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How to say no and still keep the client May 26, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Random musings.

As freelance translators we all eventually have to say “No” to a job offer. Either we are too busy to do a good job or feel it might be over our heads – or may simply want to enjoy a weekend off for a change. Some translators I know are afraid to say “No” to anything, because they are afraid the client won’t contact them again if they say “No” too many times. This isn’t a good mindset to get into. If you have done good jobs for them in the past and are easy to work with I guarantee the client will contact you again.

Sometimes “No” is the only responsible response – as well as an honorable response. If you decide that “No” is the answer that you prefer to give, then it is authentic and honest for you to say “No.” If you say “Yes” when you want to say “No” you will feel resentful the entire time you are working on the job – and that helps no one. This costs you energy and discomfort and is not necessary if you just say “No” when you need to. Plus, you probably won’t do as thorough a job if you are resentful – and that is NEVER a good idea.

There are ways to say “No” and still keep the client. A simple “No, I won’t be able to help with that. I’ve already made a commitment for Friday afternoon.” is always appreciated. My method is explaining why I can’t accept the job and always offering the names of one of two colleagues who I think would do a good job. It is up to the client to then decide whether or not contact them, but I have found that most of my clients appreciate a good referral. Sure, some clients have their own stable of translators who they contact, but some don’t. And your colleague might appreciate the work and return the favor in the future – it’s a win-win situation.

So the next time you are feeling overwhelmed practice saying “No.” I guarantee you that you won’t regret it.



1. Susanne Aldridge III - May 26, 2009

I would like to add that it makes a difference if you work for an agency with more than one translator per language or if it is a direct client.
If one the translators I work with would tell me “No, I can’t” too many times and I have to struggle every time to find someone else, I will look for a new translator to work with. For me, setting up a new translator is a big deal – from providing reference material to setting up payments, and I always know that they are not familiar with us and our products so their translation is most likely not as good. It costs me a lot of nerves and I am not going through that too many times.
Admitted, it hasnt happened because my deadlines are rarely that close and if they are, it usually is just a few sentences, but I have one person who always has something going on and it can be quite annoying.

2. Kevin Lossner - May 26, 2009

If someone can’t say “no”, they are either drowning in excess capacity (need to learn how to market services perhaps) or they are headed for trouble and had better start looking for a good psychologist or a day job if they can’t learn to say that word in whatever language is relevant. It makes no difference, really, if it’s an agency or a direct client. I’ll try to give my direct clients priority, especially if I know they are short of reliable fall-backs, but many of the ones I know are not as well-organized as Susanne, and a lot of the requests are on very short notice with turnarounds requested so ridiculous that even 100% mark-ups don’t even begin to cover the health damage.
“No” is a beautiful word. It often opens up the conversation to lead to a discovery of what is *really* needed, so in the end the answer is “yes” with a reasonable deadline, better resources, more acceptable file formats, etc. Like Jill, my “no” is usually accompanied by recommendations and alternative suggestions if the text is one that interests me.

3. Tom Ellett - May 26, 2009

Unless the requested delivery date is obviously set in stone, I try to temper my refusals with an offer to deliver the following day, or as soon as I can reasonably manage. Sometimes, if the client really wants the same translator as last time, they are willing to wait an extra day or two. (I think agencies tend to be overoptimistic in quoting deadlines in an effort to impress the end clients, who in my experience are much more reasonable about such things.)

If the deadline is ridiculously short or necessitates weekend working, I find that proposing a rush surcharge, along with the earliest date I could deliver at my normal rate, often leads clients to reassess the urgency of the job.

jillsommer - May 26, 2009

Hi Tom, of course it is always a good idea to try to negotiate the deadline, but like I said there are a lot of folks out there who simply accept and then work all night and kill themselves to get everything done. I just wanted to let them know there is nothing wrong with saying “No” every once in a while.

Tom Ellett - May 27, 2009

Hi Jill, I completely agree that there are times when “No” is the kindest word for all concerned. Most reasonable clients will still come back to you after the occasional refusal; but they will be far less forgiving if you screw up a job because you’ve taken on too much.

4. Litterate - May 27, 2009

jillsommer – May 26, 2009

“… there are a lot of folks out there who simply accept and then work all night and kill themselves to get everything done. ”

That is so true! My boss (food additive manufacturer) follows the rule of “customers knows best” blindly, which ends up in major headaches and unnecessary extra work for staff. Most of the times a reasonable explanation would do, but his idea is that the customer has inflexible notions of what is wanted. In my opinion, that is a waste of time and energy, and a very poor service to the customer.

2. Kevin Lossner – May 26, 2009

“No” is a beautiful word. It often opens up the conversation to lead to a discovery of what is *really* needed, … ”

Not only that, but you are establishing a closer relationship with the customer, showing their interest is your interest as well. That’s something most customers will appreciate.

5. Corinne McKay - May 27, 2009

Great post! Another tactic I use (because I’m kind of a doormat when it comes to negotiating…) is to give the client the parameters under which I would do the job, so that they’re the ones saying no. For example I might say “I would be happy to take that on, but for quality reasons I really would need a week to translate 10,000 words” or “I understand that your budget is tight, but my minimum rate is x cents per word and I am not able to offer discounts at this time, would that rate work for you?” I don’t do this to be manipulative, but rather to give the client an option under which I would do the job so that they can make an informed decision.

6. Karen Tkaczyk - May 31, 2009

I say no a LOT. I always have. This is mainly because of my narrow specialization, but also because I ‘m offered more work that I can do on a regular basis and I can’t function without a good amount of sleep. I find saying no to agency clients once in a while (once every 6 or 8 jobs maybe, though that’s controlled by circumstance more then planning) helps me. It shows them that they can’t assume that I will drop everything every time they email. They treat me with more respect as a result.
I too use the ‘no, but I could do it by this date’, ‘no, it’s outside my comfort zone but I can recommend AB to do that job for you’ and ‘no, I don’t work at that rate but you could try CD’ methods. Recommending someone else is particularly popular, I find.

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