Posted by: Steve Vitek | June 15, 2012

All Good Things Must Come To An End, Even The Relationship To Your Best Customer

I used to have a friend who was translating technical Japanese to English. This was in mid eighties in San Francisco. He basically worked for only one customer – General Electric – through one tiny agency. They kept him very busy for many years translating procedural and maintenance manuals and records from nuclear reactors … in Fukushima, of course. This is something that I never saw never mentioned by corporate media in this country, but the aging nuclear reactors that were damaged by the tsunami on March 11, 2011 were built by GE.

He used to tell me: “I don’t have to worry about running out of work. GE is not gonna go out of business.” He did not even have a business card or a résumé. He was kind of proud about it, and I was kind of admiring him for it. “That is so cool”, I used to think to myself, in the hope that one day I too might become a small giant in my line of work who does not even need a business card, let alone a résumé.

GE did not go out of business, but somebody in the management decided to save money during a minor economic downturn in the early nineties and as everybody knows, the easiest thing to save money in just about every business is to save money on translation. Of course you may not have the information that you may need to have, but people usually realize it only after a tsunami hits them, and it may take years or decades before something like that happens. My friend started having all of a sudden too much free time on his hands around 1992.

Over the years I have learned that it is best not to get too attached to one’s customers, even the really good ones. They only send you work because they momentarily need somebody like you, and you only work for them because you need to have customers in order to pay bills. It makes sense to be nice to them, but you don’t have to love them. You are not married to them.

Customers come and send you tons of work and big fat checks for years and years. And then one day, after years of steady business, they leave for reasons that we as freelancers cannot influence, even if we could figure them out, which we usually cannot. It may be a management decision, usually of a mid-manager who does not really know what he is doing, oblivious to the writing on the wall that spells in big letters that the way things are going, his job will be eliminated one day soon too.

The only constant is change. That is just how things are in the freelance business, and probably in any business.

One constant that we can hold on to is the knowledge that as long as we can learn to cope with changes that life and fate are throwing under our feet to slow us or take us down when we are finally beginning to pick up speed, whatever doesn’t kill us will hopefully make us a little bit stronger.

I still work for one or two customers who used to send me work ten or fifteen years ago. But many of them don’t even exist anymore. Large and small law firms go out of business quite frequently.

And I still talk once in a while to one translation agency owner who started sending me work 25 years translation work. And although he is semi-retired now, he still sends me some work from time to time.

It was Thomas Jefferson who said:”The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

And the tree of freelance enterprise must be refreshed from time to time with lots of business from brand new clients when old clients who have been with us forever defect to greener pastures where labor is cheaper.

As long as we know how to find new clients, we will let the new clients benefit from what we have learned over the years by working for our former clients who don’t need us anymore for whatever reason.

All good things must come to an end so that new things, equally good and maybe even better, could start.

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Responses

  1. Good post, Steve. I had a client who dated back to the 1990s and we had an excellent working relationship. They were a constant source of work for me, and there were never any misunderstandings or complaints on either side. But they were way too relaxed when meeting payment deadlines and I just went along with it, knowing they’d pay sooner or later. When they fell behind by more than 6 months, I decided it was time to drop them. It was a great decision; now I’ve taken on new clients at much better rates. I only wish I’d done it a long time ago.
    I’d advise newcomers never to rely on one client for more than 30% of their work. It’s dangerous to keep all your eggs in one basket…

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  2. Hi Emma:

    I charge higher rates to companies that do not pay withing 30 days and let them know why I am doing that if these are direct clients. Sometime they then start paying on time and I lower the rate to what it was originally.

    If an agency is a chronic later payer, I ask them to prepay their next order.

    They usually try to find another translator but sometime they see no choice and pay in advance.

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  3. Interesting post. It’s a point I consider regularly, given that 50-60% of my income has come from a single client over the past 5-6 years. The client in question, however, is thoroughly reliable and trustworthy. Their only late payment ever was due to my forgetting to invoice them. I have, over the years, complied a long list of potential clients to contact if I suddenly find myself with lots of time on my hands, but my basic philosophy is that I would be mad to turn down work from a company who have already provided me with more than £250k of income.
    I accept that I have been extremely lucky to have fallen upon a client that most translators would kill for, and I think Emma’s advice re 30% is sound.

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  4. “my basic philosophy is that I would be mad to turn down work from a company who have already provided me with more than £250k of income.”

    As long as you can live for quite some time on 50% of what you are making now, you should be OK no matter what happens.

    My biggest client is usually different every year. I have had only a couple of jobs so far this year from a firm that was my biggest client last year (25% of my income last year).

    Nothing lasts forever is my philosophy.

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    • I agree (more or less) with your philosophy, and we could live fairly comfortably on 50% of my current income until I decide to retire. The amount of work I’ve received from the client in question has allowed us to become completely debt-free. If the work suddenly dried up, which I have been assured won’t happen until at least 2015, I would probably swap my extremely thirsty car for something cheaper to run, but as we live well within our means at the moment, I doubt our lifestyle would need to change much.
      Interesting that your biggest client changes every year. That’s generally true for my second biggest client in a particular year, but I guess that’s the way of the world.

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  5. [...] τις εκδόσεις Μελάνι More on the Spanish Debt Crisis and Lower Quality Translation All Good Things Must Come To An End, Even The Relationship To Your Best Customer New Study Shows 50 Percent of Fortune 500 Companies Don’t Translate their Content The [...]

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  6. I would certainly never turn down business, but working for a number of clients carries less inherent risk than spreading out work among numerous clients. Professionals who work for a company as an employee have little diversity. Their fortunes are generally tied to how well their company is doing. An independent business person has some opportunity to create a diverse client base “portfolio” and thereby lessen the risk from a single client loss significantly impacting their income.

    It’s just like in the stock market. You can buy a single stock (most risky) or invest in a mutual fund that owns many stocks (less risky).

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