Sunday, 21 June 2015

Don't Be Too Hard On Clients Who Ask To Cancel

I don't normally post about ethical issues much, but I'll make an exception for this one. I don't aspire to the role of an ethical expert of moral authority, I just want to share my opinion as a colleague.

Sometimes clients contact you to cancel your work before it's finished.

In some cases they don't want to pay anything for the work you've already done, because they no longer need it, and they don't think they should have to pay for something they don't need.

Well, that's their perspective, which is only one side of the story. Your perspective, which is the other side of the story, is that you've given them your time and skill, and you have a right to be compensated for it. My opinion is that you'd be in your right to charge them for that work (minus polishing if it goes straight to the bin and won't be used)[1] unless you can easily sell the same translation to someone else[2].

But what I really wanted to post about is when you consider charging them for the 100% anyway.

I believe it would be unethical to not do the remaining part of the work but still charge them for it — unless with their consent.

Simply put they have paid for our time. We have sold it to them. It now belongs to them. We can't keep it to ourselves or sell it to someone else any more. One doesn't own what one has already sold. One can't sell more than one actually has. One can't sell the same thing twice — for example we can't just charge that one client for a full day's worth of work the client will not actually receive and then spend that day working for a different client to get paid for it and profit from the cancellation by doubling our earnings for that day.

We could offer to translate something else for the same client within the limits of volume or time already paid for by that client. Or we could credit the time or volume against future projects.

But not charge two different clients for the same time.

Example: Suppose you're paid on a per-day basis for 10 days. The client cancels on the 8th day. It's easy to see that charging the client for all 10 days but spending the last 2 days working for a different client and getting paid for it means getting paid for 12 days after working only 10. This would be ethically sound with the first client's freely given consent, but not as the translator's dictate. Without the client's consent it would be like having one's car stolen and then returned but still claiming compensation from the insurer for the full value of the car (rather than lost enjoyment for some time, cost of checkup, repairs, cleaning etc.).

It isn't really different when the billable unit is word or page — only harder to visualize.

However, even if we simply take an improvised holiday, do completely nothing but just rest and regenerate our strength, then we're still keeping that time to ourselves. It isn't really fair to still charge the client for it and make the unexpected holiday our gain. That would be an unduly translator-centric perspective — just like it was unduly client-centric perspective to pay 0% after cancelling the work midway through as no longer needed.

We could also spend such time doing all sorts of things that need to be done anyway. Invoicing, taxes, administration, marketing, CPD, chores, even house chores — as we need to do those some time or other anyway. In fact, we'll probably end up doing something like this.

Notably, by shuffling our schedule around a bit — moving things to different days or hours — we're making ourselves more available for any future assignments, for which we'll be paid. This means no actual loss is suffered, only the inconvenience of having to adjust the schedule.

Perhaps the inconvenience of having to change our plans should be compensable, but it simply is not the same as actually losing the time we were expecting to sell. This isn't fresh meat or fish rotting because the buyer balked.

Thus, if we also forced the client to pay for our time, we'd effectively be profiting from the same time twice, which is little different from selling the same time to two different buyers.

Back to the insurance example: If we had insurance against cancelled contracts or other loss of work, the insurer would expect us to mitigate the damage by at least looking for different work, or, as an absolute minimum, not turning down viable offers. The insurer would only make up the difference.

The core principle of compensation is that one isn't supposed to profit from accidents. It isn't free lunch for the victim.

Bottom line: Having a PO or a signed contract is not a licence to be unproductive, or to sell the same time to two different clients.

However, I would also add to this that it's not okay to just go ahead and finish the work and force the client to pay for it, either, for very similar reasons.

We can find different work. We can rearrange our schedules. We can do some CPD, marketing or admin, or chores, or take an evening off today rather than tomorrow. This doesn't inconvenience us in any serious way.

Hence, let's not use POs and contracts as weapons of extortion.

Exception: The situation is different where at the same time:

  1. we had to forego alternative work in order to accommodate that client's work; and
  2. we needed work to pay the bills, can't find other work on short notice and can't really accommodate a holiday etc.
— in which case we shouldn't have the choice made for us by a random circumstance to have a holiday instead of working (for example). That would make me see it in a different light, ethically.

But normally it would be better to charge only moderate cancellation fees beyond payment for work actually done.

One also needs to remember that ruthlessly profiting at the client's expense is not compatible with the ethics of learned professions such as doctors, lawyers and other advisors.

Would you be happy if your lawyer or doctor charged you for previously agreed work you no longer needed, if he could easily take on another client or patient or spend the time managing his own affairs to free up more time for paid work tomorrow or later this week?

[1] After finishing the translation in the normal course you would proofread and revise it on your own, then apply some edits etc., which is a time-consuming process. Hence, 50% of translation alone is not 50% of the whole job when you apply 0% of the final polish that was normally expected. In other words, the percentage you are at in translation alone is not the percentage you are at in your whole work.
[2] In some cases, which will typically be translations of published works, you may be in a position to finish the same work for a different client, for example a different publishing house. An argument could be made that you should give it a try before charging a cancelling client.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I disagree.
    When both sides have committed to a project, a cancellation is a problem.
    Translation is a custom made service (and with next to zero resell value), and you don't sell your time to the client, you sell a service (i.e. results). If the client has a change of heart mid-project, fine, but they cannot back down from their commitment.
    Consider the following scenario: You took a project, and 80% into it canceled on the client. Doesn't the client is entitled to a compensation? And if they do, why the logic is reversed when it is the client who cancels a project after its approval?
    This is not an ethical issue; this is a strictly business issue.
    Productivity depends heavily on time management and careful scheduling - all the more so when you are a sole proprietor - and nothing messes the scheduling more than cancellations.

  3. Cancellation definitely is a problem, and it does mess with your scheduling, so I'm not saying that you aren't ethically, morally or legally entitled to some compensation on that account, but I'm calling for some empathy on the grounds that it typically involves your client getting into some kind of problems and mess rather than just a whim or knee-jerk reaction.

    Thus, in the majority of cases, I think empathy is due, both from an ethical and a business point of view. Mutual flexibility and understanding is important in any sort of partnership or collaboration.

    Still, you could charge some cancellation fees for the hassle of it, it's a perfectly legitimate choice and point of view, but I'd be against using the sheer power of the contract to pay more than the hassle really were worth, let alone the worst possible solution:

    forcing the client to pay for the whole no-longer-necessary translation as opposed to a rough assessment of what your profit would be from the bargain.

    Example 1: You agree to translate a large contract (10K words) for $0.20 per word. The client cancels when you're at 2K words. Obviously, the client should pay for the 2K words as agreed (i.e. $400). I suppose it could be fair to also ask the client to pay, say, 10% of the rest (that'd be $160 as 10% of the remaining 1600). It would be unfair, wrong, cruel, to force the client to just pay the whole $2000 and receive (or not) the no-longer-necessary translation of the whole thing. The translator should at least consent to receive some reasonable part of the price that corresponded with the translator's profit from the job.

    Example 2: You're an agency and your client wants that 10K-word contract translated. You charge $0.30 per word, out of which $0.20 would go to a freelance translator except the client cancelled before you found the translator. I believe it would be immoral to insist that the client must fork out the $3000 and proceed with the unnecessary translation as opposed to charging the client for only your markup ($1000, since you were making $0.10 on every word of the 10K) while skipping the unneeded expense of actually hiring the translator and finishing the unneeded job.

    Some other costs would also be avoided — such as your inhouse proofreader's work time etc. — so the raw profit would be less than $1000.

    So, my most important contention is that the raw profit of the bargain should be the max of what a cancelling client is being charged.

    Next, I would urge letting the client off a bit more easily than that.

    What's wrong is not seeking compensation for the trouble of cancellation (which is a right I'd prefer not to exercise, but it's still a right) but opportunistically exploiting the client's cancellation by turning into a source of profit without work for the translator while forcing the client into unnecessary costs.

    Actually, it would be even worse to charge the client the full amount without actually translating the whole thing and then use the saved time to earn money by completing other work for other clients. That'd be sheer profiteering.

    The translator should find other work and maybe charge the client if no such work can be found. Or charge the client for the difference if the work pays less.

    Clearer now?

  4. It was all perfectly clear the first time I read the post, and I still respectfully disagree with this advice.
    Treating a contract as a recommendation instead of a binding document is not the right way to go about things, in my opinion.

    Should some discretion be exercised? Of course. There is hardly a one-size-fits all answer when dealing with customer service issues, but there are some business guidelines and best practices to follow in order to maintain a sustainable career. Doing business involves certain amount of unavoidable risks, and there is no reason to add unnecessary risks.

  5. Great post i must say and thanks for the information. Education is definitely a sticky subject. However, is still among the leading topics of our time. I appreciate your post and look forward to more. กระเป๋าใส่ปืน


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