Negotiating a contract with a client who does not know what we do, or the culture of its counterpart.

July 26, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Not long ago I met a potential client from a European country who wanted to hire the services of several interpreters for an event that was to take place in a big city in the United States.  The client explained their needs and the agenda, and I asked the usual questions necessary to determine competency in the subject matter, and our professional interpretation fee.  The client explained that they needed all interpreters from 8:00 am to 11:30 pm. The agenda of this event included presentations, business negotiations, field inspections, and social events, specifically two formal dinners.

I prepared a written estimate that included information about the top-level interpreters to be used during the event, a description of the way we would provide our services, and our daily fee, including overtime charges.  Because of the time difference between Europe and America, I had to wait until the following day to get an answer from Europe.

The client stated in her response that the fee was excessive because there were “…several hours during the day when no interpretation services would be required…” and the two dinners were “…gourmet food that the interpreters would eat…” and because of this “…wonderful meal…” they expected the interpreters to work for free during the two dinners, as they would be “…eating and will only interpret when needed…”  The client ended her letter emphasizing the fact that it would be during these dinners that most of the commercial deals with the American counterparts would be closed, as it “…is common practice among businessmen to close a deal late in the evening over a nice glass of brandy…”

In responding to the client, I pointed out several facts that were obvious to me, but apparently were not part of the decision-making process of this client.  I explained that when an interpreter is hired from 8:00 am to 11:30 pm, the interpreter is on the clock all the time as he or she is available to the client for the duration of the event.  I explained that the interpreter would have to decline other jobs during the days of the event, and therefore, even if she was not in the booth during “down time”, she was still there, incapacitated to make money working somewhere else during those hours.  Furthermore, I explained that interpreters cannot sit down and enjoy a meal during the event, because we have to talk to work, and you cannot eat and interpret at the same time.  I stated that working those crucial dinners after a full day of interpreting would be extremely difficult, as the interpreters would be exhausted by dinner time, and for that reason, they needed to be compensated at our overtime rate.  Finally, I also mentioned that we could probably adjust the overtime fee not by lowering our rate, but by restructuring the agenda based on the culture of the American counterpart.  Basically, I told the client that the schedule would probably be adjusted by the Americans anyway, because they would want to eat dinner earlier, and in fact, there would not even be a restaurant open for dinner at the time the client wanted to schedule the meal.

After the client talked to the American counterpart, she realized that indeed, the Americans wanted to end the day much earlier than the original European plan, and she learned that restaurants do not serve dinner that late in most cities in the United States.  Because of this explanation and suggestions, I was able to keep the contract, get paid what we deserved, and the event was successful.  My strategy worked; however, talking to some colleagues just a few days ago, I heard how some of them would have just lowered their fee, or worked the dinners at their regular rate instead of overtime rate, some of them stated that sometimes you have to make concessions to keep a good client or a big event.  I disagree with this way of thinking, and I would like to hear what you would do in a similar situation.

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§ 9 Responses to Negotiating a contract with a client who does not know what we do, or the culture of its counterpart.

  • Cris Silva says:

    Toni,
    Well done! Half of the job is not about showing up and interpreting, but also about educating the client on how to work with a competent professional. I\’m sure you do the same, but besides explaining the difference between a working dinner and a dinner with my friends, I\’ve started having a few spare copies ATA\’s Getting it Right – Interpreting brochure with me. Also, agree that lowering rates is not the answer: we work hard, put many hours into education and continuing education and really provide a specialized service.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Lexeitt Lex says:

    Most people out there would be forced to believe that by being faithful to the profession they would be unfaithful to their bank account. Nonetheless, the more this happens the less we get the respect other professions have got.

    I have fought for many years trying to make clients, and more importantly, other collegues undestand that when being “cheap” interpreters we downgrade interpretation.

    Once one of my students, in the middle of a reflexion on how much to charge (we were talking about translation) mentioned the name of a well known translator in the area of Puebla, Mex. arguing she, the famous translator, charged barely 60% of the price I was suggesting and that it was impossible to think about us trying a higher figure unless we wanted to lose job opportunities for being overrated…

    I said that the person she referred to was surely forced to accept a low pay only because of the many pseudo-translators who do poorly and translate almost for free. This, naturally, because many clients in our area are, simply, not going to be able to tell the difference between a good translation and a better one.

    All in all, I declared then, and insist now, that when professional translators and interpreters behave themselves professionally in all respects, people may just change the perspective they have about us or, otherwise, ask your friend the architect to make the plan of a house for free or at half the regular price!

  • ulla schneider says:

    Dear Tony, I found this a very interesting story which ought to be told and retold at interpreters professional association meetings. You explain the issue very clearly, and the fact that there was actually a “happy end” to your negotiations should encourage others to follow your example. Good for you!

  • This is an excellent example of assertive and constructive client education.

  • Teresa Reinhardt says:

    Excellent solution, Tony! And as my colleagues have already said, you maintained your-and our profession’s-dignity while getting the job done. And in interpreting, this includes the cultural aspects and client education.

  • Tony, I have been in that kind of situations. I am facing one right now, by the way: I have worked as an interpreter and interpreters’ trainer and coordinator for this client for 4 years. The client is happy with the quality I provide and wants me. But now, due to the crisis, the client wants a much lower fee and… just me. That is, just one interpreter for a full Saturday and half a Sunday, for psychotherapists’ training workshops that include life psychotherapy sessions. Very sensitive situations and specialized vocabulary. I will let you know how the negotiation ends. I have “educated” the client in many other situations: some of them ended sucessfully, some others ended with the client turning to a cheaper and much lower quality interpreter or to an agency that disrespects its interpreters. It is clear we need to respect our profession and ourselves in order to keep providing quality. Thank you for sharing, Tony.

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  • Kevin says:

    Hi I am organizing an itinerary that includes 2 dinners and a lunch where interpretation will be required. There will be an interpreter per delegation, primarily to interpret for the two delegation leaders, but others as well ad-hoc. I’d be grateful for your advice as to whether interpreters generally partake of the meal at the same time as those for whom they are interpreting for? It just intuitively seems that eating and interpreting aren’t compatible?? Any advice based on previous experience appreciated. Thanks.

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