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Can you give us a quote and a turnaround time?

By Corinne McKay

"Can you give us a quote and a turnaround time?"

As freelancers, we hear or read those words a lot - a client, or prospective client, has a document that they need translated, and they want to know about how long it’s going to take, and about how much it’s going to cost. So, when you’re on the receiving end of that request, what’s the best way to proceed? Let’s look at a few options.

You could pick up the phone. If you have a confident but non-pushy phone manner, a phone call makes an immediate personal connection. "Just wanted to touch base about your document and ask you a few questions that will help me get a better sense of what you’re looking for. What’s the purpose of the translation? What’s the deadline?"

On the plus side, you’re making the effort to make this personal connection, and you’re getting a better sense of what the client is actually looking for (which may be different from what they think or say that they’re looking for). On the minus side, the potential client might view the call as mildly invasive (if they’re thinking just tell me how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost). You also need to make sure that you don’t sound awkward or overly sales-y on the phone.

You could give them a brief and direct answer. It’s going to cost X, and it’s going to take X business days from your go-ahead. On the plus side, this is easy for the client to digest and respects the client’s time. On the minus side, there is no engagement here: the interaction is purely transactional (price and speed), and in a sense, encourages the client to select a translator based simply on those transactional factors. As an aside, *never* give a hard deadline (eg. next Tuesday), because you don’t know when the client is going to respond. Always frame it as "X days from your go-ahead".

You could give them a less brief, but still direct answer. In my unscientific tests, I think that most clients respond better to multiple pricing options, even if the options are a bit of a stretch. For example if a client asks for a quote for a 10,000 word document, I’ll often say, "my normal turnaround time for 10,000 words is five business days, and the cost would be X".

"However I could potentially translate this in four business days, for which the cost would be X. And if you’re not on a tight deadline and you have eight business days, the cost would be X”. I think that simply seeing multiple options makes the client feel that you’re flexible (even if the prices are not wildly different), and avoids a take-it-or-leave-it feeling.

You could give a ballpark answer. It’s generally accepted in the negotiating world that the first person to say an actual number ("it’s going to cost…") is at a disadvantage. Because if you quote less than what the client was willing to pay, you’ve left money on the table.

This is tricky: while it’s certainly possible to ask the client, “What’s your budget?” or “If you work with translators now, what are you paying them?”, it’s generally the service-provider who is expected to say a number first. I like the “what’s your budget?” approach in theory, but I’d be very turned off if I wanted to hire a new accountant, asked about her/his rates, and was then asked, “What were you planning on paying to get your taxes done?” It’s a little odd.

Leave a little wiggle room if you want to. When I give a quote to a new client who looks promising (meaning that I’m very interested in their work), I always include phrasing such as, “If this is outside your budget, just let me know and we can talk further”.

I’m not saying, “If this is too expensive, just say the word and I’ll charge less”. I’m just saying that we can talk about it. Maybe I can negotiate a longer deadline; or maybe I can ask about their budget and suggest what I could do for that amount of money. You’re not required to leave wiggle room, but it’s an option.

Corinne McKay is an ATA-certified French to English translator based in Boulder, Colorado, USA. She has been blogging about translation since 2008, and is also the author of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, a career how-to guide with over 10,000 copies in print.