Goodwill – just another word for “customer service” or is there more to it?

Most of us don’t start our days thinking “Today I am going to perform an act of goodwill”; it’s not a conscious, proactive effort that comes out of nowhere, but instead, is often a reactive event, triggered by a situation.

Sceptics might say that goodwill really is just a fancy word for “customer service”, and something we all already do or should engage in. And to be fair, there are definitely overlaps between the two and situations in which you could say goodwill is synonymous with customer service, that they may be used interchangeably. This is not always the case however.

I believe that freelance translators (or any business) can go the extra mile, the one beyond just offering customer service. They can provide goodwill in the form of a friendly, benevolent gesture that may ultimately add value to their business and their reputation, even though this may not necessarily be quantifiable.

Many of us do this all the time when it comes to our customers, whether consciously or not. Some of us have tried it, have failed to see the value or benefit, and subsequently vow to never do it again. Some decide to be very selective in their approach to goodwill, and the “who,” “what” and “when”.

At this point, a disclaimer is in order. Goodwill is not for everyone and it is absolutely a personal choice. It can be dependent on your personality, your business ethics and philosophy, your culture and background, where you live and where your customers are located.

I like to divide goodwill up into two categories: “hard” goodwill and “soft” goodwill. As you might imagine, “hard” goodwill is the type you may be able to quantify, or place a monetary value on. Examples include doing a quick text for free for a customer you enjoy working with because it really will only take a few minutes, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. To be clear, this is something I offer from time to time (I no longer work with the type of customers who would say that they expect it for free, or worse, demand I do it for free), or offer to do it for free when the customer asks how much it will cost. I am naturally not saying we should do this all the time – after all, we need to make a living. When a customer asks me to translate a line or two of text, or asks my opinion on their customer’s English in a text consisting of just a few words, it will often depend on 1) who’s asking – do I have a good relationship with this customer? Do I enjoy working with them? Are they the type to take advantage of such a gesture? 2) my mood (crucial!) 3) how busy I am, and last but not least, 4) how much work really is involved.

Often if I have time and it proves to be a very quick task, I will do the translation and then tell the customer I’m not going to charge them (assuming it was quick and easy) – after all, inputting it into my bookkeeping system and generating a line on an invoice often takes longer than the work itself. Again, see (1) above; if it’s a customer I know will appreciate it and not come to expect it all the time, I am happy to do it. Another example of “hard” goodwill is answering a customer’s question about another translator’s translation, when it is obvious the translator is unable to do this themselves, because they live 10 time zones away and are sleeping, are ill or otherwise incapacitated, and the customer’s deadline is looming. If it is a quick, simple task I will normally do this for free, provided the four conditions above all dictate “Why not?” Another similar case is when the customer (normally an agency) needs a “second opinion” to provide substantiation to their customer for a translation another translator had done. This can be more problematic as it sometimes involves a lot more time, and I would imagine most customers worth working with would understand if you charged them for this service. Where I do however draw the line is reviewing a test translation another translator has done for an agency or of course proofreading and correcting texts an agency has doubts about. These are straightforward “billable” situations.

“Soft” goodwill can be trickier, and more open to personal interpretation. It can be more spontaneous, and depend on a variety of factors. At the same time, it can also be more premeditated and thus proactive. Many of us engage in “soft” goodwill all the time, because we consider it part of our translation work as a whole, and can’t imagine not offering certain services. Pointing out errors in the source text, for instance, not just typos and incorrect grammar and the like, but also erroneous references or years, misspelled names or quotations attributed to the wrong philosopher. Some agencies might not appreciate it, or may not even be willing to point these issues out to their customers, viewing it as too time-consuming or not in their job description. Other types of “soft” goodwill relate more to services offered outside of the actual translation work you are doing, such as recommending a translator in another combination, or even one working in your combination, but in an area you don’t specialize in. You might also provide references for alternate translators if you are unable to do the job yourself. This can be a minefield for reasons outside of the scope of this blog, and there are many opinions on this, both in favor of and against these kinds of referrals. Other examples include pointing out errors on the customer’s website, or passing on an article or report you found in the media about the company whose text you are translating that might be of interest and so on.

A couple of recent examples in my own work straddle the line between the two types. While working on a book translation last year, I noticed that the author’s English website was in dire need of correction. I suggested this to the publisher, not wanting to step on any toes. They loved the idea, and asked the author, who was equally happy to have this done. This was more of a win-win result; it wasn’t just to do the author a favor or get in someone’s good graces, after all, I had already gotten the job to translate the book. Better English on the author’s website is a better reflection on her and her work, and by extension, my work as the translator. Another book translation involved a similar act of goodwill – the author sent me a press release he had written in English himself, for informational purposes only, and I discovered several errors. I pointed this out, corrected it for him, again, not only because I want to offer a complete package of services, particularly when it comes to a book translation, but also as a way to improve the promotion of the book. He told me to charge whatever I would normally charge for this, and since it only took me about 10 minutes (again, always check these things thoroughly before offering to do them for free!), I told him I wouldn’t charge for it, it was part of the service I offered.

There are many other examples of both “soft” and “hard” goodwill, depending on the situation and many other variables.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what about the results? What do we expect from all these lovely gestures? Are we even entitled to expect anything? Or do we just adjust our halos and go about our business? Does it occur to us to expect anything? There are generally three types of responses to these gestures or efforts.

  • The customer will really appreciate it, let you know, send you more and better work; your relationship with them only improves.
  • Silence, or near-silence. You get a cursory thanks (if that) and nothing changes.
  • The “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” response – they take advantage of your good nature and your goodwill – and not only come to expect this all the time, but use that one incident as a precedent (“But you did it for free that other time!”). This applies to both “hard” and “soft” goodwill; they expect small jobs for free and place higher demands on you in terms of the extras (“Why didn’t you catch that error in the source text?” even if it didn’t impact your translation).

No one can decide for anyone else if, when or how we should perform these acts of goodwill for our customers. There are often so many variables which will determine if it’s a good idea, and to what extent. Intuition isn’t always reliable either; this can backfire on you, leaving you feeling betrayed and underappreciated, and in some cases, even exploited. (See the “No Good Deed” result above.)

Goodwill is generally a good way to create or increase customer loyalty, indicates you are serious about the relationship and your business, and sometimes, you might even get something other than more and better work in return. I have received book vouchers, chocolates and other small tokens of my customers’ gratitude, all of which were complete surprises and certainly not necessary, but appreciated just the same. Proof that goodwill can work both ways.





2 thoughts on “Goodwill – just another word for “customer service” or is there more to it?

  1. Hello Allison,

    An excellent post with excellent ideas, and most opportune to counteract a surge in client bashing, which does a disservice to our industry and deprofessionalises it. I believe we should all provide excellent service to our clients, and that includes the odd favour every now and again.

    This does not, however, mean being taken for granted, being effectively forced to work for free or low rates, or allowing ourselves to be disrespected, because I wouldn’t work with any client who would attempt to do that and neither should any of my colleagues. That is why I’m happy to offer some goodwill to my clients – particularly if they don’t ask for it for free. Doing so makes our profession all the better.


  2. Thanks so much Lloyd! Exactly the distinction I was trying to make, and to send out a warning that not all responses to goodwill are the same, and it is not something everyone can or wants to participate in. I agree with your statement about ‘…particularly if they don’t ask for it for free.’
    Thanks again for your comment!

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