I started translating some time around the end of 2002. My first real client came in 2003 and they still work with me. It’s a direct client—all my clients are. Since I’m a keen networker, I have met a couple of agency owners over time. But, I never actually “learned” to work for agencies. I wouldn’t even know how to charge them. Every now and then, when they are desperate, one of these agencies will ask me to do smaller jobs for them, even though I’m too expensive for them. The reason why that is so is simple: I never got into matches and fuzzies or discounts, and CAT related leverages for the latter are non-existent for me. So agencies don’t make any profit off my work. But that’s fine. I am busy as it is with my direct clients.
You’re wondering why I started outsourcing?
Naturally (one would hope so), my clients grow their business over the years. Usually, they are based in Germany or Switzerland. They will start out with translations into English. Many of my clients ask for other languages as they tap new markets. By 2008, translations into Italian, French, and Spanish had become more or less part of my portfolio. Chinese, Russian, Turkish, and other languages followed. Today, I cover about 17 languages for my clients. Usually, I work with trusted colleagues who proved to be really good at what they do.
So when my clients ask me for translations into languages other than German or English, it goes a little something like this:
Me: Dear client, I have no idea about Russian… Why not contact an agency?
Client: But you know us so well and you have a great network. Can’t you take care of it? Well pay for it, of course.
Me: Well, I could recommend someone…
Client: Oh no, we really don’t want to deal with another service provider. We’d prefer buying from a single source.
So yeah, that’s how I started outsourcing. How do I do it? “My” translators get the rates they ask for (sometimes even more). Then I add a generous percentage on top of that to cover the time I need for project management. Why generous? It’s not so much that direct clients generally pay more when dealing with a LSP. It’s because freelancers tend to complicate project management. And if I have to deal with that for my clients, then they have pay for it. Simple as that.
Wait! Freelancers tend to complicate project management?
YES! I will guarantee that no matter how good a freelancer is at translating, it will take some time for them to cooperate with me in a way that I consider appropriate. I don’t know where translators learn that all clients are the same (in this case I am their client). Because they are not. I’ll give you my word on it. Every client has different workflows in place, no matter if it’s a direct client or an agency or an outsourcing colleague. And as freelancers, it’s our job to take that into account.
Now, remember, I do not consider myself an agency. I outsource some, but I do not operate like an agency, I don’t market myself as an agency, I don’t think like an agency. I am a freelancer, just like most of the readers here. But I’ve been in the business long enough to know the game. I provide a service. No out-of-the-box service, and certainly not with a one-size-fits-all attitude. I have learned that it’s crucial to put myself in my clients’ shoes. Once I decide to work with a client, I will do my very best to make—and keep—them happy.
Lesson 01: Briefing
Today I want to share something that will make you scratch your head. At first. But I promise: It happens all the time.
Let’s assume you ace in translation and you know it. But you’re failing to make clients come back, endorse, and recommend you. In this case, chances are that you’re not paying attention to the briefing when a project is kicked off. And it’s most likely the reason why you believe that agencies are being a bit too generous with their own share when it comes to rates.
If you’re not paying attention to the briefing, someone is paying for it. Either the client, the agency, or you.
Here’s a story from a recent project. A client asked me for translations into 11 languages. They delivered the copy in an Excel file that had about 8 tabs. Each tab represented different marketing materials: Vouchers, gift certificates, folders, leaflets, mailings, etc. The file was laid out to facilitate print file preparation for the graphic designer. And in each tab, there were one or two columns on the left with notes for the graphic designer. The first row indicated the respective marketing channel.
In my briefing, I gave the following instructions:
- Do not translate tab names.
- Do not translate the first row and the indicated columns (I even hid them!).
- Replace the xx in the file name with your language code.
- When in doubt, ask me.
- You will find the original print files for reference purposes in a Dropbox folder (link).
- I do not need your best rate, I need your best translation.
- Be easy on yourself, the deadline is more than comfy (it was about 2,200 words with a deadline of two weeks).
For this project, I worked with one new translator and one who had done one translation for me before. All the others I have worked with for years.
Guess who sent their translation first? Right, the newbies (newbies as in newbies to “my team”). What did they do?
- They translated the tab names.
- They translated the hidden columns and the first row.
- They did not replace the xx in the file name but added their language code (or even the entire word) at the end of the file.
- They didn’t ask any questions.
- One had a look at the original files.
- I had to up one of the rates because they asked for way too little.
- They delivered way too fast.
Numbers 1 to 5 explain why they delivered so fast. The translation itself was good (yes, I had their work proofread by other translators). I just wish they had taken their time to read the briefing carefully. I wish they had asked for a rate that allowed them to prepare properly (see No. 6)… Then they would have had time for a good translation AND to get acquainted with me, the end client and the project. Really, they should have read the friggin’ briefing.
And No. 7? Tell you what. It only made me doubt the quality of their work. I was not happy about the early delivery (and we are talking days, like 7 days earlier than necessary). I’m not sure if they were eager to impress me. Or if they gave in to self-inflicted pressure. After all, it’s a competitive market.
Also, the fact that they obviously did not care to read the briefing made me doubt their attitude in general. Does it reflect how much effort they put into their translations?
Being a freelancing translator myself, and having a built a number of communities for freelance translators, I know how these things happen. And I take them into account. Which is why I add a generous percentage to the actual translation costs when I bill my clients.
But you know what? It’s frustrating. Cause it happens every time I work with somebody new. If this was my daily routine, i.e. if I ran an agency, you can bet your last dime that I would not work with these people again. I’m pretty sure an agency can’t charge “drive-by” clients to make up for that kind of carelessness. And surely they will not want regular clients to pay for it either. A professional agency will want to work with professional translators. Professional translators who understand that you can’t succeed in this business just by being a good translator.
How much did their carelessness cost me in this case? Fixing the files, emailing the translators about it… Roundabout an hour, which translates to 129 Euros that my client will have to pay. One hour, including the moment I took to sit back and swallow my disappointment. Yup, I’m disappointed every time a translator does not stick to my briefing. But I’m on a mission: To build the best team around my business so we can deliver top-notch services to my clients. It’s the frog I have to eat. So I talk to “my” translators about the things that disappointed me. It’s called a debriefing. Or: giving a 2nd chance.
Sure, it will probably go smoother next time around. But ignoring a briefing is something that causes unnecessary delays. Not to mention that a little attentiveness goes a long way.
Is this a rant?
No. And I know that some will feel offended by this post. If you do feel offended, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. Either you know that you do better (good for you!) or you feel caught. If you do feel caught, take it as an anonymous lesson.
Yes, the feeling when someone calls us out on our mistakes sucks. But failure and mistakes are the best teachers. When someone does call you out on carelessness, appreciate it. If you want to become more successful, start by paying attention to briefings. Especially when you’re dealing with new clients. If you wanna be a keeper, YOU. NEED. TO. BE. ATTENTIVE!
Did you enjoy this lesson? Check out the others!
Ever wondered what your invoices and payment tracking say about you? And what about late payers?