The freelancer translator's guide to surviving bad clients

by OFER TIROSH 19/07/2017
The freelancer translator's guide to surviving bad clients

If you’ve been working freelance for a while, then chances are you’ve come across a bad client or two in your time. Professional translation is no more immune to clients who chop and change their requirements, or who don’t pay their bills, than any other profession. 

When you work freelance, any time wasted on dealing with bad clients is time that can’t be spent earning. That’s why bad clients can be so costly to freelancers. It’s also why we’ve taken the time to look at some of the most common problems that freelancers experience with their clients and what you can do to try and reduce the impact of those issues, should you encounter them. 

Clients who don’t pay

Freelancers the world over struggle with clients who don’t pay. The World’s Longest Invoice invites freelancers to state how much they are owed in unpaid bills. So far, the total comes to well over $4 million. 

There are various ways you can try to protect yourself from clients who don’t pay. Working through an online jobs market such as Upwork is one option. You will lose as much as 20% of the translation job rate to the platform, but for some freelancers this is more than worth the cost of knowing that payment for the work is guaranteed. Check the terms and conditions of individual online jobs platforms to see how you can guarantee payment. 

If you’ve already done the work and sent the invoice, of course, then it’s time to take decisive action. After your initial deadline for payment has passed, send a polite email asking for payment. If successive requests for payment go unanswered, perhaps reach out to the company via its social media accounts. This can sometimes work to speed up the payment being made. 

As a next step, you can take advantage of the wide availability of payment demand templates available online. These range from stern initial requests to final, pre-claim demands. 

If that doesn’t work, your local small claims court may be the way forward – but the cost of the process (and the time taken to complete it) may rule this out. At some point, you’ll need to make a call on whether or not it’s time to chalk the unpaid bill up to experience and move on. 

Clients who change their requirements

Clients who are vague about their requirements and then chop and change their minds about what they want done every other day can be frustrating to work with. If you’re working on an hourly rate, the irritation is somewhat easier to bear, but for fixed price jobs it can be a real issue. 

If you have a client who keeps moving the goal posts, be sure to take firm approach. Explain that time is being lost as a result of the project’s frequent changes and ask for clarity on the way forward so that any further changes can be avoided. If the client’s dithering is turning into a real time drain, you are also well within your rights to explain that any further changes will result in additional costs for the completion of the work. The prospect of a larger bill is often enough to reduce the client’s procrastination significantly. And if they continue to change their mind about what’s required, at least you know you’ll end up earning more as a result!

Clients who demand short deadlines

Expectations vary greatly from client to client. Some will allow you plenty of time to complete your translation work in peace. Others will demand that work be completed to ridiculously tight deadlines – usually when you’re already working flat out to finish a job for another client. 

There are a couple of ways that you can deal with clients who always push for short deadlines. One is to work extra hours in order to meet the deadline and to charge them a ‘rush translation cost’ to cover the inconvenience. 

Another option is to issue clients with a terms of service document, which can include information around how long it takes to complete certain tasks. They then have a clear, written indication of what they can and can’t expect from you. 

Sometimes, as a freelancer, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to clients. While undertaking a job to a short deadline might sometimes be appropriate, remember that it is up to you and you alone to set expectations for each client. If you start out by showing a willingness to work evenings and weekends, don’t be surprised if the client comes to expect that from you routinely! 

Clients who don’t communicate

Some clients seem to vanish off the face of the Earth the moment they’ve assigned you a translation job. Delayed answers to queries can really hold up a project, yet some clients just don’t seem to see the urgency of responding to your messages. 

If you’re faced with a client who’s gone incommunicado, firstly try reaching out to them in other ways. If they’re not answering emails, then pick up the phone, or perhaps try and make contact on social media. If nothing works, you may have to make a few decisions about how your queries should be dealt with in order to move forward with the work. In that case, summarise your approach in writing and send it to the client. You can then progress with the work and the onus is on the client to contact you if something you’ve said you will do doesn’t fit with their expectations. 

Clients can go quiet for all sorts of reasons. Your messages could be in their Junk folder, they could just be terrible at managing their Inbox, a family crisis could have arisen, or perhaps they just forgot to mention they would be on holiday for a week. Usually the problem resolves itself fairly swiftly. If not, be aware of how much time you are committing to the job in question – and think about whether the client is going to be as hard to get hold of at bill payment time as they have been during the project. If so, it might be time to head back to the top of this article and brush up on what to do! 

Final thoughts

What has been your worst client experience while providing freelance translation services? What do you do differently as a result of that situation? Leave a comment to let us know. 

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