Are you saying no enough?

This week I was reading a post by a fellow blogger and translator, Olga Arakelyan, about the 10 worst mistakes she made as a translator, and number 6 “I couldn’t say no to clients” resonated with me. Naturally, not saying no was not my only mistake, but it is one with which I have been struggling for over 13 years. Today, I want to share a few lessons that I learned from saying “no” more often.

When should we say no?

  • When a job does not pay a fee that we consider reasonable. In my post about setting rates, I discuss how there should be some flexibility in terms of pricing. Of course, we will have to negotiate sometimes, but you should set a minimum threshold under which you will not work.
  • When a job has an unreasonable deadline. You will have to work overnight, over the weekend and just barely have enough time to deliver the job. This is a disaster waiting to happen, believe me, just say no.
  • When a job is not within your area of expertise and you are not comfortable that the time available to do it will allow you to research it properly and deliver your customary high quality work. Again, another disaster waiting to happen!

These are straightforward reasons, so…

Why do we fail to say no?

When we start a career as freelance translators, most of us do not know much about business, let alone about a freelancing translation business. This means that we have to learn as we go, mostly from trial and error. We often start, like many businesses, without clients or with very few clients and have to build a client base from there. In this process, we will learn about website design, marketing, social media, etc. We will play every role in our business, from admin to strategic planning. However, what we are at heart is translators and what we really want to do is translate. Therefore, it is very easy to use the very purpose of our business as an excuse to take any job – i.e. “it is best to be translating than not doing anything or not making any money at all.” I have fallen into that trap repeatedly. Many times, I have accepted jobs just because “I was not doing anything that day” or “It was good practice and I learned a lot”.

Another excuse that we use to take any job – when I say any job I mean jobs outside our area of expertise, with unreasonable deadlines or underpaid – is that we cannot afford the luxury of picking and choosing our clients, at least not yet. This is a tricky excuse because it seems very valid and, when we are struggling to make ends meet, sometimes we feel like there is no other way. Naturally, it is our business and ultimately you will do what we need to do, but I will tell you in the next part of this post why perhaps you should really consider saying no and taking that chance.

Finally, we “feel sorry” for our clients. Particularly with long-term clients and project managers, when they are desperate, because they “need something translated by tomorrow,” or “you are the only person they trust to do the job at such short notice,” or “unfortunately their budget is very limited for this project, but they really want the job done by you,” or whatever it is they tell you, you feel like you cannot say no. You feel like they need you and it would be bad customer service to say no. After all, we should “go the extra mile” for our clients.

In my experience, the above are the three main reasons why we struggle to say no, but…

What are the downfalls of not saying no enough?

  • Whenever the quality of your work suffers, your business as a whole suffers. Whether you work with agencies, direct clients or both, repeat business and referrals will always depend on the quality of your work, your timeliness and your professionalism. Accepting a job with an unreasonable deadline is a recipe for disaster, because you will be working in a hurry, tired and, as with any work that requires attention to detail, will be likely to make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of any service provided by humans, but when clients pay you for a service, even if it is a rush job or a low rate, they assume that if you accepted it, you will deliver a job to the standard they expect from you. Hence, do not expect them to be OK with your mistakes, because you took a rush job from them, even if you did it to “help them”. This happened to me once with a translation agency; the project manager begged me to take on this translation for the next day, because there was no one else, etc. I told him, I would do my best, but the deadline was tight and it would be difficult. In the end, I managed to do the job to a high standard, but was late ten minutes. He discounted 30% of my pay because the agency’s policy was to penalize translators for delays. I was furious, of course! I only took the job to “help him”, I busted my ass trying to get it done to the quality expected of me, and I was only late 10 minutes. The result was that I lost 30% of my fee, ended up arguing with the PM and it did not make any difference. I had signed an agreement and, ultimately, he was entitled to enforce their policy. My relationship with this agency was dented. The incident left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth. Until then, I had worked with this agency for at least 3 years and had never had a late job. The result of me trying to “help them” was that I lost some of my earnings, my reputation with them suffered and our working relationship as a whole was made worse, not better. Even when a client is aware that the quality of a job may suffer due to a tight deadline, no client will ever be happy to find mistakes, or to have a delayed delivery on a job that they are paying for. Hence, you do yourself no favours by accepting such jobs. The upside of being a freelancer is being able to pick and choose, so do just that and let someone else take the fall for a poor job, or let your client juggle things around to find you a better deadline.

  • We work in a global industry, working from home over the Internet – as many of us do – means that we have clients everywhere in the world and our competition is also global. Hence, becoming known and reputable takes time, but losing a client and potentially your reputation only takes one bad job. Finding clients in a global arena broadens our scope, but also creates some challenges. It is not easy for clients to background check us, it is not easy for us to stand out in a pile of CVs from all over the world and building relationships takes longer.  In practice, this means two things 1) we do not want to have to find new clients every week, we want those who take a chance on us to stays with us for all their translation needs in our language pair and 2) we want to be able to develop a reputation that is verifiable. Having these two things is gold in our business and we should value them above immediate earnings, because our clients will value and reward us for it. Hence, resist the temptation of accepting any jobs that might jeopardize your reputation. If you want to be in this business for the long run, be humble and accept when something is beyond your scope of knowledge. Clients will not think less of you for it, they will respect your for being professional.

  • You do not have time to run your business. Again, it is easy to fall into the trap of “at least I am translating” and overlook the fact that for you to be able to continue translating in the long-term your business needs to thrive as a business. Sometimes, the small fee that you will make from a job, however tempting it may be, may be preventing you from finding a new client who could award you a much bigger job. In addition, your administrative tasks must be handled. When I used to manage a team of translators working for me, we had a policy that by a certain date they had to submit their invoices for a particular month in order to ensure timely payment. Month after month, I was astonished at how many of them simply forgot to invoice me. You have already done the work; you need to be paid for it! Your business should run in a way that you are paid for every job you complete. You make zero money if you take a small new job instead of taking the time to invoice a job that you have already completed, you may actually lose money, which is stupid, for lack of a better word.

  • You have no time to study and learn. Researching, reading, building your pool of resources are all part of developing yourself as a translator. These things should be incorporated into your routine and regarded as just as important as translating itself. There are computer-assisted technologies being launched all the time, new resources available online and offline, classes, books, etc. These are all things that you need to keep up with in order to continue offering high quality services to your clients and to continue developing professionally. Furthermore, sometimes your mind needs a break and some inspiration that does not come from frantically translating. These activities are not to be left for your free time; they are essential to your business and should be regarded and prioritized as such.

In short, make a list of things that are worth saying no for and stick to them. You can also make a list of things that are worth saying yes to and stick to them. If you have set parameters for how you operate, it is easier to make these decisions when situations present themselves and your business can only grow from having a clear direction. Good luck!

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