Friday, 27 January 2017

Limits of Flexibility

(Flexibility is not a goal unto itself)

First off, I don't want to discuss this from the perspective of flexibility as a value in itself, or a goal unto itself etc. That's just silly buzzword nonsense. I'm taking flexibility as a concept here, a thing of life, neither good nor bad, save perhaps in subjective, situation-driven judgement.

(People use the 'flexibility' as a cudgel to get what they want)

We don't have to be flexible, and especially not because an agency or client says that we aren't, as if we should be ashamed of ourselves or feel guilty and, more importantly, give them what they want. Let's make no mistake: they sometimes ask you to be flexible by… accepting they own inflexible demands, for example refusing to sign a non-editable 10-page contract written by their lawyer and full of language that benefits them over you. But it's you who are inflexible and making problems when you won't sign. Seriously?

(All the time, we all do, one just needs to understand this and react properly)

Obviously, we tend to already know something's off in cases like the above, but there are also a lot of cases that, while not with such extreme results, still follow similar basic logic. People stick labels on you when they aren't getting what they want. We all do. This is simply the inherent human subjectivity, the proverbial eye of the beholder. And one more potential accusation that you need to not accept as objective truth the moment a client or agency throws it at you.

  • What is that about? What do they want you to be flexible about?
  • Do you have any valid obligation to actually be 'flexible about that'?
  • What would be reasonable in the circumstances? 
  • Is their own conduct reasonable?
  • Are they flexible to or just want you to accept all their demands unchanged, with zero room for compromise or negotiation?

After answering these questions to oneself, the decision should be much easier — and look much different too than the initial impression or the other party's perspective. (Where the other party's perspective is something that's both morally right and useful to consider, but it simply isn't automatically binding on you.)

(But it's still useful to be flexible)

In my experience it's useful to remain open-minded, suspend judgement and not make one's individual initial preference into an absolute. Frankly, sometimes other people's suggestions are better. Sometimes it doesn't really matter to you, whereas it matters to 'them', hence it would actually be unreasonable not to go out of one's way a bit for a fellow human being. And in some cases you could lose a prospective contract over some minutiae that aren't worth making a stand for.

(The point)

… The point is to approach this all with a level head and work out an informed decision based on a healthy appreciation of the circumstances and not pressure (intimidation, manipulation, guilt trips, crocodile tears etc.) from the counterparty.

(The point again)

It's perhaps quite worth spelling it out that flexibility certainly does not mean meeting the other party's requests, let alone demands, let alone onerous on unreasonable demands, in full. There is nothing so all-out in flexibility. Flexibility is more about meeting them halfway.

Speaking of which, halfway is a good, reasonable, fast tie-breaker — you split the difference (or the bargain) and cut time losses on the squabbling. It should be employed in business dispute resolution far more often. But, it doesn't work in ethical matters, such as when you're asked to introduce an error to your translation (or legal work, if you're a lawyer, but lawyers generally know this better) and isn't so simple when it's just poor practice either (e.g. sloppy style but preferred by someone who just wants to impress a personal mark on your translation).

(But, …)

But it's perfectly okay to not be completely rigid about fees and deadlines, and payment deadlines, and the way stuff is calculated, for example. Never budging on willingly introducing error into your work is not quite on the same level as never budging on the application of standard billing methods to non-standard situations, now is it? ;) So see, this is the difference.

(Final notes)

If you accepted a number of mistranslations and grammatical errors simply to please an agency's proofreader, you'd be doing it the wrong way, and it would be outright silly if you did it while knowing you could be liable but thinking you still owed it to them somehow to expose yourself to that risk just to please them.

On the other hand if you accepted such a request coming from a client who knew the rules but chose to depart from prescriptive correctness for the sake of his target demographic or his own natural experience, that would be the sort of situation where there are pros and cons, all outcomes are subjective, and there are hardly cookie-cutter solutions.

Finally, if you turned down an otherwise highly attractive contract just to avoid departing from your usual billing rules, such as zero discounts for numbers in accounting documents, then chances are you just might be harming your income stream for no good reason.

Okay, one last thing: If there is just one part of this post I'd like everyone to remember, it's that flexibility is on the one hand not capitulating to the other party's inflexible demands just because asked, dared, strongarmed or guilt-tripped to, and on the other hand it can be a good thing for you when it allows you to avoid taking unnecessary losses because of undue attachment to things that aren't really important. Common sense, basically.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Don't Immediately Concede a Discount Just Because the Client Complains (and Seems to Expect One)

Sorry for the lousy title, but I need to focus on the contents.

In better times this is perhaps a rare oddity, if not unheard of, but these days whimsical and borderline incompetent checking and correcting of translations by clients and agencies is something we keep hearing about all the time. I've come to the conclusion it can't be just the coincidental subjective experience of a couple of people, there must be more of it, as in a trend, hence this post.

This is going to be a controversial statement, but in my opinion there is a general decline in competence, morality and manner (as in class act) worldwide, so no wonder professional ethics and courtesy also are slackening and people don't seen an ethical problem in biased adversarial examination of and complaints about goods and services they procure, in the hope of saving some money.

In our so-called translation industry (how I hate the term!), this is compounded by how agencies end up with cheap proofreaders due to all their cost-cutting, which means that senior external translators end up having their work checked and graded by junior inhouse staff. The same happens in corporations when, out of the same desire to cut costs, someone decides to DYI it. If not the translation, then the checking.

In either case it may be compounded by how the choice of expression is largely subjective, as are outlooks on equivalence, as are skill levels and judgements thereof. Egos are involved. Face-saving is involved, sometimes real cover-ups and damage control after someone botches the job, the project, notably by already having procedured translation on the cheap before, which not only backfired but also drained the budget.

Or, like in the old Indian tale of two wolves, there's not only good and evil in every single one of us but also intelligence and stupidity, controlled behaviour and freaking out, class act and poor manner. The one wolf that wins is the one we feed. Our clients and their staff, and brokers, also have wolves to feed and make their choices. Translation procurement tends to be inexplicably conducive to making just the wrong, stupid choices. And let's not forget about people who just don't know how bad they are, or at least not as highly qualified as they think, especially for work they haven't studied and trained for, or at least learned the language.

(This notably includes a great deal of native speakers of the target language in translation, retained by clients and brokers often for little merit beyond their native origin, who so often just don't know all the rules or just plain can't write. But it also includes a great deal of 'proficient' non-natives who think they're good enough to doubtless be the innocent party in a dispute with a qualified native writer or translator. And then loads of people who aren't particularly familiar with the field but go ahead and edit other people's writing anyway.)

The point? Stop overthinking. You won't likely find out which is the case, let alone find the comfort of certainty. What you need to realize is that shit happens — every day. Yes, it happens. Today, a fellow translator wrote about how an agency explicitly asked her to look for errors, find some, grade it down, help them save some buck. When confronted with this reality, you need to avoid compulsively looking for fault within yourself and taking the blame just to avoid having to acknowledge that the world is a bad place and people can be jerks.

Fend it off, cast off the fog, keep your mind clear. Check twice if you they don't have a point, but if you can't find legit errors, and serious enough, then you need to confront the reality that no, the client is not always right in general, and that your client is not right, right here and now, in particular.

If you still grant a discount, for example to avoid non-payment because you realistically need the money and have no other way to see at least some of it, or you just won't the client to go away without going out of his way to damage your reputation (you already damage it by making it look like you're admitting errors that just aren't there!), then I won't judge you, but it should be your decision, not an automatism.

Automatic discounts on every complaint — which is nb. sometimes the way things work with translation agencies — only encourage frivolous complaints. Remember, a lot of people are amoral in some degree in business. They just see numbers, cash flows, equations, impersonal operations to manage, they don't really think or feel much beyond that it makes sense to save money where you can. Which includes where a weaker 'vendor' will let you. So don't.

This said, I certainly don't encourage dismissing legitimate complaints, especially not as a matter of policy. And yes, this too is a policy companies have long discovered and tested in practice by now. Just consider how clients and brokers use the broken-record strategy to deflect your overdue payment requests, piling on outlandish excuses one after one, avoiding you or outright stalling. I certainly am not saying this is what we should do to our clients when they have cause to worry or outright complain or even demand a discount, a deserved one.

But simply wanting a discount covers exactly zero distance toward deserving it or proving that they do. Again, I'm not saying the burden of proof should by sky-high, but a nude demand or some sort of faux proofreading doesn't rise to the level. It doesn't rise much above floor level, and it rather goes quite lower than that. It's quite low indeed, and has no place from respected companies — as soon as you can establish it wasn't just an accident at work (you need to probe gently before they get defensive and start opposing you on principle), you need to let them know it won't fly and in fact it's quite bad of them to even have tried.

We need to send the message that changing times have not made the practice acceptable.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Why It Is OK to Limit Liability (12 Pointers)

Wait? What? Limited liability? Isn't that avoiding responsibility for your own actions?

Nope. Not necessarily anyway. And certainly there's more to it. We could argue the details to no end, so let's just state some general pointers. Food for thought:

  • Don't presume that it's natural or obvious for malpractice liability to meet the full extent of the first quantifiable value of some sort of damages that comes to your mind or someone else brings up. Things aren't so simple. The first quantifiable value someone intuitively comes up with is not likely to coincide with what the outcome of full, objective and exhaustive analysis would be after properly gathering and processing all the information available. For example it may occur to you — or someone else — that if a translation agency loses a client because of a translator's mistake, then the responsible translator should pay damages to the value of the entire turnover with that client. However, that seems reasonable only superficially. It doesn't account for the possibility of replacing that lost client with a new one after a couple of cold calls or just having spare capacity that will soon get all used up by other existing clients. So should the agency get the compensation and get to sell the freed capacity anyway, for double the money? Or should the agency be allowed to call it a day and send the sales rep home early because the translator is paying? This is the kind of nonsense that results from coming up with and too easily accepting arbitrary values based on emotional notions, as opposed to proper analysis.
  • By contrast, it's natural to expect businesses to take precautions (forward looking) and act (react) to avoid or mitigate damage. If they don't, notably because they want to save the cost, then why should the increased risk be yours and not theirs? It would be like a general partnership in which you get 0% share in the profits but only a worker's wage, plus 100% share in any hypothetical loss. Who in his right mind would agree to that? There is no rational or ethical reason for a client's recklessness, carelessness or risk appetite (gambling) to allocate gains to the client and losses to the professional service provider.
  • Some risk-creating or risk-increasing choices by clients are legitimate because they respond to a reasonable need or pursue a reasonable objective. However, should the risk so created or increased — for example because of restricted access to information — be borne by someone who doesn't even know about it? Someone who doesn't even get the opportunity to reject the deal based upon the knowledge of the risks involved, which is withheld from him by the other party? Should companies be allowed to have their cake and eat it too like that? Should professional service providers be doomed to not even know the risks they assume against their will?
  • The last point holds true about the value and kind of the transaction in general, but it is all the more true in respect of any special risk factors, notably ones that may lead to special or consequential damages or anything else you wouldn't normally presume or foresee or prepare against anyway. The business client should be acting to prevent them, not outsource them to someone who isn't even aware of effectively becoming the client's insurer for the client's gainful transaction with some other entity. Again, should the client have the cake and eat it too?
  • Professional service providers are not insurance companies. Insurance per se is not even an explicit added value included in the transaction. It's just a convenient by-product that companies sometimes seek. And if they are allowed complete secrecy and zero disclosure, then they might as well seek professional services specifically to get free insurance, not even to get the service per se
  • Insurance companies are the first to want to know about all the risks involved — type, size, probability, impact etc. They spend their precious time doing proper, mathematical calculations for all of those things. Does the though of having to do such calculations feel over the top to you? Would it feel the same if you knew $20M was at stake? Which is probably more money than you'll make or at least save in your life but which a single contract in international trade may be worth more than — just to give you perspective.
  • Are you actually paid for guaranteeing the safety of your clients' transactions? This is essentially what we're talking about: the justice and the price of such a guarantee of safety being included in your fee. This is still true even if the safety would be from the consequences of your own mistakes. Why, you may ask: Because the probability and especially the impact of bad consequences of your mistakes still depends on factors that are beyond even your knowledge, whereas they are usually in your client's control, such as withholding information from you. Or are you only being paid for labour, i.e. the actual time and toil you expend on your client's behalf regardless of the value of the client's business transaction involved? If you're only paid what is essentially a labourer's wage and not an agent's commission corresponding to the value of the transaction, then you aren't being paid for being an insurer against all sorts of stuff that isn't communicated to you — precisely because you would likely refuse if you only knew.
  • Remember that people who are professionals in assuming liability — insurers namely — always require full disclosure and disclaim liability, or increased liability, for anything you fail to disclose.
  • They also give their clients instructions to follow. Taking more risks or more lightly, more haphazardly than your insurance policy allows voids it. You don't get any compensation if you forget to fix a broken alarm or replace your lock after losing your keys, or divulge your passwords. Ironically, some of these client-generated risks we're talking about are precisely precautions dictated by insurance companies (notably your restricted access to information about whatever you're helping them achieve).
  • The premium you have to pay for an insurance policy depends on the type and size (probability and impact) of the risk covered, as well as the precautions you as the insured or beneficiary agree to take in order to avoid or reduce that risk. How much would a policy have to cost to cover all the property in your house, with no limits on value, and still allow you to not even lock your door and still claim compensation? Just simply because you have a policy? Why should such insurance effectively be provided by professional service providers and within a labourer's wage rather than an agent's commission? Should business companies get more insurance — with no restrictions or obligations — from their service providers simply because they pay for a service than they get under insurance policies when they pay so much more money to their insurers specifically for insurance coverage?
  • Remember: For business clients and brokers, agencies etc. this whole issue isn't about ethics or morality as they may claim when trying to silence your objections with an inapplicable, logically flawed appeal to justice such as 'you should be resposible for your actions'. Nope. It's about changing the owner of the risk involved in the whole thing. Risk which they themselves create or increase for example to save some money or protect their secrets or otherwise benefit. Ordering the service from you conveniently places you as the new owner of the risk they want to get rid of on the cheap, i.e. without taking proper precautions themselves and without paying someone else to take them or just assume the liability in case something happens.
  • Ethically, however, their argument is still fundamentally flawed: Why should you be expected to automatically and with no additional pay assume greater risks because your client elects to create or increase a risk or skip sensible precautions? Why should the client be entitled to the savings but free of the risks created by them? — So that someone who didn't create the risk gets 0% share in the gain and 100% share in the loss? How is any of the foregoing fair or ethical or reasonable?

My opinion: Yes, your mistake is yours. But the size of the damage and the probability of the damage occurring is mostly controlled by the client. Don't be a hostage. Don't be a scapegoat. Don't be set up like that. Get professional insurance. Double-check your work. But demand sufficient information about all risk factors affecting anything that your client wants you to be potentially liable for, and sufficient budget to take all the precautions you need. If the client won't give you the information or the budget, you just don't give your client free insurance against unknown risks generated and increased by the client at will without so much as notifying you so you could prepare.

You also need to take additional precautions with any intermediaries involved, as risks relating to restricted or distorted information grow exponentially the more people or companies are in the chain. So does the risk of your mistake — let's say a small mistake that's undeniable and undeniably yours — leading to huge consequences because of someone else's risk-taking attitude. And it's simply not fair for you to incur something to the tune of $20M liability because the agency wouldn't spend $200 on a proofreader or editor — of which the client may not even be aware, or, if aware of it, then not aware of the consequences.

You just don't get enough infomation to promise unlimited liability. You don't even know what exactly you would be liable for and what sums would be involved. You certainly don't know what risks they are taking and what else they're not telling you. You aren't told quite possibly because you would refuse the job if you knew. Or you could want a higher budget or longer deadline. Remember this.

Also, look up information asymmetry.

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