American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Collecting from International Clients

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Collecting from International Clients

Collecting from International Clients

This month's column addresses the topic of collecting payments from international clients. With the increasing globalization of the translating/interpreting industry, thorough background checks from various sources as well as feedback from other colleagues are the safest ways of protecting against nonpayment.

Dear Business Smarts:

Last August I accepted an assignment from a company in another country. The project manager had found my profile online and contacted me with an offer. The assignment was quite large and took two weeks to complete. I sent my invoice for several thousand dollars with the translation, but to date, I have not been paid, even though the purchase order shows a term of 45 days for payment. When I looked up the company’s name in various sources, I realized to my horror that other translators have had bad experiences with the same company. My contact for the assignment no longer responds to my messages. What can I do to collect the overdue payment?
— A.L.

Dear A.L.:

Collecting from international clients can be even trickier than getting overdue payments from clients in the U.S., but that is no reason not to try. As always, begin by assuming that the company's failure to pay your invoice on time is merely an oversight and that the issue can be resolved amicably.

First, check the relevant online resources to make sure you are dealing with a bona fide company. If you are getting no response from your project manager, move up: contact the company by telephone and discuss the situation with the accounting department. Provide the exact date and purchase order number, offer to resend the invoice, and insist on a solution. If the matter is not immediately resolved, politely but firmly ask to speak with a supervisor. Document all conversations you have with the company's staff, including dates, times, and the name of the person you spoke with. You can underscore your intent to document your collection efforts by asking the employee to spell his or her name and verifying internal telephone numbers. Ask for a direct contact in the accounting department "in case there are questions." If you are not confident about your conversational fluency in the relevant language, you may want to ask a native speaker to make the call for you. It is important to remember that collection efforts in this first phase must be polite but firm, with no implication that you suspect bad intent.

If none of these actions produce any results and you suspect the company is intentionally trying to withhold payment, it is time for Plan B. Resend the invoice by certified mail, along with a collection letter that restates all the facts in the most concise terms. Clearly label the envelope "First Collection Notice." Include a copy of the purchase order, copies of e-mails, and logs of conversations with project staff. Your collection letter should state specific steps you intend to take if the payment is not authorized by a specific deadline: you will inform your colleagues on relevant websites and discussion lists, notify the national/regional/local business association and the local equivalent of the "Better Business Bureau," and lodge a complaint with the translators association of the pertinent country. If other translators have already had problems with the company, contact them privately to determine whether a specific pattern of nonpayment exists. Get in touch with other translators living in the country where the company is located, and ask for their advice. Is there a chance to get a group of translators together to hire a lawyer?

If payment is still not forthcoming after the deadline you established in your collection letter, be sure to keep your promises: post messages on payment lists, being careful only to state the facts; send the company a copy of all your messages and letters, restating the reason for your actions; and follow up with a second or even third collection notice. With some persistence, you should finally get the money that is rightfully yours

Of course, this experience has already taught you that the rapid globalization of our industry has created an increasing need for proper client research. There are now numerous websites and listservs on which translators can exchange information on the payment practices of their clients (see list below). Use them: they are vital tools to help protect freelancers against the "black sheep" of the business and discourage unethical business practices.

Useful Links

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: February 2007, p 42