When you have to choose between 2 good clients or assignments.

August 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters have to make work-related choices on a daily basis: from the word that best conveys the message in the target language, to the subject matter we are willing to interpret, to the work conditions we agree to. All decisions are very important for our professional development and lifestyle, but today I want to talk about another decision that all interpreters, especially freelancers, have to make every now and then.

We all know that the work of the interpreter goes beyond what people notice when they see us in the booth, the courtroom, boardroom, or hospital. We have to set aside time to study, prepare for an event, travel, and perform administrative duties. Most people do not see us while we are taking care of these activities, which are time-consuming and essential to our work. These aspects of our profession, however, allow some flexibility. Unlike real-time interpreting which needs to happen when the conference, court hearing, or business meeting take place, all other duties can be fulfilled whenever we decide to do them: weekends, nighttime, and so on. They rarely create a conflict in our work schedule.

As interpreters we all know that there is an “unwritten rule” that says that you can go without an assignment for some time, but when a very good one comes your way, another one, as good as the first one will follow shortly, often on the same dates. We can be available four days in a week, but the two good assignments will require of your services on the same three days. Most of you can relate to this dilemma, and those who cannot… just wait a few years and you will.

Deciding which one of these assignments you will have to turn down is one of the most difficult things we face as interpreters, especially when both clients are good, loyal companies or individuals who have had a long professional relationship with you. And it gets more painful when you particularly like the assignments, when you have enjoyed doing them in the past, and when they pay really well. To complicate things even more, it is common to take a job just to get another offer for one that pays even better a few minutes later. My question is: What should we do when this happens?

I recently faced this situation twice: I agreed to do a very prestigious and interesting conference and a few days later I was asked to do a sports interpreting assignment that I truly enjoy; the only problem: they were on the same dates.  A few weeks later, I was already preparing for a conference when I was asked to do another event on the same dates at a beautiful beach resort.

The logical thing is to turn down the second offer, and that is exactly what I did on both occasions, but it really hurt.  I agonized over these decisions not just because the second assignment was something I love to do in the first case, or because it was in a place I enjoy visiting in the second case. The decision was complicated because these were all good clients who count on me for these events.  The concern of losing the client was more important than missing the assignment.

There are times when you have to take the risk of upsetting the client, even after you do everything you can to explain the reasons why you cannot say yes to the job, but you can do certain things to minimize the damage and to keep the client whose assignment you are turning down: My rule is that when this happens, I talk to the client who requested my services second, I explain to them that it is not personal, that I truly enjoy working with them, and that I will be there for them when the next one comes around. I offer to help in every way I can, short of interpreting, to make sure they have a successful event. I even refer them to some trusted capable colleagues who I know will do a great job and will not try to “steal” the client. Depending on the circumstances, I may even provide the interpreters who will subcontract with me. All these points are explained to the client, and they usually agree.

However, there are times when after assessing the two assignments, I opt for the second event, and do the same I explained above, but for the first, original client. I rarely do this, but I do it when the subject matter, location of the assignments, and other factors lead me to believe that both clients will be better served if I physically work the second event. Many times the original client agrees, the services are top notch at both assignments, and I get to keep both clients happy. Of course, I would not even dare to attempt this option with a client I know may get upset or feel abandoned by me if I were to propose different interpreters after I already told them I would personally do the job. You need to know your clients very well before you do something like this.

In those cases when neither client agrees to a “Plan B”, and they both demand that I physically interpret the event, I had to make the always tough choice of deciding which client I rather keep. If I concluded that the second client was more valuable to me in the long run, I have graciously declined the first assignment, provided that I was not exposing myself to civil liability, and never doing it at the very last minute. That is the life of a freelancer.

Years ago, when I did more court interpreting, I would sometimes double-book myself in cases when I knew that the chances of a case going to trial were very slim. I would let the second client know that there was a small chance that I would not do the job myself because of that potential trial, and that if that happened, I would provide other trusted and capable professional interpreters to cover the event for me. As those of you who regularly work in court know, the trial almost never happened, and I did not lose work. The courthouse did not need to know because my commitment to the trial was absolute; in other words, if there was a trial, I would be there, no question about it. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and experiences when presented with this situation, and please tell us how you dealt with this problem.

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§ 2 Responses to When you have to choose between 2 good clients or assignments.

  • When I’m already booked I usually offer names I have on a list of certified interpreters who are not nearly as busy as I am. Some of these have been certified fairly recently. I have been working as a certified interpreter since 1978. I have work almost every day. (I presently have an assignment through this week and some on Friday in the future.) I also keep the other parties advised as to when I expect to be free to accept work from them. The trials for which I’m booked usually do go, or have lately.
    I also do translations into and out of Spanish and into English from German. If I’m over booked I, again, have a list of others who can help me.

  • Charo Lizenga says:

    Having to choose between good assignments from good loyal companies is a dilemma, but a nice one to have.

    A dilemma not so nice to have is when a large company -a government
    contractor- which has around 1500 interpreters on its roster, loses its multimillion dollar contract to another company which came in with a lower bid.

    Now, how is this new company going to still make a profit getting less
    money from the government while still having to deliver the same
    quantity and quality of services as the old company?

    Well, I think if you are an interpreter or a translator you already
    know where this is going so you might as well stop reading here.

    For those of whom the answer is not yet obvious consider the
    following:

    Will profit be made possible by the CEO and upper management taking
    a pay cut? If your answer here is anywhere between “possibly” and
    “yes” then you’re not familiar with the first commandment of
    corporate America.

    Will profit be made possible by the magic gadget, the killer app the
    company invented, that minimizes the costs of doing business? Well,
    if you have any experience with language agencies you know that
    their creativity, to the degree they have any, is tied up in keeping
    payout to translators and interpreters as low as possible. That,
    after all, is where they strip-mine their profit from.

    As low as almost 50% less money is what this new company is offering
    interpreters. That is where this company has planned to make its profits: of off the backs of the interpreters by cutting their income almost in half.

    You might be wondering whether this is really true, whether this is truly happening right now and why we’re not hearing ATA, NAJIT, or regional associations talking about it?

    I’m wondering about that too, the last part.

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