Monday, 12 December 2016

Should You Deliver Early?

This wouldn't be a blog post if the answer was a straightforward yes or no, right? ;)

Still, while this is going to be a long post, the initial answer is going to be a clear no, for which I will give you ample reasons in a minute.

On the other hand, the initial answer is just the starting point for working out the final answer that's going to be completely different.

So here we go. Suppose, like my friend, that you've just put in extra hours and finished, late tonight, something that's due tomorrow evening. The negatives of sending it right away are plenty and usually overwhelming.

But before we discuss those I want you to realize one very important underlying fact:

Your clients have limited information — and don't really know what to make of whatever information they actually have. Don't expect their opinions to be accurate. Accurate or not, don't expect them to be favourable or beneficial to you — they look from the perspective of their own businesses and interests, not yours.

The extent to which they care also may be quite limited, and in any case, just like the extent of their knowledge or 'sophistication', it varies from client to client. You don't always immediately know what 'type' of client you're dealing with, and sometimes you don't even know your old clients inside out. So don't presume.

The most obvious complication is that a semi-savvy client may think you rushed it.

By semi-savvy (or somewhat of a sophisticated buyer) I mean savvy enough to have the basic idea of how freelance translation works but not enough to know the ins and outs of it. That can be someone who knows that the length of the originally directly affects the length of the translation process but is not intimately familiar with the whole freelance lifestyle thing that makes our non-schedules crazy.

Remember that not all clients — or even agencies — approach you with the thought of buying n hundred or thousand words as a product. The product of your work is not necessarily all think think about. They're also paying you for the work itself. Hence, to them, it looks like you're working for them.

A less commodity- and more relationship-driven scenario — one in which you practice as a translator, as opposed to selling weighted words by the thousand, which is probably better for you unless relationships really really aren't your thing — is not as simple as putting commodity goods in the cart and proceeding to checkout with limited to nonexistent interaction with a human being.

And obviously you certainly don't want to skip any of your usual editing and revising or even additional rounds if you have the time. After all, the quality determines your reputation to a greater extent than the speed.

Next, clients learn. And what do they learn from this? 

The message you're potentially sending by turning projects in early is that:
  • the deadline could have been shorter to begin with — and next time it might well be (future deadlines could shorten to match your historical delivery patterns, at no benefit to you)
  • no point paying you rush fees for rush deadlines if you do all your work ASAP at standard rates anyway
  • nights, weekends and long hours are either fair game or at least apparently not off-limits — expect some pressure on that front
  • your tempo is apparently faster than average — so why not nibble at your per-word rates, since you'll come out even?
This doesn't mean you should absolutely never deliver early (other than that a little ahead of time is always better than just on time), but you need to make some adjustments first!

It's better to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa. But underpromise is key here. You have to underpromise first. And even before, you need to enable yourself to underpromise. Here's how:

  1. Take your current non-rush deadline.
  2. If it forces you to rush things or is already hit-or-miss, revise.
  3. Now add a generous margin for any contingencies and emergencies you can think about.
  4. Then add a little extra to give you breathing space and insure you against whatever contingencies you couldn't think about.
  5. And then add a little extra to enable you to underpromise.
The goal is not to make you race against yourself but to create a setting in which your quoted deadlines comfortably and consistently allow you to finish ahead of the agreed time.

Bonus tip: As long as you are the party proposing the deadline, call it something like ETA or 'expected delivery' rather than literally 'deadline'. The goal of this adaptation is to give you a little bit more respectability as someone who gives estimates rather than works to deadlines, and to avoid some of the pressure from the ubiquitous sweatshop mentality by not setting your clients in that sort of mood in the first place. This will prevent them from feeling wronged, offended or entitled simply because of a missed timing.

But in real life clients dictate the deadlines! Or do they?

Let's get this some structure. They certainly propose deadlines a lot of the time. How far their first proposal is from the final agreement, however, is largely in the individual translator's head. A lot of people simply feel bound by their client's first idea, like it's a military order that you can't argue — in fact, in real military you should at least try to politely dissuade your commander from potentially harmful orders. We aren't talking dog training here, and yet that's how some translators behave, unfortunately. Resist that. You can do better.

But, of course, there are the realities of life that limit how far you can go, and you still have to eat.

You will still need to do some expectation management

You need to, because none of the points from the bullet list go away. They aren't directly negated by following the steps from the numbered list, as they don't directly affect how your clients think.

First off, expect clients to try to 'optimize' official deadlines in the light of having seen you consistently deliver early. You need to hold the line and preferably think ahead and script your conversations. (Just don't be too obvious about it — you don't want them to feel like they're talking to a bot. It's almost always easier (and faster!) to deliver a planned response than to come up with a good one on the stop.) Offer them one of the following things or both, depending on the situation:

  • alternative quotation for expedited service (be prepared to justify the price difference) — who knows, they might even accept it, so make sure it's viable in case they do
  • a brief sermon about the importance of structure and proper planning — which makes you look professional, disciplined and organized and would make them look the opposite for disagreeing

Be all smiles when politely deflecting their last half-hearted attempts. It's a bit easier for them to relent if you're polite and perhaps a little apologetic about it, allow them to save face and avoid the appearance of outright capitulation. You may have to make the judgment call whether it's ultimately better to give them a small victory to save face or to get your point fully across the first time and for good. Personally, I find the latter approach more efficient, though I don't always have the stomach to consistently implement it in practice. People generally do let go after they meet with determined resistance, where there is nothing to make the challenge a personal one.


Don't deliver early unless:

  • your deadlines are cut for early deliveries
  • you are prepared to resist the pressure to shorten your official deadlines to match your de facto delivery times
  • if you charge extra for expedited service, overtime etc. — your early deliveries don't make the extra charge easier to avoid than you want it to be.
Otherwise you probably want to pad your deadlines a bit precisely so you can deliver early.

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