Mary Jo Smith-Obolensky
[Originally published in “The ATA Chronicle”, September/October 2017 edition]
In the 22 years I have been in business, I’m most proud of the fact that I have some clients whom I have serviced since the company’s inception. Through recessions, demands for cheaper translation, economic pressure, and the machine translation movement—all threatening to either force me to change my detailed process or go out of business—I’ve managed to keep it all intact. I attribute a large part of this success to the relationships I form with my clients and vendors.
I started as a freelance translator, then expanded to a boutique-style company. I have always strived to follow the golden rule of treating others as I would like to be treated. I write this from the perspective of both the employer of my independent contractors and as a vendor to my corporate clients. I also maintain the viewpoint of a translator, which allows me to run the business within a scope of excellence grounded in reality.
Below are some of my fundamental practices that create and ensure successful business relationships. Without these basics, I believe doing business can be arduous and downright unpleasant. And since our profession takes the majority of our days and lives, and we’re often on our own at our computers, it’s worth investing our time and effort to ensure that the time we spend cultivating relationships with our clients is the best it can be.
Three Key Points in Relationship Etiquette
- Regardless of what’s happening in my personal life, I always maintain a professional attitude with my vendors and clients. Hearing about someone’s personal problems in a working environment doesn’t apply, unless it’s vital information that may affect the work in any way.
- I always keep basic manners in place. This includes responding quickly, paying attention to detail, using professional salutations and closings in all correspondence (regardless of how the client or other vendors/colleagues do it). Doing so shows respect and adherence to professional values.
- I maintain a professional attitude that does not vary, regardless of any circumstance—too busy, not enough work, sick, etc.
As a vendor, my goal is to be a team member, and that requires good communication, respect, and attention to detail.
Five Red Flags When Seeking Potential New Vendors
As an employer, it’s not my place to tell independent contractors who work with me how to run their businesses or do their work. My intention by sharing this is to offer some insight into ways in which the business experience and the outcome of their efforts can be improved.
- Typographical errors in résumés or correspondence: This does not reflect on attention to detail or professionalism in an industry where this is imperative.
- Delays in getting back to me with more information or when filling out legal documents to be set up as a vendor: It tells me they’re too busy for me and not interested in new work.
- A brusque or unprofessional manner: I like to talk to potential vendors to find out as much information as possible. I also invite them to ask me any questions. Skype calls are even better to get a sense of a person with whom you’ll be dealing before committing to bringing them into the team.
- Delays in sending invoices: Slow admin is not a good sign of a vendor taking care of the business aspect of the relationship. It reflects disorganization or lack of value for their own work.
- Invoices that are unclear or incomplete: This adds work on our end, which violates the rule of adding traffic to a busy client’s plate. (In this case, it’s my plate as their client.)
10 Success Points on Which I Built My Business
- Have professional and personal backups so that if an emergency of any kind arises, the client’s needs and delivery are always met.
- Make sure that all administrative points are being handled (e.g., billing, invoicing, payments, answering phones, and responding to e-mail quickly).
- Have a full understanding of what the client’s needs are and how they change over time. This usually involves asking questions and having a conversation. I also keep notes on specific client requests and preferences, and these are added to the guidelines for that client.
- Always meet or beat deadlines. It’s up to me to ensure the schedule is doable, including a cushion for unexpected events.
- Do not create or pass on any confusion regarding the project to clients or vendors. Intercept any that occur and handle them quickly.
- Do not change your original estimate once it has been agreed upon. Once we have submitted an estimate (based on the final files), we never change the cost unless elements not initially considered get added at a later time. Let the client know in advance that this possibility exists. However, if I go over budget, that’s my problem, not my client’s.
- Take the burden of translation off the client’s busy plate. Before and during the translation process, compile clear questions before sending them and offer a solution wherever possible.
- Always look out for your client. While the client is technically responsible for approving the final document, watch their back and ensure what gets delivered is thoroughly approved internally before submitting a review.
- Maintain speed of service and communication. This is vital. Keep the client and vendors updated as needed. This ensures coordination and shows respect for all concerned.
- Ensure that payment processes and schedules are solid and stable, both as a vendor and a client.
Four Key Qualities to Relationship Building
- Transparency and Responsibility: Being transparent and taking responsibility for mistakes (after fully understanding the client’s concerns) is vital. Offer a solution that improves the process if the issue stemmed from the client’s side. Or assure the client that this issue has been looked at and that measures have been taken on your end to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The idea is to confront, address, and adjust processes in a speedy fashion to avoid the same issue reoccurring in the future.I always take full responsibility for any error or mistake. “The client is never wrong” maxim applies, and if the relationship becomes abusive (when it becomes apparent that we’re going to lose working with this client no matter what we do), I have the power to end the relationship. I select my clients as carefully as I select my vendors. I deal only with polite, professional, reasonable, and competent people who appreciate the value of what we deliver. I avoid problems with both clients and vendors by selecting them correctly. Although the majority of my clients in the past 22 years in business have come to me by referral, I still select with whom I choose to work. That referral works well in both directions. Additionally, I encourage vendors to share the names of colleagues they have worked well with so they can be considered to join the team.
- Quality and Team Effort: As an employer, I only deal with consummate and experienced professionals who can work as part of a team with the intent to create something of the highest quality for the client. Self-centered individuals don’t fit our paradigm. In addition to qualifications and competence, the ability to value and enjoy the team effort is necessary for this profession. It’s the team that accomplishes the magic. Team effort is what ultimately creates a better product for our clients. That team includes the client, our staff, and any vendor involved. I don’t accept or pass on deadlines to my vendors unless they’re actually doable while maintaining our strict quality assurance process. Having been a translator myself, I understand the process very well.
- Loyalty: A relationship with a client should be based on loyalty. We have their trust that we will take care of their translation needs. But this long-term investment should never be taken for granted by either party. I don’t abuse my capital (as in goodwill, trust, a strong relationship)—not with clients nor with vendors. Each job is an opportunity to demonstrate our abilities and skills and empower our clients with the best translation of their documentation. A job should be done with enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity.
- Personal Touch: In an industry where we rarely get to meet our clients or vendors face-to-face, building a relationship in other ways is vital. Among the things I do to lend a personal touch include:
- Making time to Skype with vendors about important project issues.
- Visiting clients once or twice a year.
- Personalizing or creating gifts I know will benefit or be enjoyed by my clients and vendors.
- Publishing monthly articles (also translated into Spanish) about business, culture, and finance on our website that may be of interest in their everyday lives.
- Baking homemade goods for the holiday season and hand-delivering them where possible.
In short, I find my own way of connecting that’s authentic and personable. All these points, I believe, are what make my relationships with clients unique and lasting. It also makes for a fulfilling life!
Mary Jo Smith-Obolensky is the founder and chief executive officer of Dynamic Doingness, Inc., a multimedia translations boutique that specializes in financial, marketing, technical, legal, and human resources documentation. Before opening her own company, she worked in media and various other industries. Born and raised in Colombia in a bilingual environment, she got her university degree in England. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.