How not to get burned (again) by deadbeat clients

A few days ago, a colleague on a forum here in California mentioned a particular Canadian agency with a history of late and non-payment. Several people responded they had had similar experiences and recommended steering clear of this agency. I was glad for the heads-up, but it begs the question: how on earth do agencies like this stay in business in the first place?

Of course, it’s not like we all live together in Translator Town where we can get our pitchforks and torches and march up to Deadbeat Translations, Screwing Linguists Since 1998. The Internet has transformed the translation industry in that we no longer have to live in metropolitan areas to find work, as anyone in the world with an internet connection is now a potential client.  But it also means that recourse becomes a little more complicated when unscrupulous agencies take advantage of the fact that pretty much 100% of all translators are not likely to get on a plane to collect on a $100 overdue invoice.

In an ideal world we would steer clear of bad players in the first place. It’s not like the information isn’t out there, after all. The Proz Blue Board, TranslatorsCafe Wall of Shame, paymentpractices.net and the Better Business Bureau are all good resources. The Blue Board, for instance, shows that the Canadian company has countless “1” ratings, and they have actually been banned from posting jobs on the site. You’d think that once a company pulls a stunt (let alone multiple stunts) like this, they can forget about ever working with that or any other translator again. Weirdly enough, that is not always the case. The translator who asked the question on the forum this week gave the agency several chances, and to my shame I have to admit to a similar situation where I worked on several projects for another agency even though every check had be pried from their hands with a crowbar.

Why? In my case, I was a beginning translator with a small list of clients, and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than face the certainty of no more income from that agency if I cut them off. It’s like a bad relationship. Once you’re invested you keep hoping things will change. “This was probably just an isolated incident.” “The economy is hitting everyone hard; I’m sure they are doing everything they can.” “They promised things would be different this time.” Not exactly a winning strategy, in life or in business. In fact, take my word for it and dump that deadbeat now. You’ll sleep better and have more energy to devote to better prospects.

But what about that money they already owe you? There are a few things you can do. Most of these options have been discussed on forums and other blogs, but as it is an ever-present issue it bears repeating.

1. Threaten public exposure. This worked for me when a British agency suddenly didn’t speak English when presented with my invoices and gentle reminders. I then sent them a formal email stating that I would have their agency blacklisted if I didn’t receive payment by a particular date. The money was in my account that same week. Reputation is a precious commodity, particularly these days when a bad history is going to float around in cyberspace forever. Use that leverage.

2. Email is the least confrontational of your options, though, and some deadbeats are just not that easily intimidated. The next step is to up the ante with some professional back-up. Use whatever resources you have. I happen to have a brother who owns a financial consultancy firm and is a fearsome negotiator. When a French agency wouldn’t pay me he offered to make a quick phone call as my “financial representative”. I almost felt sorry for the poor accountant/manager as she stuttered and stumbled her way through this unexpected confrontation, but the check was in the mail that week. I read about another colleague who had a lawyer friend write a letter for him, with the same result.

3. Sometimes nothing you say has any effect, though, and you’ll have to actually take action. What are the options? If we’re talking about a relatively small amount, you may have to cut your losses and move on, after making sure this company is listed prominently on bad-payer sites of course. If it involves a larger amount, these basically two things you can do:

  • Hire a collections agency

Most of them charge a percentage of the recovered fees. The websites I checked all specialize in international collections and work on a “no recovery, no fee” basis.

If you live in Austria, here is some great information from Judy and Dagmar Jenner’s blog Translation Times about “KSV1870 (Kreditschutzverband, a collection/business protection service). For a membership fee, they conveniently track the creditworthiness and financial standing of companies in Austria. They are a large credit rating and risk management company, and they also do collections if it comes to that (it rarely does, as a stern letter from them is usually followed by prompt payment).” http://translationtimes.blogspot.com/2011/02/free-translation-advice-and-umbrella.html. I wish we had an option like that in the US!

  • Take them to court

If you live in Europe, you can file a Small Claims procedure online at: https://e-justice.europa.eu/home.do?action=home&plang=en.  Apparently you fill in the form online, and you can either submit it for a fee or send it to the client first to see if that will soften their hearts.

In the UK you can also file a claim via http://www.justice.gov.uk, and other countries probably have similar national sites.

Sadly, as far as I know there is no easy on-stop-shop like this in the US, although if there is I would love to hear about it. You usually file at the small-claims court in the state where the agency is located. This means significant time and more money if the agency is based in another state, but I have heard of translators who have successfully recovered money this way.

I have never had to hire a collections agency or take anyone to court, but I would love to hear from anyone who has, or who knows of other resources that would be helpful.

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