American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Managing Clients

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Managing Clients

Managing Clients

This month's column deals with managing clients. Small business owners often cling to the idea that they must take whatever work they can get, no matter how unpleasant the source. A little strategic planning, however, can help eliminate "problem" clients.

Dear Business Smarts:

My "problem," if you can call it that, is a client that makes a lot of demands. This is one of the first translation agencies I ever worked for, and I have stuck with them over the years. The management of the company is chaotic and the project managers often change. They have repeatedly asked me to lower my prices. Of course, they were the first to demand a staggered price model when the TRADOS price model craze came about. On top of that, they seem to assume that I have nothing to do until they come along with some new project. How do I handle this situation politely and professionally?
— K.H. by email

Dear K.H.:

There is little chance you can change a particular client, but you certainly have the right to select your own customers. Freelancers often feel obliged to accept as much work as they can get from anyone who will give it to them, forgetting that they, too, can make their own business decisions. Now may be the time for you to apply some "portfolio management," a technique that anyone, not just large corporations, can use.

Start with an overview of your client portfolio: Make a list of everyone you have worked for in the past year, then assign each client to a group A, group B, or group C, in order of preference. Your "A" clients, for example, may provide interesting work on a regular basis, are well organized, and pay on time. The "B" group clients are pleasant to work for, but send assignments only at irregular intervals. "C" clients either contact you infrequently or have flaws—chronically late payments, demands for lower rates—that make them less desirable as a customer.

Your next tool is "targeted business development," a process in which you make the most of "A" clients, develop and upgrade "B" clients, and divest yourself of "C" clients. Consider your client groups: Are you spending time on "C" clients that you could instead devote to the "A" and "B" groups? Some business advisors suggest dropping two clients every year to make room for more profitable business relationships, and in this example the members of the "C" group would be the first to go.

Next time, instead of responding to your "problem client" with lame excuses such as "So sorry, fully booked," or "Already have several large projects," take a deep breath and start cleaning out your portfolio. Write a friendly message to your "C" clients explaining that you no longer wish to be part of their freelance database, since you are increasing your prices. You will be surprised to find how quickly the project space fills up with more desirable work from "A" or "B" customers.

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: May 2006, p 35