Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 17, 2012

How Replaceable Are We and How Replaceable Are Our Clients?

Only two types of people on planet Earth are irreplaceable:

1. Our parents

2. Our children

Anybody else, including our spouses, can be replaced, although this usually requires a complicated, very expensive and generally painful procedure called divorce. Hence the popular saying of American males who have already completely given up on life heard in bars all over this land (which would be most of them after the age of about 45):”It’s cheaper to keep her”.

So translators are obviously replaceable too. But how easy is it to replace a translator? Have you ever wondered about that? You probably have, and so have I.

I think that there is a direct correlation between our replaceability and the type of customers that we work for.

1. A translator who bids for projects on “online venues for translators and buyers” knows that he must lowball the price because the guy with the lowest bid is guaranteed to get the job, such as it is. This is the kind of translator who’s life philosophy better be “I must think of myself as a lowly peon who is easily replaceable” if he wants to have any work at all.

2. Translators who receive work regularly from translation agencies are in a somewhat better position than those who are reduced to having to scavenge for scraps of work on these “online venues” like illegal aliens lined up at the crack of dawn behind the local 7Eleven store. But they are also replaceable, although some of them not that easily, depending on their language combination and knowledge of the subjects that they translate.

However, no matter how well educated, skilled, experienced and knowledgeable they may be, if another translator who may not really be all that educated, experienced and knowledgeable offers to do the same job for a cent per word less, most agencies will go for the cheaper labor every time. Translators who work through brokers are thus also easily replaceable because in this kind of relationship, the bottom line trumps everything.

3. Translators who work for clients without a broker are also replaceable, but replacing them may be a major hassle for the clients because unlike translation agencies, they don’t really know how to find another good translator quickly. Also, when you work for your client on the same kind of projects month after month for years, they kind of get used to you if you do good work and things go smoothly.

How do I know that? Let’s have some evidence here: Even if you raise your rate to a direct client after a while by a cent or two, most will probably not drop you as their translation service provider, except if your client is a major corporation because big corporations basically also care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line.

So the least replaceable type of translator is a translator working for a direct client who is preferably not a major corporation, which would also be my favorite type of client.

Now let’s change the variables in the equation while considering the question of how easily our clients are replaceable to us.

A. A client who is responsible for 30 or more percent of our income year after year, whether it is an agency or a direct customer, is very hard to replace. A client who brings us most of our income year after year is not quite as irreplaceable as our parents or your children, but possibly even harder to replace than our husband or wife. In fact the Internal Revenue Service will try to reclassify such a client and call him “an employer” and us “an employee” to get more money from both us and the client. It is wonderful in the short term but dangerous in the long term to have such an irreplaceable client, wonderful because we can always pay our bills, at least for a while, if we have such a client, and dangerous because clients generally do not stay with one service provider forever.

B. Clients who are responsible for no more than about 15 percent of our income year after year should be relatively easy to replace, especially if they only pay average rates. If on top of that they take a long time to pay and they are generally difficult to work with, we can just drop them like a hot potato if they get on our nerves.

Translators know that they are replaceable. Do our clients know that they can be replaced as well?

I am not sure. Many seem to act as if they were irreplaceable. When they keep asking for additional work involving “corrections” (using terms in our translation that they prefer) without compensation, and we always agree to do such work for free, they know for sure that they are in control.

We can only be in control if we have our own set of rules for what we will and what we will not do for our clients, which means that we have to be able to replace every single client by another customer, for example if they decide to extend the payment terms from 30 days to 60 days.

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Responses

  1. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for your client to feel s/he is in control, as long as you are an expert in getting them to suggest the changes you want them to make (so s/he thinks it’s her idea). Like a good editor, who helps the author think all the corrections are by her own choice, not the editor’s.

  2. I agree, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    The question is, should the translator charge for her time in such cases, or should she be required to do this for free?

    • How about a prepaid necessary bad thing?

  3. Steve, everyone in this walk of living knows that he is replaceable. The clients know this, too.

    Shortly before I came to Germany for my vacation, there was a project planned from Aug. 1 to 6, 2012. This project was drawn over to Aug. 10, 2012 because the end client was not satisfied with the terminology I chose. On the 7th of August, I told the client to provide me a corrected term list, so that I could change the terms in accordance. When he was not responding properly upon my request, I warned him to quit working with him. This warning worked wonderfully. The client became amiable and willing to accept the terminology I proposed. So, the rest of work, the review by the client, took another 3 days to reach the satisfaction of both sides, that I could get on board of my flight with clean conscience.

    For sure, I am not always that lucky. There had been clients at whose my warnings went unheard. However, it has been always a relief to have such clients off my neck.

    I guess, it is a good policy, even from the point of view of risk management, for every translator to have only clients with each of whom he has less than 15% income yearly.

    One of my clients asked me to do a project that should last 2 and half a month with a price of 3000 EUR in May. The same client asked me to take on other 3 shorter projects during this period while I was working on the 3K one. But I declined all the extra ones without regrets, because I could have time for other more lucrative projects from other clients. And it turned out that there was a delay in the project processing that led finally to a cancellation by the end of July, so that I had to be satisfied with a pay of 1.5K, though I asked for 2.25K as a proper compensation. I don’t really care of the difference of 750 EUR, but I am glad that I did not depend on that single client. In fact, the client brings me less than 10% of my yearly income. It won’t hurt me if I just quit working with him.

    It has always been a good policy for me to maintain 7 to 21 regular clients, direct or indirect, with income contributions of each from 2% to 15%, with 2 exceptions at most. This policy has been helping me maintaining my self-esteem and the self-esteem of my clients in the last 12 years. Power balance is the name of the game, I guess.

  4. “It has always been a good policy for me to maintain 7 to 21 regular clients, direct or indirect, with income contributions of each from 2% to 15%, with 2 exceptions at most.”

    That is exactly my modus operandi too. On some years a single client can represent about 20 percent of my income if I work on a major project for them, but next year it is a different client.

  5. - To which I would only add the benefits of placing one’s eggs in several different countries’ baskets. Not only to counterbalance currency risks — it also seems to help with work flow.

  6. [...] Недавно один англоязычный коллега написал заметку о том, насколько мы заменимы в глазах наших кли…. Те, кто не ценит свой труд и работает за минимальные [...]

    • @Olga

      I tried to “like” your post in Russian after I read it but WordPress would not let me. It kept asking me to create a WordPress profile while refusing to accept my existing profile.

  7. [...] Only two types of people on planet Earth are irreplaceable: 1. Our parents 2. Our children Anybody else, including our spouses, can be replaced, although this usually requires a complicated, very e…  [...]

  8. Oh dear, you left out #3, Our siblings. I take it you’re an only child?

    And yes, totally agree with you on the replaceability of clients with bad attitudes or poor paying practices. I make it a habit to save religiously when the going is good so I don’t panic when (not if) the flow of jobs from a high-value client suddenly dries up. It sucks, but c’est la vie.

  9. […] Недавно один англоязычный коллега написал заметку о том, насколько мы заменимы в глазах наших кли…. Те, кто не ценит свой труд и работает за минимальные […]


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