“Agencies won’t pay my rates, and I can’t find direct clients”: what to do?

Here’s a conundrum that I hear frequently from freelancers at all experience levels: agencies won’t pay my rates, and I can’t find any direct clients. What should I do? Well, let’s see:

  • First, adjust your mindset. Tough love tip: if you truly believe that *zero* agencies will pay your desired rates, and that you will *never* be successful finding direct clients, you need to either shift your thinking or find a different job. If you’re approaching every interaction with a potential client as, “Here goes round 1,000 of beating my head against the wall,” then that’s the first thing that needs to change. Use growth mindset statements like, “There are plenty of clients out there who need what I do. I’m going to keep knocking on doors until I find them,” or “Instead of just translating what lands in my inbox, I’m going to actively seek out the kind of work I enjoy and am good at,” or “The marketing methods I’ve used in the past haven’t worked very well. Now I’m going to try something new and see if that gives me different results.”
  • Assess what “won’t pay my rates” means. As I’ve written about before, you don’t need hundreds of clients to have a thriving translation business. If you apply to 100 agencies and 98 of them think you’re too expensive and two of them think your rates are fine, that’s success. And remember, thanks to a little thing called the Internet, you’ve got the whole world to work with. But…
  • Work the local market. When I started my freelance business in 2002, I knew essentially nothing about entrepreneurship. So I opened up the yellow pages (remember when?) and started cold-calling translation agencies in Colorado and asking for informational interviews. As it turns out, I had stumbled onto a marketing technique that was actually very effective. The vast majority of these agencies responded something like “We don’t have much work for French to English/only work with people with five years’ experience/already have a couple of French translators we like, but if you want to come in and talk to us for a few minutes, no problem.” And since I had very little work, I had tons of time, so I went and talked to them. And guess what, when they had a sudden and urgent need for more French to English translators, or their existing French to English person went on vacation/raised their rates/was suddenly unavailable, guess who they called next? In-person marketing really is worth the investment of time, whether you’re looking at agencies or direct clients.
  • Don’t market to direct clients in the same way you market to agencies. Agencies understand what you do. They know that they need you. They know the difference between a translator and an interpreter. Direct clients know none of this, and it’s not their fault. But they know that in a business sense, translation might be necessary, helpful, or both. So, it’s up to you to market to them in a way that they can understand: “Have you ever considered what an English website might do for your business?” “I’ve helped multiple US-based investment companies understand the financial statements of the Russian companies they invest in.” “When you work with me, I have one goal: to take the hassle and stress out of the translation process.” You’ve heard it before, but let’s say it again: focus on what’s in it for the client, not on how many words a day you translate and what TM tool you have.
  • Keep marketing to agencies, but be selective. When I launched my freelance business, I was 100% *un-selective* about the agencies I marketed to. I opened up my paper copy of the ATA corporate member directory and started at A, going to the agencies’ websites and seeing if they were hiring. By the time I hit the middle of the alphabet, I was getting some work from the As and Bs. But if you’re not a beginner, don’t do that. Even if you are a beginner, vet the agencies you apply to by checking their ratings on Payment Practices or the ProZ Blue Board before you apply. If you’re beyond beginner stage, target your marketing. Sort the agencies’ ratings on one of the sites above, and apply only to the ones with impeccable reviews. Ask translators in other language combinations who their favorite clients are, or what agencies they’ve heard good things about. Google “engineering translations” or “cookbook translations” or whatever your specialty is, and apply to the agencies that advertise those services.
  • Ditch the “I don’t have time” excuse. OK, I’ve used it too. But really, you have 15 minutes a day, right? And even 15 minutes can make a big difference. In 15 minutes, you can send a warm e-mail to a prospective direct client. You can apply to most agencies in 15 minutes. And most importantly, 15 minutes a day keeps the ball rolling and makes marketing a habit, which is one of the keys to success.

Readers, any other thoughts on how to break out of a mental block when it comes to marketing?

25 Responses to ““Agencies won’t pay my rates, and I can’t find direct clients”: what to do?”
  1. Jonathan Hine August 13, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 13, 2016
  2. Tess August 13, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 13, 2016
    • Lukasz Gos August 18, 2016
      • Lukasz Gos August 18, 2016
  3. Mario Chávez August 13, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 13, 2016
    • Lukasz Gos August 18, 2016
  4. Grant Hamilton August 14, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 14, 2016
    • Lukasz Gos August 18, 2016
  5. Stephen Volante August 14, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 14, 2016
  6. Vadim Kadyrov August 15, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 15, 2016
  7. Stephanie Delozier Strobel August 15, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 16, 2016
    • Sasha Spencer August 26, 2016
  8. Lukasz Gos August 18, 2016
  9. Denise Doty August 22, 2016
    • Corinne McKay August 22, 2016
  10. Carolyn Yohn November 7, 2016
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2016
  11. Clarine Claire August 6, 2017

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