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You win some, you lose some November 16, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices.

Putting projects “on hold” is a common occurrence in our industry. I just had another large project put “on hold” today. This is a great euphemism that can range from “sorry, we decided we just didn’t have the money for the project” to “we went with another provider but don’t want to hurt your feelings”. Hey, it happens and I no longer get upset by it. However, I also don’t sit around waiting for the project to pan out. After the first e-mail from the client saying their client was still making a decision I had a feeling it wouldn’t pan out, so I accepted a large OCR job for another client. The job was supposed to start last Wednesday, and I got the cancellation notice this afternoon (Monday). I am now happily plugging away at OCRing 670 pages of English legal texts.

It is important to not give up paid work for something that may or may not happen. Agencies understand this. If the project that you have expressed an interest in working on is delayed and somehow magically gets approved but you have since accepted other work, agencies will usually understand if you are no longer available. Hey, them’s the breaks and they know this.

What clues in your experience indicate a project just may not pan out? Are there any tips or tricks you would like to share with someone who may have just experienced this for the first time or is still trying to break into the industry?



1. Ellen - November 16, 2010

I absolutely agree with you, and I act more or less the same. When a client’s schedule start to slip, I do enquire about the job a few times, though, and I let them know that I’m taking on other work to fill the gap and might not be available when the job arrives. They usually understand.

A tip to keep in mind: jobs also get cancelled after you’ve started on them. Don’t forget to invoice the client for the work you’ve already done!

2. Paul Godfrey - November 16, 2010

Remember it’s not necessarily your fault if a job is not awarded – the agencies add their cut which may tip the balance.

There’s no way I know of predicting this sort of thing – I just put in my quotes in good faith and if the job materialises its does. The trouble is I don’t know how to say “no” if they ALL come in at once and I one time I ended up with 18000 words to do over the weekend!

I absolutely echo the comment not to give up paid work on the offchance of a bigger job – if a job comes in take it! …a bird in the hand and all that!

3. Kevin Lossner - November 16, 2010

Over the past decade I have heard the words “reserve the time” so often that I couldn’t count them all if I had marked them with scratches on the wall. I probably wouldn’t have a wall left. Probably a quarter of these “reservations” never come through.

One obvious approach if I were worried about lost income is to require a PO and negotiate a cancellation fee. I’ve never actually gone this route, however, and the few times the person canceling has offered me compensation (a gesture I greatly appreciate), I’ve turned it down, because there’s always another in the queue who wants the capacity. This, however, is not a policy I would recommend generally.

Until there is a firm order, these “reservations” are interesting information but in no way binding. A binding commitment – a contract if you will – requires consideration in the legal sense. That means payment in most cases. Thus if your clients really want a guarantee of your time and you are not willing to accept the risk of short-notice rescheduling, the thing to do is get a signed letter of commitment stating a cancellation fee which both parties can accept.

4. Tess Whitty - November 17, 2010

I have the same experience as Kevin. I frequently get asked if I am available for an upcoming project and if I can reserve the time. Usually these jobs do get activated and if I do not hear anything for a while, I ask for an update before comitting to another large job. This said, I do not “reserve” any time though unless the job is very large.

5. Barbara Dylla - November 17, 2010

I agree with all of the above. It just happened to me yesterday, in that a client had given me advance notice last week of a small job. I followed up once, was told they’re reworking the text, but no new delivery date provided. The text finally came in yesterday. I informed the client I would only be able to start it today. Doesn’t she phone me and say it was urgent (this was not noted in her e-mail) so they would need to assign the translation to someone else. She actually apologized!

In general, time will tell, i.e. as you become familiar with a client’s habits, you will get to know if they actually delivery work as promised… or not. You can then ‘reserve’ as needed, but negotiate new deadlines when the work does come in. In most cases, however, I do not recommend giving up other requests! Take what you can!

6. RobinB - November 17, 2010

Interesting post, Jill, and I know you’ve seen life from both sides of the freelance/agency divide. But I wonder how many translators understand that, for high-end translation companies at least (I can’t speak for the “translation factory” agencies), it’s almost invariably the end clients who are responsible for projects being postponed or cancelled.

One of the main reasons for projects being postponed is quite simply that many corporates really don’t have their act together: people simply don’t deliver on time – for example because they’ve gone on a long-planned vacation that the department you’re dealing with didn’t know about. Or because “it’s turned out to be more difficult than we thought”. Or because “the person who has to sign off on the document is stuck in Austria because their ski resort has been cut off by heavy snow”.

And cancellations can also happen for the most bizarre reasons. One of my favorites was “The executive who needed the translation has just had a baby. We’ll see how things stand in six months or so.” (You mean nobody – including herself – *knew* she was spectactularly gravid?)

I’m afraid that postponements and cancellations are just part-and-parcel of our life as service providers. And if we started charging cancellation fees, we’d be out of business very quickly – it’s not that client departments at the corporates aren’t sympathetic, but they’d never get budget approval.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

Oh, it must not have been clear that I meant the end client putting the jobs on hold – not the agency. If an agency contacts me in the first place I know it is because they want to work with me. It still smarts that the second part of a big job got canceled due to the recession last year, but these things happen. I was just glad I hadn’t put everything on hold and put off clients when I was waiting for it to eventually come through.

Thanks for sharing the story about the exec who had the baby. Now *that’s* a good one!

Kevin Lossner - November 17, 2010

Robin, it’s perfectly clear that the end client is generally responsible for such things. I don’t get bent out of shape over them, but neither do I feel a particular urge to “reserve” time without a firm commitment. I make it clear that “this is what I can offer you now” and half a day later the situation might be different. Case in point: two weeks ago I was contacted about an urgent contract. I was given the approval of the quotation two days ago. There’s no way my statement of schedule from two weeks ago will apply to this situation this week when I’m twice as busy and sick as a dog. A one-day turnaround becomes one week; anything less would not be in the client’s best interests. Most agencies and many direct understand this, of course, but once in a while a PM will make an attempt at stand-up comedy by reminding me of what was possible a month ago. We all need a laugh once in a while.

7. Catherine Christaki - November 18, 2010

Great post Jill! I agree with Kevin’s last comment. In general, if the job meets my requirements, I confirm my availability even if there are other projects pending to start. Most jobs do actually come but almost never on the date initially mentioned. Only a few times have I experienced a very heavy workload due to big projects overlapping. My worst experience with a project that had been delayed was a few years ago. I confirmed my availability in August, the end-client kept updating the files and they finally arrived in October, one day before a planned 1-week vacation (for which I had informed all my clients a long time beforehand). Because of the complexity of the project (multiple translators for 1 language combination and I had to play the PM role and also proofread their translations along with translating a large part of the files), I couldn’t turn it down, so I went ahead and completed it (fortunately I only worked a few hours every night and didn’t miss any sightseeing during the day) 🙂

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