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

Monday, 31 March 2014

Be(com)ing Responsive — Picking up the Calls (or Losing the Jobs)

Lack of responsiveness was also mentioned as a negative trait in outside law firms.
“When I contact you, I want to hear from you as soon as possible,” said Robertson.
“Immediate is perfect. Two hours is great. Longer than 24 hours is not acceptable.”
[Janet Ellen Raasch, Panelists tackle the perennial question: What do general counsel want? 5/26/2010 @ JD SUPRA]
I should probably first explain the background of this quotation a little. Lawyers work in a field which is similar to ours. They offer highly specialised services which are often incomprehensible to and misunderstood by the clients. Like here, their clients are usually not prepared to evaluate the quality of their work, so the focus is on client service. Corporate counsel are qualified lawyers, but they are quite susceptible to becoming — or becoming seen as — legal managers rather. In this they are somewhat similar to agency owners and managers (e.g. vendor managers, project managers) who may have some sort of a linguistic background and experience without necessarily being normal active translators. On the other hand, some may be very acutely aware of all the intricacies of the job that needs to be done. This is a bit of an individual matter.

In short, corporate chief counsel (or Chief Legal Officers and similar positions) are to lawyers more or less what agencies, publishing houses and their various project or vendor managers are to us. Thus, for a lawyer that wants to get corporate work it's important to know the general counsel's side of things, just like translators really should listen to agencies and PM's more (it probably comes easier to listen to one's very own direct clients).

From my own practical experience, I can definitely say that a translator does lose business for not picking up calls as they come or returning the ASAP, or for not keeping track of all the incoming incoming mail — as difficult as it is to concentrate on delivering a highly focused, high-quality work amid all the ringing and beeping.

While extreme urgency is more characteristic of the 'bottom-feeding' segments of the market, legitimate rush may still exist among more reasonable business clients. We aren't the only profession affected by the fast pace of business these days. Lawyers in particularly can be hit pretty hard with anachronistic litigation deadlines in some jurisdictions, which make no account of the complexity and sheer size of individual cases. For doctors getting hit pretty hard is probably the daily (or nightly) standard. IT support specialists are probably in a much similar position to our own, given the similarity of our roles.

In short, clients sometimes need fast decisions. (Which is not the same as fast turnover on the job.) And they need the security of being certain that the job will actually be done. Getting in touch with you is not just the simple matter of a delayed confirmation. The client is aware — possibly already on the basis of your existing history together — that you may not always have the time to do the job when the two of you do finally get in touch. Hence is nothing is certain yet, or secure, from the client's perspective.

Your clients may root for you, but they still ride for their own company, not for yours*. And that is by no means egotic or self-serving on their part. On the contrary, everybody's responsibility is for the well-being of his own organisation first and foremost. Employees and employers, and shareholders, usually come before favourite business partners and vendors. The reverse could be unethical or even illegal.

Your clients or contacts have ethical and legal obligations which they need to meet, and they can't play friends at the expense of those important obligations. You may be a lawyer's or a doctor's best friend but what if the lawyer's client will lose the case or the doctor's patient his life or limb? First things first.

In other words, for something so basic it is remarkably hard to realise (or at least it was to me) that your client is not your agent who is out there to get you jobs*. You may be tempted to see it that way when you regard the client as someone whom you have drawn over to your camp, 'converted' as the marketers say, and so on. On the contrary, your client is out there to see jobs down for his own company or organisation.

Unless you and your client are somewhat close — which generally needs to be earned and even then requires an extra something beyond normal good service — he doesn't even necessarily perceive any particular need to see you earn the money rather than someone else. There is nothing devious or sinister in this. In fact, not getting paid for a service you didn't do is a fair exchange, more balanced than many of the exchanges translators make all the time in jobs they do get. Not receiving an opportunity is an equitable exchange for not being disturbed with inquiries.

In fact, your client may even be that reasonable, forgiving person who understands you may be too busy to pick up the call and does not want to add another piece to your existing pile. Such a client does not expect you to clone yourself and manage the phone full-time just as you work on all those jobs you have. He does understand that, as a freelancer, you have other clients too, other jobs. No hard feelings, even happy for your business success and good luck by all means! But still the job needs to be done and someone needs to do it. If you can't, someone else just has to.

We can't really deny the logic of the above. Moreover, if a translator is too busy to pick up calls, he is also — in all likelihood — too busy to do any sort of urgent job or perhaps even analyse the task and prepare the quotation for something less urgent. Right? (So yeah, also be somewhat mindful whenever you tell a client how awfully overworked you are or the client just might cut you more slack than you'd really wish for.)

Bottom line, if you aren't there, especially after another call or two, even a well-meaning, favourably predisposed client will:


  1. opt for a safer solution, or
  2. a quicker conclusion, or
  3. do you a favour by not piling up any more stuff on your busy head (without knowing how much getting that job may mean to you).


Naturally, you can't be both translating and talking on the phone or checking and answering mail all the time. If you're particularly well established — or just affluent enough to afford the expense — you could perhaps hire an assistant if your clients will be okay with you. But responsiveness is also in the personal touch. Being routed through your assistant can (but does not need to) reduce the personal touch and make the connection more distant.

You may need to look for a solution that works in the unique circumstances you and your clients share together — for example discuss your communication channels in detail, adjust your habits for the client's convenience, set aside some fixed time for getting in touch if necessary, promise to answer mail within a set number of hours or always at a certain time in the evening or morning. Hire an assistant if you can afford one and being routed through one won't make your client relationships more distance.

Also remember that part of a freelance translator's responsiveness is in the direct, non-bureaucractic contact. If the clients wanted to deal with a bureaucratic wall and resistance of matter, they'd be talking to a computerised agency and getting processed by bots. In fact, agencies are already harder-pressed than translators to provide responsive, enthusiastic and all-round client-centred (even client-centric) service.

If you really like their jobs, I suppose there's no harm in telling your clients just that, as long as you don't come off too desperate. Appearing too eager or too need could send the message that your prices could be negotiated down somewhat or that you could be made to compete a bit harder on non-price parameters such as deadlines or technical aspects you normally avoid being responsible for.

The bright side, especially for younger, beginning translators, is that many jobs are won simply by being there and being available, for example when your more experienced and better-paid colleagues are not.

I will write about other aspects of being responsive later. If you found this article useful, you may also be interested in the other one I wrote today on a related subject: Be Pragmatic! (to Some Extent), which discusses the idea of not allowing rigid habits to stand between a translator and his clients and jobs. A while ago I posted What Does a Lawyer Need from You?. Knowing your clients' needs, and showing that you somehow know what to do with the knowledge, is also an aspect of responsiveness (you can't respond to something you don't know).


* Apologies if I sound slightly on the brusque side. My intention is not to be cocky but to explain the concept in plain words for real-life application.

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