to get a sense of whether we’re a good fit for each other.”
    • “I prefer to have a conversation about rates, rather than putting one rate in your online form. Would that work for you?”
  3. Stop expecting clients to be something that they’re not. I truly believe that every type of client serves a purpose in our industry. Clients who need their HR training videos transcribed, translated, and re-recorded into 28 languages are probably not the best fit for a freelancer; they really need a company. Clients who want the same translator to work on every project, and whose businesses depend on consistency and confidentiality, are probably not the best fit for a company; they really need a freelancer. Problems arise when you expect a huge agency to crave a personal relationship with you, when they’re trying to push gazillions of words out the door. The huge agency business model is not intrinsically bad, but it’s a mass market business like any other. Just as you wouldn’t expect a personal shopping concierge to greet you at the door of a big-box retailer, don’t expect big-box translation clients to call and ask how your weekend was, before they ask if you’re available for 10,000 words.
  4. Trust that there are clients who want–or even crave–personal relationships. I can attest that my direct clients have taken me out to dinner, invited me to their birthday parties (no kidding), invited me to tour their campuses, and asked to see pictures of my daughter’s bike races. These types of client relationships do exist, and you can find them. But the first step is to acknowledge that many clients do not want and will not cultivate a personal relationship with you. Once you accept that, you can free yourself to move on to clients who do want that kind of thing.

If you have a story about a personal relationship with a client–or how you extricated yourself from an impersonal client relationship—let’s hear about it in the comments.

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12 Responses to ““I feel like a cog in the machine!”–What to do?”
  1. elizagraham19 November 29, 2018
    • Corinne McKay November 29, 2018
  2. michaelschubert November 29, 2018
    • Corinne McKay November 29, 2018
  3. Steve Lank November 29, 2018
    • Corinne McKay November 30, 2018
  4. colinpascalrohken November 30, 2018
    • Corinne McKay November 30, 2018
    • Corinne McKay November 30, 2018
  6. Andreas Mäder December 4, 2018
  7. Echo Anderson December 16, 2018

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