I think it was Shakespeare who said that love has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But, be that as it may, so does arrogance. Shakespeare probably said as much too, in another play.
Everyone who has been in business for a while can probably remember a few customers who were very difficult to deal with due to their shameless arrogance and hubris.
The case of one particularly arrogant SOB, owner of a small translation agency, is still vivid in my memory, although the event that I will now describe happened about 25 years ago and this particular person died about 10 years ago – the agency is now run by a relative of his. I am being intentionally vague here … after all, as they used to say in ancient Rome – de mortuis nihil nisi bene [nothing unless good things should be said about the dead]. Since I can’t think of anything good to say about this man, I will instead not disclose his identity in deference to the old and wise rule about how to speak about those who are no longer with us.
I was translating for his agency Japanese patents back then regularly for quite a few months. Every time when I would finish one batch, they would send me another one, by Federal Express, because this was in 1988 or 89, before the Internet. And they would then regularly mail me a check after a month or so. Until at one point, when the agency owed me close to three thousand dollars, no check arrived to my mailbox even after about 6 weeks.
So I called the agency to politely inquire what happened. I normally dealt with a project manager there who was always very pleasant and polite, but since she had no idea what happened, she said she would let me talk to the owner. Within seconds after I explained to him again that I was calling because I had not received payment yet for my work, he said, while raising his voice to an unpleasant pitch:”What are you insinuating? We mailed the check to you two weeks ago!”
Insinuating? I was “insinuating” that I needed the money because I had a bunch of unpaid bills on my desk. But I was trying to be polite, although it was hard for me to control my anger at being treated this way. So he said that he would look into it. Next day he called and said that after checking with his bank, it turned out that the check that was (allegedly) mailed two weeks ago indeed had not cleared yet.
I knew that, of course, and he too must have known that I knew that – otherwise I would not be asking about it, unless it somehow slipped my mind that I already got the money and deposited the three thousand dollars, right?
He then magnanimously offered to send me another check, by Federal Express this time, but only if I agreed to pay the bank cancellation charge for the first, phantom check, and also the FedEx charge. I accepted, of course – what else was I supposed to do? But inside I was seething with anger.
I received the new check, minus the two charges, next day. And lo and behold, a few days later the phantom check did turn up in my mail. The postmark on the envelope was two weeks old, but I didn’t know whether the letter was really in the mail for more than two weeks. It was certainly possible. But it was also quite possible that he only mailed it two days ago because the postage was printed on a mailing machine in his office and he could probably change the date on the machine quite easily, or print an envelope and then sit on it until he himself got paid.
Maybe he found a brilliant technique that he invented to make translators wait for their money one more month while being able to humiliate them to his heart’s content, and yet appearing completely blameless for the delay.
An although I will never know for sure, I think that this was what was really going on.
A few days after that, the pleasant project manager called me again from the office of this unpleasant man. (Incidentally, I found out by Googling her name that she now has her own translation agency). She told me that she was about to send more Japanese patents for translation to me, and seemed genuinely surprised when I told her that I would never work again for her company because I did not appreciate the way I was treated by her boss. “He can be a bit gruff”, she admitted as she was trying to no avail to soften me up to accept a new job.
Although there would be later quite a few of similar cases when I was treated like a piece of garbage by a dear customer, I am not going to try to list all of those that I remember.
Most of them are not seared permanently in my memory as the first one is anyway, probably because that was the first case when I was treated in such a manner by a customer. A good thing about our memory is that we tend to remember the good things more than the bad things that happened to us, especially from the time when we were much younger.
So I will now fast forward 25 years to another example of the many faces of arrogance. This one is from October, 2014, a little over two months ago. Every week I get a few requests to submit a price quote from people who find my website while looking for a translation of a patent from Japanese, German, French, Russian, or another language. I give them a price, based on the estimated word count in English, and sometime I get the job, and sometime I don’t.
When one of the customers who sent me one of those requests to bid in October told me by e-mail to go ahead with the translation, I started doing a little due diligence to find out who they were.
I have different rules for different customers when it comes to accepting a translation. If it is a private individual, I generally ask for a down payment of 50%, and when the translation is done, I e-mail them that the job is ready for delivery upon payment of the remaining balance to my PayPal account.
But when it is a translation agency, or for example a corporation or a law firm, I simply bill them and hope to get eventually paid after 30 days, because that is how these things are done.
From the look of their website, this customer was a major patent law firm in Holland, with dozens of patent lawyers. I was dealing (by e-mail only) with a “trainee patent attorney” at the firm, but since I had all the requisite contact information, the e-mail, phone and fax number, mailing address and the file case number, and the law firm seemed solid, I did not ask for down payment and I did not use the routine that I reserve for private individuals who are completely unknown to me. A few days later I delivered my translation, which was received with thanks, along with my invoice.
When no payment was received after five weeks, I sent them my first reminder. That is my standard operating procedure. Then a second one a week later. It is not unusual when the first reminder is ignored. But when I send a second one, the customer usually responds with some kind of a face saving excuse, such as “the checks for the last batch were already cut, we will pay you with the next batch”. That is mostly what large companies do, while small companies sometime say things like “my accountant is on vacation, so you will have to wait a little longer”.
But there was no response at all this time. So I tried to fax and e-mail at the same time. But their fax for some reason did not want to “shake hands” with my fax, it just kept on ringing. I did eventually get an automated response to my e-mail from the trainee patent attorney who placed the order which said that she was going to be away until the end of January. Since that e-mail also had the contact phone numbers and e-mails of two other attorneys on “her team for emergencies”, I sent my third, fourth, and fifth past-due invoice reminders (I always number them) to all of them and I tried to call them to find out what was going on.
At first, my telephone calls went straight to voice mail, which had not identifying information whatsoever other than the telephone number. The fifth time when I tried to contact them, the phone numbers just kept ringing, just like the fax, and there was no answer.
So here I thought that I was pretty safe because I had all the contact information that I needed to demand payment from the company, but it seemed that there was nobody to contact. Even the mailing address was just a P.O. Box number. So I e-mailed as well as mailed my fifth past-due invoice reminder to all the three attorneys and adjusted the amount of my receivables downward by reducing it by about a thousand dollars, because that was the amount the law firm owed me and I did not know whether I would ever be reimbursed for my work.
At that point I realized that it was very likely that I would never get paid for this translation. Perhaps the trainee attorney ordered the translation without proper authorization. Or perhaps the company was going bankrupt. Or maybe there was another reason why they were ignoring me, although I could not figure out what that would be.
I decided that I would try to deal with this problem next year, when the trainee attorney who ordered the translation came back to work – if she ever did. In the meantime, I had to concentrate on other translations that had to be taken care of immediately.
Last week when I was checking my bank account balance, I noticed that the available balance was a little higher than what I thought it would be. At first I thought that maybe a translator who did some work for me did not deposit my check yet. But then I saw that my check was received by the translator, but there was a transfer of about a thousand dollars to my account from Holland.
And that was when I realized that the law firm did get all of my reminders, including my voice mails, and the invoices I mailed by snail mail. But in the absence of the trainee patent attorney, nobody wanted to talk to me as I was not important enough to them to let me know what was going on, namely that this company pays in 60 days, regardless of what is on invoices of their “vendors”.
Still, I realized that I got lucky this time. They could for example have gone bankrupt on me, because that is one way how any company can get out of its obligations. In fact I did think that this was most likely what was happening.
They could have saved me a lot of anguish and time with a few words in an e-mail, but why bother. They just let me stew in my own juices instead.
Arrogance has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But maybe arrogance of others is just another test of who we really are. If we can deal with it without losing our cool, and without heaping our own arrogance and hubris onto others, we are on a winning streak in the game of life.
And since money is a good way to keep score and it so happens that I did get my money in both cases described in my two examples of hopefully entertaining and highly educational encounters with arrogance and hubris, both of these examples, one from 25 years ago and one from 2 months ago, were just 2 of countless life lessons which are no doubt meant and designed by a higher power to educate and enlighten us.