Lessons learned at the wordface: dealing with complaints

Many of us have experienced the awkward situation, where a client gets in touch after a project and is disappointed. The difficulty comes in dealing with this information. There are a number of possible reasons for the client’s reaction:

•You made an error
•The client is not able to judge the quality of the translation
•There is room for improvement in your pre-project workflow

I speak from personal experience when I say that everyone makes mistakes. This includes you. This also includes your clients. It pays to remember is that a mistake is an opportunity to improve. No matter how hard you work, how meticulous your translations are, how rigorous your QA processes, things can, and do, slip through the net. What marks you out as a professional is how you react.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to press the panic button:

Panic button - Speech Marks Translation


Instead, take a deep breath and consider the following options:


If the error is yours, own up and apologise. I have been surprised by some extremely defensive reactions to situations like this in the past. A lot can be gained (or salvaged) from taking responsibility for a mistake. The client is able to see that you are accountable for your actions, and this will most likely enhance your reputation, rather than damage it. In contrast, taking a defensive or even hostile approach when dealing with these situations will inevitably leave you looking for another client.

Client education

Dissatisfied clients are often no reflection on your skills. In fact, as I said earlier, situations like these can actually be opportunities for you to demonstrate exactly how skilled you are. The fact is that many translation buyers simply don’t have the ability to review the finished product. This is where problems with external ‘experts’ come in. I’m sure I’m not the only one, who has had to explain that a client’s doctor/aunt/friend, who spent a year in the UK in the 80s doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of the language as well as a native speaker. The trust that your client puts in you gives you a position of responsibility, which, given the right client (some just don’t care, sadly), can result in them gaining a better understanding of the industry, the translation process and your own capabilities.

Get an independent review

If you or your client feel that such a step would be productive, what about asking a colleague to review your translation? In this situation it might be a good idea to ask someone with either a high-level qualification, advanced membership of a professional association or a significant amount of experience in the industry. Remember, you are either trying to build or rebuild the trust between you and your client. He or she needs reassurance about your credentials, and appearances, numbers and figures will work in your favour. This backup will often be enough for the client to at least see your worth, which will then allow you to explain your translation choices and, hopefully, come to a satisfying conclusion for both parties.

If you feel that this step is worth it, the question then becomes who should pay for this service. If you have a professional collaboration with a colleague, this might be the time to call in a favour. However, if you pay for the reviser’s time yourself, justify it as a small expense, which may well pay off big time in the long run.

Improve your pre-project procedures

A lot of the problems that result in client complaints are linked to the parameters that are set before the translation actually begins. Imagine that a new client has phoned or emailed and you have agreed on rates and a deadline. What comes next? Do you just start translating? Or do you ask for reference material, a glossary of company or preferred terminology and the name of a person to contact with queries? This point is relevant to translators, who work primarily with direct clients, as (good) agencies will provide this information as a matter of course. In order to integrate these questions into your workflow, you could construct a series of short questions to send along with confirmation of the order in the form of a brief. Depending on the length, technicality and complexity of the project in hand, the brief can cover tone of voice, specific terms to avoid (perhaps competitor product names) and any images, which will accompany the translation.

This brief can be a solid foundation to fall back on in cases of client dissatisfaction, as you will have a record of his or her preferences.

How do you deal with dissatisfied clients?
Do you ask clients to fill out a brief?
As always, tips and comments are greatly appreciated!

Note: another great post on this topic is When a client is dissatisfied on Thoughts on Translation

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This article was written by: Megan Onions

  1. 6 Comments

    • Alina says:

      Great article, Megan! I have too come across defensive people that would not accept they can make a mistake. It is all about good communication between the parties. If the client comes back saying they are not happy, ask them for examples in the translation where they think there is a mistake or maybe another term would have been used. If they can’t exactly point it out, it is clear that they don’t really have the skills to assess it. Like you said, clients sometimes need to be educated in order to understand what we do.

      • Thanks very much for your feedback and comments, Alina. Your suggestion is a great idea. Asking a client (in a polite way, of course) to identify specific problem areas is a good indicator of how well they are able to assess the quality of a translation. The other options that I presented in the post can then be considered with a view to finding a good solution for everyone.

        I’m sure readers will appreciate your sound advice, so thanks for contributing!

    • Caroline Lakey says:

      Hi Megan, Great article, you make some excellent points! Having worked as a Guest Care Manager in the travel industry (in a former life) I’m unfortunately quite well-versed in the art of dealing with complaints. I agree that taking responsibility is VITAL!
      Tying into your last point about pre-project procedures, one thing that I had drummed into me regularly was the importance of “managing client expectations”. I think it’s important to make sure that the client knows what they can expect from you when they choose you for their project – things like delivery format and whether any DTP/page layout tasks are included, as well as the obvious delivery date and price.
      I’d also say don’t be afraid to ask questions if something needs to be clarified, so that you can understand and meet their expectations. I have to admit that I fell down on this one just yesterday – paragraphs of text for a company brochure, with little punctuation-less phrases at the beginning of each one. “They’re the section titles” I thought, and ploughed happily on with the translation. However, it turned out that they weren’t section titles but subtitles (the client hadn’t thought to send the main titles, as they were part of a different file). It was easily sorted, but if I had asked the question I could have avoided the issue.
      Have a good Friday!

      • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Caroline! I completely agree, and appreciate you sharing your sound advice! The pre-project discussions are the ideal opportunity to ensure that both parties know what is expected of them, and gives us the chance to show our professionalism.

        Thanks again, and have a great weekend!

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    • Marie Brotnov says:

      Hi Megan, sorry for the late reply, but I just came across this post and can relate! I’ve made mistakes and I agree that taking responsibility is the only thing to do. Of course it’s better to prevent errors by communicating with the client before delivery, but I’ve found that can backfire, too! One time I asked a client for clarification on a couple of industry-specific terms, figuring I was being a good scout by verifying rather than guessing and hoping for the best, but this client then wanted to know if she still had to pay for these words since she had done the work on them… I’d love to find out from others how they manage expectations beforehand with direct clients.

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