Conventional business wisdom tells us that it’s a lot easier to retain an existing client than to find a new one. Retaining clients (as opposed to finding new ones) allows you to amortize the time you put into finding the client in the first place, the time and effort you put into learning a new client’s style preferences, terminology and payment procedures, and so on. In scanning a few articles before writing this post, I found that large corporations estimate that it costs up to five times as much to land a new client than to hold onto an existing one.

Long-term clients are also more likely to make you a true part of their team, which is always satisfying. In my mind, the only exception to the client retention rule relates to rates. If you have a salaried job and you want a 25% raise, it’s unlikely that your current job will provide that, but a new job might. Likewise, as a freelancer, you don’t want to be tied forever to the rates that your legacy clients pay; when you want to make a big income leap, you need to move on.

But let’s say that you’re mostly interested in retaining clients: other than providing them with excellent translations, here are some tips to holding onto them once you’ve landed them.

  • Send a handwritten thank-you note after you receive their payment for the first project. It doesn’t have to be gushy; just “Thank you so much for the opportunity to work together on your recent (annual report, press release, patent, etc.). I really enjoyed it, and look forward to working with you again in the future.”
  • Ask for feedback on every single job, and explain why it’s important to you. “My goal is to develop a long-term relationship with you; in order to do that, I really welcome your feedback on every translation. This is an important part of my quality process, and any feedback, even if negative, is a huge help in tailoring my translations to your needs and expectations.” Send that with the first job. Then, after every subsequent job, refer to it. “As I’ve mentioned, your feedback is always welcome and appreciated; please let me know if you have any comments on the translation.” I’ve also seen at least one freelancer who includes a link to a short, anonymous “satisfaction survey” on every invoice.
  • Send something for the winter holidays. I send a handwritten New Year’s card (you be the judge of what’s appropriate for your clients’ cultures: some may expect/welcome a “Christmas” card, others may not) to every client for whom I did even one project over the course of the past year. I send my A-list clients a tangible gift: sometimes a wreath (again, judge the cultural appropriateness), or some food that’s associated with where I live (Colorado-roasted coffee, Colorado honey, etc.).
  • Send them news items that might be of interest. This could be as simple as, “I noticed this article about changes in the US patent filing procedure and thought it might be of interest.” Or, if you want to go the whole nine yards, set up Google Alerts on your A-list clients’ names (especially if they don’t speak your target language and thus won’t notice press items that you might notice), then send them the mentions if they seem interesting.
  • Don’t nickle and dime them. This is a personal preference and applies primarily to direct clients. Personally, I prefer to charge a higher rate overall and do really small jobs for free, rather than impose a minimum charge on a client who needs 10 words translated. In general, I do not do minimum charges for direct clients if the job is under about 200 words; I just translate it for free, surmising that in the course of what the client pays me in a year, it all evens out.
  • Ask about the impact of your work. Again, this applies mainly to direct clients, but it’s a good tip for everyone. When I translate something that is intended for a specific impact or goal (university applying for international accreditation or recruiting students for a summer program, international development entity applying for a big grant, etc.), I always follow up with the client and ask about the result. Did they get the accreditation? Did the summer program fill up? Did they win the grant? This shows the client that a) I care and b) I want the translation to have the desired impact. These types of clients are investing in translation to improve something, not to maintain the status quo, so I want to know if that happened.
  • Pick up the phone. I don’t love the phone, and many of my big clients are in Europe, so the time difference is a factor. But, I find that with a client who I’ve never met in person, just being able to put a voice with an e-mail address is a huge help in personalizing the relationship. Likewise, if there is ever anything even minorly tricky that I have to work out with a client (what did they mean by “a more formal tone”?), I always call instead of e-mailing, because a sticky situation can very quickly escalate via e-mail.

Readers, any other client retention strategies to share?

I’m excited to announce that, subsequent to the survey that I did about a month ago, I’ve reshaped my online course offerings and the winter/spring classes are now open for registration. I’ll be offering four classes in more of a coaching group format, and instead of one major homework assignment every week, I’ll be splitting the work up into 20 “tasks of the day” (one every weekday for the four-week session) and we’ll discuss the tasks in an online discussion group (Don’t worry: not Facebook! Survey says 25% of translators will not do an online course that requires Facebook!).

Over the past two years or so, my online course sessions have continued to fill up, but fewer people have completed the weekly homework assignments, although they still reported that they got a lot out of the class. So, I’m reworking the course material into smaller chunks, and including more ways for participants to interact with each other. The coaching groups will still be limited to 10 people, still include a weekly live question and answer conference call, and still include lots of personal attention!

Here’s what’s in store for the winter/spring session. Early bird rates ($290; $15 discount for ATA members) apply through December 15, and each class runs for four weeks:

  • Getting Started as a Freelance Translator (beginning/new translators only): January 11
  • Beyond the Basics of Freelancing (experienced/established translators only): February 22
  • Marketing to Translation Agencies (all levels): March 14
  • Marketing to Direct Clients (all levels, but must have some experience in the industry): April 11

To read more about any of the courses or fill out the application form, hop on over to my website.

Here’s the latest episode of In the Balance, the series of work-life balance videos that I’ve been creating for Standing Out. In Episode 6, I share a variety of tips on how to be a better freelancing parent, spouse or partner (or, for that matter, friend/son/daughter, etc.). There’s one tip just for parents, one tip just for spouses/partners, and two tips for everyone. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments!

Standing desks are hot right now (with various sources telling us that sitting is the new smoking). If you’d like to try one, the most customizable option is a motorized sit-stand desk. Karen Tkaczyk uses one, and she demonstrated it in this blog post. Another option is a VariDesk that sits on top of a standard desk.

I recently moved to a new co-working office and the desks have a really easy sit-stand option, where the desk surface is permanently set at standing height and you use a tall chair or stool, moving yourself (rather than the desk surface) when you want to change positions. Here’s my desk:

At first I was a bit skeptical about the stool, but it’s actually working out really well. It’s just uncomfortable enough that I get up for a few minutes every hour and go get some tea or run a quick errand; it’s not hellishly uncomfortable (and it forces me to sit up straight), but it’s also not the kind of thing you snuggle into for a four-hour stretch.

I think that my new desk is an Ikea Linnmon/Finnvard, which, at US $109, is certainly an affordable option. Just make sure to get a nice hard stool to go with it!

My final online course of 2015, Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, starts this Wednesday (November 11), and I have four spots still available. This is a four-week course for established translators who want to make more money, enjoy their work more, pursue new specializations, or market to higher-quality agencies and direct clients.

Everyone in the class receives individualized feedback on four weekly homework assignments; we also do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week, and everyone receives an hour of individual consulting time with me. If you want to get a solid plan in place for 2016, now is a great time to get to work on it: registration is US $350 ($50 discount for ATA members), and you can read the full course description or register here.

ATA56 wrapup video

It will take me a few days to recover from the ATA conference and catch up on backlogged e-mail, but in the meantime, here’s the wrapup video from our videographer Derek Platts.

The conference was a great success on all fronts: we had 1,622 attendees from 52 countries (we had expected about 1,500 attendees, so those numbers are excellent), and we got lots of positive feedback on the sessions, the special events, and the venue. Mark your calendar now for ATA57, November 2-5, 2016 in lovely San Francisco!

I’ll be in Miami at the ATA conference for the rest of the week, so in the meantime, here’s the fifth episode of In the Balance, the work-life balance video series that I host for the Standing Out Facebook group. This episode focuses on taking the lessons you learn from your non-work interests and applying them to your work life. Because my non-work interests are very important to me, I’ve found over the years that my “hobbies” aren’t just a way to have fun or occupy my free time; they actually teach me a lot about being a translator and running my own business. Enjoy! And then add your own “crossover lessons” in the comments!


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