Posted by: patenttranslator | August 9, 2014

Not Every Customer Is Worth Having and Keeping


A very perceptive person said once that although our lives may seem to us to be full of chaos and confusion and nothing seems to make any sense, when we later look back at our life, we suddenly realize that everything has been unfolding like a finely crafted novel according to an invisible plan.

With the benefit of hindsight we suddenly see that what at the time appeared as chaos and randomness was really just a logical continuation of the sum of our previous thoughts, aspirations and most importantly: actions.

That is why I have always believed that it is important to have a plan. Not necessarily for everything, but certainly for everything that is important. And often, in addition to having a plan A, it is best to also have a plan B, and sometime even plan C – just in case.

It is usually best to keep your plans, future, present and past, to yourself. For example, should your spouse ask you:”Why did you marry me?”, it is generally not a good idea to answer by saying “Well, darling, you were my plan B”, even though it might be true. I am mentioning this example because to my surprise, I met quite a few people who told me that they married their plan B. It seems to be a common phenomenon and these types of marriages often work out just fine.


So now that we have established the importance of a good plan for important things, let’s get back to the subject of translation. What is your plan for the future of your translating business? Or do you even have one?

If you don’t have one because like most people, you live your life day by day and don’t spend much time on idle thoughts about your future, perhaps you should. In the immortal words of Terence McKenna, “If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody’s else’s plan.”

The thing is, once we allow other people to make us part of their plan, we have to live with the decisions that they will make on our behalf. If you are a self-employed translator, I am talking about decisions such as how much you will be paid for your work, how long you will have to wait for the payment, what kind of obligatory discounts may be squeezed from you on top of a low rate, and what kind of recourse will you have, if any, should somebody decide not to pay you at all.

Most translators are self-employed and thus they have no unions. There are various organizations called associations and unions of translators purporting to represent freelance translators in various countries, but as far as I can tell, for the most part these associations represent mostly the interests of these translation agencies, not of the translators.

But self-employed translators also have advantages that are often not found in other professions. For example if you want to build houses, you will have to first secure all kinds of permissions from your local government and deposit a bond that may cost tens of thousands of dollars. The same is true for example also about hairdressers who want to open a new hair salon, or car mechanics who want to open a new car shop.

They need capital, usually a lot of capital to start a new business. If they don’t have capital, and most people don’t, their only option is to sell their labor to en existing business on an hourly basis.

But in some occupations, you don’t need much capital, if any, as just about the only thing that you will need to start your own business is a generic business license from your local City Hall. Your skill is your capital. There are many creative occupations and businesses on a very small scale providing specialized services, such as translators, web designers, writers, artists, violin makers, etc. The City Hall has not figured out yet how to tax them out of existence – although I am sure that they are working very hard on it.

The commodity that these kinds of occupations need is even more precious than capital, namely customers.

Because the decisions that you will make when you are trying to identify your customers and later find your customers and start working for them will for the most part predetermine the unfolding of the invisible plan upon which the rest of your life will be based, these decisions are about as important as deciding who to marry.

Just like potential husbands and wives, potential customers can be also divided into several categories. After all, if things work out, you may have to live with them for a long time, and given that you will need an income, it may be difficult to divorce them. And just like every available bachelor or bachelorette is not necessarily marriage material, not everybody who has work for you is necessarily good customer material.

Category A Customer

A customer who belongs to category A is somebody who is looking exactly for what you have and what you are eager to offer, and who is for that reason willing to enter into an exclusive (or almost exclusive as the case may be) relationship with you. If you find such a customer, and you actually need several of them, it could be a marriage made in heaven.

Your ideal customer will depend on what kind of translation you specialize in, but given the services that I am offering, my best customers have always been patent law firms. Small or medium size is preferred – the large ones are much less desirable because they tend to leave me after a few years and trade me in for a younger (I mean cheaper) model. But there are exceptions. I used to translate a lot of Japanese patents for one huge multinational corporation at very good rates for about 12 years before they traded me in about 5 years ago. They might have created their own corporate translation agency, or they might have outsourced their translation to cheaper countries, I have no idea. I was bitter for a while, but I got over it. It is important not to become too dependent on these kinds of customers because they can dump you any time. But as the saying goes, there is more than one fish in the ocean.

Category B Customer

This would be a small, specialized translation agency, preferably one that has been in business for many years. Unlike a corporate translation agency that is based on the sweatshop model, category B customers pay better rates, although not nearly as good as category A customers. But they usually pay fast, faster than category A, and they have a wider variety of work because they cast their nets wider than patent law firms. For example, yesterday I was translating for a category B customer from 4 languages (in 1 day!): from Japanese, Russian, Czech and German, documents dealing with very different subjects that have nothing to do with patents. I really like patents, but after almost 30 years, the chemical formulas and compositions of “preferred embodiments” can get a little bit boring.

Category C Customer

These are translators who run their businesses basically the same way I run mine and who need me every now and then to cover another language. They pay the same rates as category B customers and they usually pay fast. The main difference here is that they usually don’t have as much work for me because they mostly translate themselves the languages that they know. Sometime it is difficult to tell the difference between category B and category C customers, and sometime a category C customer eventually becomes category B when there is so much work in other languages.

Category F Customer

I don’t have a category D or E customers, as everything that does not belong to A, B, or C is to me category F. These are customers who in my opinion are clearly not worth having. I used to work for them in the past, but fortunately, I don’t need them anymore. The modern corporate translation agency type is a good example of a customer that I would not want to have. It is only common sense that most of the large translation agencies, such as those that are listed by Common Sense Advisory, belong to the kind of customer that is best to avoid. They might have some or even a lot of work for me, but at what I would consider substandard rates, and they usually pay late. Even if it is clearly stated in a contract that the payment terms are 30 days net, it is usually a lie because you will have to wait 6 to 7 weeks before the check finally arrives.

A special feature of the plan for my own translation business is making sure that I will not be part of the plans of customers belonging to category F. For example, I always politely respond to e-mails of potential customers who would fall into one of my categories A through C, even if I know that I cannot provide the kind of service that they are looking for, whatever the reason.

But I simply rudely ignore e-mails from category F of potential customers, although I generally receive several inquiries from them about my availability just about every week.

I am happy to say that category F of customers no longer belong to my plan A, B, or even C for the rest of my professional life. They would just bring too much chaos and confusion into the invisible plan for the rest of my life and instead of an interesting, finely crafted novel that is full of delightful surprises, they would turn it into a tale of misery and suffering.


  1. Hello Steve. I came across your Blog a few weeks ago and have to say I really enjoy your posts. Keep ’em coming! Cheers, Matt.


  2. Nice analogy between customers and spouses, Steve. However, it has its limits: polygamy is a necessary requisite in the former, but may be inadvisable in the latter.

    I’d say most of my customers fall into your B category, which works well for me. I must admit that I work for one agency that belongs to your don’t-touch-with-a-bargepole category because it’s in the top 50 of the list you link to. But it pays a very decent rate, has fantastic project managers who stay at the agency year in, year out, and it pays like clockwork on the last day of the month.

    So you see, not all mega-translation agencies belong to your F category.


  3. Hi Emma:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I suppose you had a good reason not to name the big agency that is the exception to the rule.


    • Not really, Steve. Telelingua is the exception to the rule.


  4. Thanks. I will reformulate the relevant sentence in my post and if they e-mail me, I will not ignore them.


    • You probably wouldn’t have ignored them in any case, Steve, because their introductory email would start with your actual name, not just “Dear translator…”.
      That alone speaks volumes.


      • I do ignore e-mails from big agencies who have a bad reputation among translators even when they actually know my name.

        I also always ignore e-mails in which I am asked for my “best rate” in exchange for a promise of a lot of work in the future.


  5. I don’t categorize my clients based on the type, i.e., translation and non-translation agencies, but on the rate. As cliche as it sounds, agencies offering low rate are the most problematic, and not worth keeping.


  6. I can’t argue with that.


  7. Spot on Steve.


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