Dealing with Low-ballers

Rates are a very controversial issue in our industry and the issue of low-ballers is even more controversial. In fact, it's kind of a hard concept to pinpoint. One freelancer might be regularly (and happily) working for a rate that another considers low-balling. Or, you might be too fast to burn a potential bridge over an e-mail asking for a low rate.

Whether this is something that makes your blood boil or not, there's one thing that we all need to understand: price negotiation is a reality of doing business.

I think at one point or another, we've all received something like this e-mail:

'Dear translator,
We have an exciting new project for you! This is a VIP client and we plan to get a significant amount of work from them in your language combination. Unfortunately, our budget is a little low but we hope you can be flexible.'

Now, let me annotate this e-mail a bit and let me know if this is what you're hearing when you read it:

'Dear translator [whoever you are…I don't really care],
We have an exciting new project for you [please dear God take this job so I can go home]! This is a VIP client [also, please don’t screw it up] and we plan to get a significant amount of work from them [you’ll be rich if you don’t mind working 25 hours a day…or maybe you'll get none at all] in your language combination [whatever that is]. Unfortunately [yup, here it comes], our budget is a little low [and by low, I mean you couldn’t feed a hamster on it] but we hope you can be flexible [seriously, just take it].'

Trust me, I get it. I've been there…wanting to scream at the computer about how incredibly valuable my translations are and how dare you even suggest I work for 1 penny or half a penny a word (do they really cut pennies in half?)? But guess what? Yelling via e-mail might make you feel a little better for a minute, but it doesn’t really accomplish much.

One of my agency clients started with an incredibly low offer, but because I was professional in my reply, while we didn't work together on that job, when they did have the budget, they came back and hired me, and I've been working for them for several years at my standard rates. I had another (direct) client contact me and pitch me a very low rate and it turned out that he was just very uneducated about the translation industry and Googling hadn't helped him much.

Am I saying that every time someone sends an e-mail like that it is out of good intentions or naivety? Of course not. So, what's the best way to deal with this?

1) Create an e-mail template. You definitely don't want to invest a lot of time negotiating if your price is too far from the prospect's budget since you're unlikely to work together on that particular project, but having a standard professional reply means you spend very little time, you get to remain professional, and you don't burn a bridge in case they have a better budget in the future. There's no need to take this personally. They may not have any idea how much translation is supposed to cost. (Scroll to the bottom to download my e-mail template for this.)

2) Create a rates sheet. This is VERY helpful to have even if you don’t deal with low-ballers. It’s an easy way for clients to get an idea of your rates and any applicable fees (feel free to provide a range and state you will quote each job in advance). Sending a template e-mail with attached rates sheet uses almost none of your time or energy, and allows you to maintain your professionalism AND potentially gain a future client. It's also a way to educate them on professional rates without putting them on the defensive by way of attacking them.

 3) Always remember that they are people. An e-mail like this might come from a project manager whose company is putting pressure on them to reduce expenses. It might also come from an agency whose client is putting pressure on them to get it done fast and cheap. I've actually had a company e-mail me before and say in the e-mail that they were asking me to do it for this rate so that they could go back to their client and say that they tried even though they knew it was offensive. You just never know what the other person's situation is and, in the end, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being polite.

 4) Ignore them.  If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all, right? Deleting an e-mail like that is the best way to go if you can't keep yourself from writing a scathing lecture. Remember that no matter how right you might be, your scathing e-mail could lead to bad reviews online, or a bad reference. Alternatively, remaining professional means that person might refer you to someone else with deeper pockets (which also happened to me).

I hope the above strategies help you deal with this situation that I know we all face to varying degrees.

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    Author: Jenae Spry

    Jenae has been a French > English translator for over 10 years and a productivity and performance coach for freelancers for over 5 years. Jenae launched the Success by Rx blog to help freelancers achieve success.

    Posted in Business.


    1. Excellent advice! I recently got an inquiry that included, “Unfortunately we are pretty tight, budget-wise. Our client said that this is supposed to be the start of a large project (supposedly thousands of documents) so we are looking for the best rates possible.”

      Btw, this was to translate 13k words from Thursday morning to Sunday morning.

      I replied with my customary rate and said it was the minimum I can charge, no matter what the volume.

      The agency replied, “Unfortunately that is out of our budget. We are trying to keep everyone at $XXX. Normally we can pay a little higher but this client knocked us down a lot, actually to what is a new low rate in our 10+ year history.”

      I wrote, “I am very sorry to hear that a reputable agency like yours is allowing itself to be pulled down below industry standards, which are already pretty low. I understand the reasons but I still think it’s a shame. Every time an agency accepts a lower rate than even its own lowest rate, our entire profession takes a step back, and that only makes it harder for us to move forward in improving our standards and demanding the professional treatment to which we are entitled. Thank you again for the inquiry and best wishes.”
      The agency’s final reply, which I thought was at least pretty decent, was:
      “Yeah, we normally don’t play that game but unfortunately we can’t continue to lose out on these larger projects unless we compete with XXX or YYY. Typically we pay our Spanish to English translators $XXX which I know is much more than XX pays theirs. I know translators that are working for basically below minimum wage because that is what these larger agencies throw out there and someone eventually picks it up.”

    2. Great article. I absolutely agree; being polite and professional helps much more than unloading sudden anger we may feel when confronted with proposals that sound simply offensive. I love your annotations to the above-quoted email – my thoughts exactly… 🙂

    3. Hi Jeane,

      Thank you for the tips. And it is true. I work for a translation company and sometimes it is not the agency’s fault to have a tight budget. And you are right, I keep translators that are honest and polite even though I cannot hire them for certain projects, I keep them in mind for other projects with bigger budgets I don’t like to work with problematic people. By the way, the template is blank.

    4. Thanks for the article, really helpful. Still, the template appears to me as a blank word doc, could you please check?

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