Treading Lightly with Your Clients
Every now and then, someone new will contact me out of the blue and be interested in working with me. I usually head right over to their website to see who I am dealing with. I’ll read the original German copy, look at the English translation, shudder, and then spend some time composing a very carefully worded email, explaining why they are not currently making the best impression on the English-speaking world and which steps might be necessary to remedy that.
We all see bad translations all the time. Sometimes a client is asking for our assessment and sometimes a client is completely unaware that they haven’t been publishing the best translations. How do you handle these kinds of situations? I have read tough-love proponents who recommend ruthlessly setting people straight about the translation quality they have been getting so far – often with the assumption that clients have brought that lack of quality upon themselves. I’m sure that there are many different kinds of clients out there, but I like to assume good faith. I also think that if you want to win a new client, bludgeoning people with cold, hard facts might not be the way to go.
Gently does it
When I’m not surprising unsuspecting clients with bad news about previous translations, clients often ask me what I think about translations that were done by someone else. The conversations we have about these translations and how they came about keep me sensitive to the fact that clients don’t need to be treated as villains.
Some reasons to proceed with care when criticizing a potential client’s existing English translations:
- They did the translations themselves: Many people in Germany have excellent English skills, but that does not make them excellent translators. Nobody wants to be slapped in the face with this, though.
- They may have taken it upon themselves to “improve” a translation: I’ll bet that I’m not the only one who has seen website translations mangled by well-meaning clients. Maybe they didn’t want to bother the translator with what they think are minor details. Maybe they misjudged their own English skills. Clients can be resentful no matter how subtly a lack of judgment on their side is pointed out.
- A person of trust did the translation (possibly also a non-native speaker): Another common occurrence here in Germany. The translator could be a colleague, friend or relative – maybe someone who has lived or is living abroad. The point is, they know and value this person and they don’t necessarily know me.
- Being called out on something that could be improved can be really unsettling: When I was just starting out, I remember a design agency cold-calling me with the (in hindsight) repulsive tactic of telling me that my website looked unprofessional and shabby. I still remember that feeling of shame that washed over me. That is not how I want my clients to feel.
- Clients can feel helpless and frustrated when they find out that they have been paying good money for bad service: If clients can’t judge the quality of the translation, they have to trust the agency or individual translators. No one likes realizing that their trust has been misplaced. And this makes them reluctant to trust a new translator.
- Criticism can look like you’re bad-mouthing your competitors: This is one I struggle with. I’m never sure that I won’t taint a budding relationship with a new client by starting on such a negative note. Still, I can’t use shoddy copy as reference material for new translations, so I have to break the news at some point.
- They may have decided to work with someone else on a previous project: Sour grapes, anyone? In these cases, I always recommend that clients get a second opinion from someone impartial.
- Out of common decency
The world of business can be a harsh place. And maybe everyone should just grow a thicker skin. OR, maybe it would be good to remember that those we are dealing with are people who – just like us – bring their own stories and worries to the table. Even if they don’t turn out to be ideal clients for us, there’s no need for casual rudeness. I don’t get it right every time, but I always try to take a minute and think about how I would feel if I were getting an email criticizing something about me. If I feel that the criticism only serves a purpose in itself, I find it difficult to open up to any change. If I feel that criticism comes from compassion and a willingness to help, then it’s easier to let go of the criticism and focus on the improvement. What do you think?