This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Alternative Solution to Houston Baggage Complaint — Moving Complaint Desk Farther Instead

A while ago Houston airport faced a huge volume of complaints about baggage wait times. According to NewYork Times's article, the cause of the problem was psychological, as was the solution. Namely, it boiled down to a very short walking distance from arrival gates to baggage claim, resulting in about seven minutes of passive waiting for the baggage to come, after one minute of walking. Eventually, instead of assigning more employees or upgrading the machines, the management decided to move baggage claim farther away from arrival gates. Now passengers walked seven minutes and waited only one minute. Complaints stopped coming. This may look a little cynical to you — 'complaints stopped coming', like it's all that matters. However, I wish to stress that the clients' psychological well-being improved and the problem they had been experiencing before disappeared.

I suppose we could adapt this experience for translators' business needs — rearrange the process to eliminate idle or otherwise more odious waiting periods in favour of something more agreeable and make the clients feel better. So for example ask what deadlines they need as opposed to decreeing a schedule. Name longer deadlines and sometimes deliver early rather than giving them shorter deadlines but sometimes failing to deliver. Do not unnecessarily teach them to expect a fast turnover only to disappoint them when your bookings become a bit more complicated. And make rush fees look like compensation for your hard and dedicated work rather than a penalty for their bad scheduling (or especially for things they have no control over).

All valid points, but that's not what I wanted to talk about.

When I first came across the Houston story I was shown a 'meme' which I looked at in a cursory fashion and misinterpreted as suggesting that Houston airport management moved baggage complaint farther away from baggage claim. Or perhaps it was a satire. I don't remember. Anyway, with more walking distance between baggage claim and baggage complain people would trouble themselves if they cared enough about an issue to walk a couple of minutes to bring it up with the staff. Most notably, impatient individuals would not be tempted to vent their frustration at a complaint desk situated right whey there were waiting, right when the waiting started feeling too long. I associated that mental image with a certain problem we face in the translation business.

Like in any other professional service market, clients are not normally qualified to judge the merits of our work, only perhaps the quality of service associated with it. There is a reason why they need a translator in the first place, just like there is a reason why they need a lawyer when there is a lawsuit or a doctor when there's a bug that won't go away on its own.

To assess accurately the quality of a professional's work takes a lot of focused learning which normally only specialists have accomplished. And they accomplished all that because it was supposed to become their job and the source of their livelihood, in which they later gained practical experience and so on, which makes all the incentive. They clients may well have made a similar investment but in a different field, one in which they are competent and their doctor or lawyer or translator (etc.) is not.

Unlike lawyers and doctors, however, linguists generally seem to encourage clients to try and directly evaluate translation anyway. Many take their belief that the client is always right so far that — in their mind — the client is not only always right about the facts stated or the needs stated or even the quality of service received, but actually about the quality of the translator's work. And there not even only style and preferential matters but also about things such as actual errors. Or failure to have done this or that which was their obligation to do, as opposed to a simple difference of opinion. Some clients are assertive enough to push a translator in that kind of frame of mind.

This said, however, the typical client does not even necessarily wish to become involved in such a manner. Some clients expressly wish to be kept out of anything too directly connected with your translation work. This is something I realised all the more strongly when reading an old blog post by my colleague Marta Stelmaszak that's not even available on her website any more (or at least I can't find it). She got a direct client to talk — or she played the role convincingly herself (I don't remember, it was long ago) — and the result was to the tune of (I'm paraphrasing)

I know about clothes selling, not about translation. I don't want to be solving translation problems. You deal with them.

In fact, the client may experience decreasing confidence in his translator — because te translator does not, apparently, feel confident enough in his own professional field. The client may thus be led to think:

Why again am I paying those guys if they need me to solve their own translation riddles for them which they supposedly went to some school to learn and I did not?

Awful, isn't it. Well. If you need a qualified opinion, ask a translator colleague. If you need a lot of such opinion or need to make it more formal — talk your client into hiring an editor (not because you're bad but because team work brings better results). If you want unqualified opinion, ask your spouse or non-translator friend (and such opinions have value because they are often closer to what the target audience may think like). But don't ask your client or project manager or agency boss unless you really know what you are doing.

(Or unless your contract is such that you are the translation workforce but the agency takes responsibility for the final outcome and the editor is effectively your supervisor — which is, by the way, not at all shameful to admit and a good arrangement when you prefer to gain some experience in a more controlled environment first before taking larger responsibilities on your shoulders. And also the arrangement you should seek if you feel insecure.)

Probably the most obvious manifestation of the problem we're discussing here are the so called 'free rewrites' requested often by arbitrarily dissatisfied clients guided by their own preference rather than objective standards or at least previously communicated requiremens, and sometimes encouraged by tolerant or meek or hard-pressed agencies.

If you don't want your workload to include a lot of free rewrites don't pursue client feedback and satisfaction guarantees so aggressively, especially don't invite the client's input where the client is not really in the best position to contribute constructively. Don't make your client your reviewer and final arbiter. The client may not like it, and you may not like the results. It's hard to project the appearance of a confident and respected professional if just about any somewhat educated person is better qualified to do the job you've spent decades learning and doing.


Be responsive, of course, but don't shove your clients straight to your complaint desk. Don't encourage a negative mindset. Don't ask for constructive feedback when their emotional balance is temporarily a little off. Don't solicit unqualified opinions about the quality of your work or they will give you just that and start thinking that you really need their guidance.

Rather ask what else you could do for your client (and I'd make it new areas or types of service rather than added services or the kind of added value that only pretends to be 'added' while it really drives the price or interest) or even what you could better (and yeah, what you could do better rather than what you're doing wrong), but only where the client is not unqualified to give you an assessment. Don't put your client in a position of being hard-pressed to find a quarrel in a straw. Or you'll get just that.

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