Communicating with clients: crystal clarity or muddy murk?

Radio Scotland news recently featured a hotel booking mix-up. A group of French tourists turned up at the Jura Hotel, on the Isle of Jura (off the west coast of Scotland), saying that they’d booked rooms there. The hotel owner had no record of a booking, and the hotel was full. When he checked their reservation form it turned out that they had indeed booked in to a Jura Hotel — in the Jura mountains in France.

This is pretty mystifying: how could you mix up the Jura mountains on the continent of Europe and a Scottish island on its western fringes? Maybe they were using a hotel aggregator website and didn’t check the hotels’ own sites.

Leaving this mystery aside, what struck me about this story was the Scottish hotel owner’s reaction.

He solved the immediate accommodation problem: some of the rooms were being renovated so he quickly cleaned up a couple of these for his unexpected guests, who had a great welcome and thoroughly enjoyed their stay. So that was good.

But speaking afterwards on Radio Scotland, the owner said he couldn’t understand how the Frenchmen had made the mistake. The reservation form they showed him was in French, and the room charges in euros. But all of the forms he sent out were in English, and charges in sterling. So the tourists should have realised the booking form hadn’t come from his hotel.

Whoa! Hold on a minute. How could the French tourists possibly know about the practices and procedures of the Jura Hotel (Scotland)?

This in turn got me thinking about my own — and other language businesses’ — communications with clients and potential clients. Every transaction with our clients should be part of our marketing strategy. Each email, quote, newsletter or invoice should be “on brand” and designed to establish and/or strengthen a good relationship with our clients.

How much knowledge do we take for granted on their part? How transparent are we? Do we think of our clients’ needs and assumptions, or our own?

For example, for clients in Italy I issue quotes and invoices in euros, on a “per page” basis, because that’s what my clients expect. For clients in the UK, I quote/invoice in sterling, on a “per word” basis. I offer them a standard rate and an “urgency surcharge” rate, with a delivery date for each. Pretty transparent, I thought, until I realised that I don’t specify to my Italian clients how a page is calculated (I use 1500 characters including spaces, source text).

As translators and editors, we sometimes feel that quantifying our work in “words” or “pages” diminishes it. I used to work with colleagues who felt that we should present our work on a “per project” basis. In other words, our clients shouldn’t really know what they were paying for. I no longer take this approach. If a job is particularly complex and requires not just linguistic expertise but days and possibly weeks of research (as is often the case), then my per-page fee will reflect that. Alternatively, I can itemise the quote: research, translation, proof-reading… But my clients should know what they’re paying for.

When I’m making a purchase, I like to have as much information as possible so that I can make a fully informed choice. Why should my clients be any different? Why shouldn’t they have the right to know what they’re paying for?

What do you think about this (pretty thorny) issue?

By Marian Dougan

4 Responses

  1. I totally subscribe to the transparency requirement as you describe it. However I’m not absolutely sure that given the present situation, some of my clients would understand and be willing to pay for the research part. After all, if they choose me for their translations, they consider that I am an expert in their field, and they don’t want to know about the research part. So I might either lose their patronage, or find their trust is reduced with more problems down the line, or they could require a rate reduction because wit the best of intentions, I would be pointing to one price element that they could easily want to strike off the bill. But it’s an excellent idea to ponder, when there’s a will there’s a way.

    1. Thanks, Nadine. I don’t normally itemise my quotes or invoices to the degree I described in the post. However, with public sector clients who want to work with me but who need to satisfy strict public spending criteria, I tend to include more rather than less information in my quotes. In the faint hope that I’ll manage to educate not so much the direct client but the admin/accounts person who sees nothing but numbers. Last week I included the following in a quote to an Italian client, for a translation in the employment and social welfare field:

      Anni di esperienza non solo di traduzione ma di analisi e ricerca nel settore affari sociali: lavoro, formazione, sanita’, pari opportunita’, “welfare” ecc — Compresi nel prezzo
      Anni di esperienza nella traduzione in un inglese chiaro, conciso e di facile comprensione per un pubblico internazionale di testi e concetti in lingua italiana complessi — Compresi nel prezzo

      I haven’t heard back from them…

  2. Ah, but you’ve hit on the sore point many of us reach from time to time with a client, which is: at what point do you cross the line from providing a service and educating them to coddling and encouraging them? At what point do you determine that they really, genuinely don’t get it?

    I know my clients don’t understand all of that tech stuff, nor should they be expected to: that is what they hire me for. But we have all reached that point in a meeting where the client is looking visibly distressed at the simplest scope of work, saying “now just so I understand” or “so that’s not possible, then?” or “Oh, I didn’t realise that…” to the extent that you are thinking “oh dear, is this going to be one of those? If this is what the first meeting is like, what’s it going to be like doing a project with them?”

    You could expect the hotelier on Jura to tolerate visitors who were lost on the island, or had perhaps hopped the wrong ferry. But to pat people on the head because they travelled to the wrong country?

    I recently got a call from an irate client who had just received a bill for £800 from a photo library for unauthorised use of an image on his site. He had given me the image – the only one I did not source and license myself during the whole project – and told me it was okay to use. I specifically asked him if he had license rights to all the content he had given me, and he said yes. An £800 bill later it turns out that he had gotten the image off Google Images and thought that this made it okay to use! I asked him what made him think that finding an image on the internet gave him intellectual property rights. He replied: “Well, you should have warned me about that.” What, it’s my responsibility to tell a business professional not to steal, nor to pass me the stolen goods? Thank god for watertight contracts!

    Fair play to the hotelier for accommodating the visitors when he had no obligation to do so. I will help my clients, I will advise them, and I will encourage them. But I absolutely won’t clean up after them.

    1. Ouch! Yes, client education is a long, hard slog. The thing is, we’re all clients ourselves at some point in the chain – I sometimes wonder if I’m as difficult a client to my suppliers as my clients are to me (does that make sense?). Anyway, I hope not!

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