If I may, I’m going to start this post with a rant. I think there’s room in the translation industry for all kinds of service providers: from freelancers who want to work 10 hours a week to mega-agencies that operate around the world and around the clock. I just wish that all of these providers would be more honest about the advantages that they offer, and likewise about what they cannot do. For example, I don’t work for mega-agencies, but I think that they fill a niche: they can turn huge projects around in a short amount of time, they can manage really complicated projects with tons of languages or components, and they (hopefully) take a lot of responsibilities off the client’s plate because they can find people who provide nearly any linguistic service imaginable.
But by definition, mega-agencies have some limitations: there are many layers between the end client and the person who actually does the linguistic work, the client will almost never communicate with the person who does the linguistic work, and it’s difficult for the client to have a lot of input into a project that is parceled out to many different freelancers. When something goes wrong in a mega-agency project, it can be difficult to even identify where the mistake happened (the salesperson? the PM? the translator? the person who the translator subcontracted to, in violation of the NDA? the editor? the proofreader? the DTP person? the QA reviewer? the PM who filled in when the original PM went on vacation?). So, here is my wish for our industry: that everyone, from the part-time freelancer to the mega-agency, is honest about their capabilities and limitations.
In that vein, I think that a lot of freelancers who want to work with direct clients make a big mistake: they don’t sell the advantage of using an individual freelancer. Tip: if you’re an individual freelancer and your website refers to “we” or “our company,” you’re not selling the freelance advantage. You’re trying to compete with agencies, and agencies surely handle high-volume, fast-turnaround projects better than you do. So instead, how about selling this instead:
- You assure your direct clients that you know your limits. A mega-agency may take on virtually every project that comes through the door. You never (never!) take on a project if you’re not confident you can do an outstanding job.
- You are an “I,” not an amorphous “we.” Even if (as I do) you have a corporation for administrative purposes, you have a one-on-one relationship with your clients. They hire you, they get you. You never subcontract work without permission from the client. When a client really needs you, you answer the phone whenever, wherever. The buck stops with you: if you make a mistake, you take responsibility for it. Drawback of the mega-agency model: so many people touch each project that responsibility gets diffused. You can always convince yourself that someone else will find the mistakes that you don’t find. So when you sell the freelance advantage to direct clients, assure them that you do not work this way: you assume full responsibility for every aspect of your work.
- You maintain complete confidentiality. It always mystifies me when mega-agencies send a mass e-mail to a huge group of translators, including documents marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL (uh, not any more!). When you sell the freelance advantage to a direct client, you emphasize that you can keep the documents as confidential as the client needs: I even have a few clients whose documents I will not work on at my co-working office, to ensure that no one but me ever sees them.
- You get to know your clients’ projects inside out. A mega-agency can try to have the same translator work on a client’s projects every time, but they can’t guarantee it: said translator may be unavailable, or they may raise their rates. When you sell the freelance advantage to direct clients, you emphasize that over time, your translations will be more consistent than an agency’s, because you will be the only one working on them. For example, I maintain a customer preferences file for all of my direct clients, including their in-house style preferences, their standard instructions for formatting, the names and titles of key people in the company, and any company-specific terms that they use.
- You bring up questions as soon as they arise. With a mega-agency, the chain of communication between the translator and the client includes many other people. Some agency clients I’ve worked with even discourage translators from “pestering” the client with questions. I agree: don’t pester. But don’t “just translate” either. Example: one of my clients is a European business school. When I translated their admissions materials into English, the entrance requirements were clearly not applicable to American students, who don’t take the French Baccalauréat. I brought this up with the client as soon as I saw it, because the entrance requirements section needed to be completely rewritten for an international audience. This saved the client time and money, since they would have received a useless document, had I “just translated.”
Following these types of tips can help you focus on the clients you serve best, while you let mega-agencies do the same!