The Client is [Almost] Always Right?

As independent professionals who want to maintain good relationships with our clients, we tend to please, to go the extra mile. We all value the importance of word of mouth and repeat customers. This is why many of us adopt the mantra “the client is always right.” But what happens if a client doesn’t understand what a good translation or publication entails or makes linguistic inquiries that go beyond that extra mile? A recent experience on a 67,000-word translation project led me to adjust my customer service philosophy.

The English>Spanish translation project proved to be challenging from the beginning. The client requested the translation in 15 working days, starting the following day. Translating 4,500 words per day for a fairly technical text seemed unreasonable without a rush fee. So, as the project manager, I contacted the client to discuss how my team ensures quality and to better understand the overall production plans for the publication.

The manuscript was written in English and the authors were not available for consultation. The client, which regularly produces this type of publication, couldn’t provide a glossary or any background information. Following a careful assessment of the final publication in English, I advised the client that editing and proofreading were going to be needed before a massive online distribution. Even though the contact person agreed that it would be “nice to have those production steps,” there was no time or budget, so I finally agreed to provide the translation with the common understanding that the client would take care of the rest in-house (editing, typesetting, and proofreading). After those contract negotiations, the deadline was adjusted to a more reasonable 24 working days.

Given our workload at the time, I decided to assemble a team of three translators to have enough time to revise the translation and unify terminology. I delivered the translation on time and waited for the client’s comments. And wait I did. It took over a month to get feedback. Unfortunately, when it did arrive, it was not the type of feedback I was expecting for a translation well done.

The client’s decision (based on a two-page review) was to withhold payment. Even though they recognized that the translation was good, it had a few terminology differences that editing/proofreading would fix. The one-page translation evaluation/feedback was easy to incorporate into the final document. Global changes such as replacing “marketing” for mercadeo (and a few other terms that were preferences rather than errors) were made and a final “clean” copy was delivered within 72 hours of receiving the feedback document. To my surprise, the client said that was not enough to release full payment (we were paid 30%). The client wanted us to proofread the entire document (a service that they specifically rejected during our proposal negotiations). Baffled, I was left thinking about where the client’s initial rush for getting the translation completed in 15 days had gone.

In order to avoid escalating the conflict, and given the size and relevance of the client, we decided to provide the free proofreading service requested (therefore giving a 12% discount) to unlock payment and maintain an important business relationship.

How could I have improved the way I handled the project? Well, I could have used the contract conditions to educate my client. For example, many of my headaches could have been prevented if I had included a nominal fee for initiating a glossary, stating that terminology must be approved by the client prior to the delivery of the final translation file. Or perhaps I could have established better payment terms, such as 30% in advance, 30% upon delivery, and full payment after a month unless there are more than 0.1% proven mistakes in the translation.

Was it worth it to avoid enforcing the contract signed by the client just to keep a good working relationship for future projects? Obviously not. How can we measure what is a reasonable adjustment after the client comments? From now on I’m determined to beef up the small print of the contracts I sign, including a definition of timelines and the types of feedback that warrant withholding payment. I’ll also be prepared to enforce these conditions. Perhaps ATA can consider offering a new service (for a fee): an independent translation evaluation/mediation panel to resolve disputes over translation quality. Just a thought.

In the end, the more we educate our clients and detail the scope of our work in advance (and in writing), the better customer service we will provide, with fewer misunderstandings and more repeat business.

Gerardo Giannoni is a publishing consultant that provides publications management services. Contact:

1 Responses to "The Client is [Almost] Always Right?"

  1. Ann Bayliss says:

    Great article! Thank you for sharing your experience along with a few suggestions for avoiding the same problems.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ATA Chronicle © 2023 All rights reserved.