Five practices of agencies that “get it”

Translation agencies tend to bear the brunt of translator complaints, but there are some great agencies out there that truly "get it." I want to list 5 things that agencies can do to win the loyalty and commitment of their translators.

1. Offer to raise rates without being asked

Of course, everybody likes to make more money, but more than that, offering to raise rates without being asked shows that you value the translator's work, and want to build a lasting relationship.

The amount doesn't have to be large, either. One of the main agencies I work with recently offered to raise my rate by 0.875 yen/source character (which works out to about $0.02/translated word). At a time when a lot of agencies are asking translators to lower their rates, this gesture raised my estimation of the agency greatly. Since then, I've taken extra pains to ensure that I'm available for them.

2. Give useful feedback

From the translator's viewpoint, one of the greatest values that an agency can add is feedback. Agencies are presumably proofing and correcting translations before sending them to the end client, and it's very helpful for the translator to see any edits that have been made. This is both to prevent disaster due to the agency's "incorrections," and so the translator can learn and improve. It relieves two sources of translator stress: "Do they hate my translation?" and "Are translation monstrosities being published in my name?"

Giving feedback shows a number of things. It shows that you are interested in producing the best translations possible. It shows that you view your translator as an investment, rather than a resource to be used and discarded. And it shows that you value your translator enough for the minuscule effort that giving feedback requires.

One of the worst things an agency can do is actively hide feedback from the translator. For several years, I translated all the speeches for a certain executive through an agency. I assume the end client liked my work, because they always asked for me specifically. I also never got any negative feedback. It wasn't until about two years after starting, when I saw one of my translations in print, that I realized that they had been changing several of my terms to their in-house preferences. When I asked the agency about this, they told me that they had received the glossary from the client after the first couple of jobs, but were just correcting my translations before sending them off, without telling me.

Agencies, please don't do this. Give your translator the best feedback possible. If you've got a good translator, she'll thank you for it.

3. Give direct access to end clients

This is a big trust issue. Translation agencies guard their client lists jealously, because that's one of their main assets (and I agree that cultivating clients takes a lot of effort). Some agencies also want to shield their clients from the fact that their $100K translation is being done by a motley crew of oddball translators.

But when I can get direct access to the end client through my agency, it shows that they really trust me, both not to steal their clients, and not to create a horrible impression. I've found that after I've visited a client, or even talked with them on the phone, they tend to second guess my translations less. This is probably because it's easier to trust someone's judgment after you've met them.

Speaking directly with a client can also eliminate a lot of miscommunication, because information doesn't get mangled passing through an agency coordinator, who may not know the technology involved.

4. Shield translators from frivolous customer demands

This goes hand in hand with direct access to customers. Customers can be very needy, and good translation agencies shield their translators from this. The agency might compile five or six separate change requests into a single request, or handle trivial requests themselves (like "make the font bluer").

I remember one job in particular, where my translation wound up in the middle of a corporate turf war. Three or four different departments sent back mutually contradicting edits to my translation, many of which were horrible (some of the editors obviously had only the most tenuous grasp of English).

The agency compiled all these corrections into a single edited document, with color coding to show who had changed what. They also held the client to two rounds of these edits, saying that they'd charge for any more. These actions by the agency went a long way toward preserving my sanity on that job.

5. Handle the "annoying extras" themselves

As a translator, I do best when I'm translating. Every non-translation task I need to do is less time I can spend translating, meaning I'm less happy and earning less money. That's why even if I can charge for it, I don't like doing things like creating charts and graphs, laying out images, or handling various formatting tweaks.

Even if you pay translators extra for these things, it's probably not their core competency and they're almost certainly not earning as much as they could doing straight translation.

That's why I love it when agencies take care of these things for me, so that I can concentrate on translating. One agency actually OCR's files they get from the end-client as TIFF images, and sends me pristine Word files to translate. Another agency extracts FrameMaker files into RTF for me to translate.

When these time-wasters are taken care of, I can work for a lower rate and still earn more than when dealing with pesky layout and format issues, and still be happier and saner at the end of the day. To me, it just makes economic sense that you'd pay a cheaper DTP person to handle these things better than the translator can, and let your more expensive translator concentrate on what she does best. I really enjoy working with translation agencies that get this point.

17 comments to Five practices of agencies that “get it”

  • Pedro A.

    Hear, hear!

  • An agency that raised its rates to you on its own initiative? What planet do you live on and how do I get there?

  • @Adam

    Maybe it’s because I charge too little. 🙂

    The very first agency I worked for started me at 15 yen/word (target). After a year, they increased it to 17 yen, then to 17.5 yen, then to 18 yen. They were really great folks. In addition to upping my rate as they saw my skills improve, they helped me in many other ways as well.

    Another agency asked me my rate. I told them 20 yen/word (this was a bit after that first agency). The owner told me, “Let’s make it 25 yen, because I want to make this a lasting relationship.”

    One other agency offers me higher than my “base” rates on a job-by-job basis.

  • […] buyer, here are two excellent blog posts on what makes a good client. Ryan Ginstrom’s Five practices of agencies that get it gives five specific examples of how his agency clients have impressed him. I agree with these […]

  • Just a question: who at the agency will (be able to) handle point #5? I lost an agency client due to the fact that I wasn’t OK with adapting the layout of PPT’s et al. *at no charge* :-S

  • @Laurent

    A lot of the agencies I work for have their own in-house DTP people.

    That said, I do handle PowerPoint at no extra charge, as long as the format isn’t too funky. I have ways of dealing with PPT files that makes them suck a little less. What really gets me with PowerPoint is when the clients paste in figures from other programs, and you go to edit them in PowerPoint, and every sentence is split into multiple text boxes.

    Worse than PowerPoint are the people who use Excel as a word processor.

  • Very astute business obversvations, Ryan. Although we don’t work with agencies, we wholeheartedly agree that surely there are well-managed agencies out there who treat translators as what they are: their most important asset.

  • Richard Sadowsky

    Excellent post, Ryan! I’ve been asked to speak in Tokyo on Feb. 9 for JTF, and my topic is building trust in the client-freelancer relationship. Can I steal your ideas? Well….. at least discuss this blog entry giving you credit?

  • @Richard

    Feel free to use the content however you like, and good luck on your talk.

  • Richard Sadowsky

    Thank you! And have a great New Year!

  • LSP Owner

    “Offer to raise rates without being asked.” Are you crazy? This is the reason why many LSP’s get frustrated with translators: because their back-office is clueless. Now, before someone starts calling me clueless, I just have to say, the LSP is the translator’s customer. When’s the last time you, as a customer, randomly decided to offer a store or a service provider more? Have you ever told your lawyer, “You know, that per hour simply isn’t high enough. You deserve more.” Have you ever gone in the grocery and asked to speak to the manager, then volunteered to pay more for your milk?

    Yes, I understand that much more goes into a strong, healthy LSP-freelancer relationship then sheer buying and selling. But an LSP randomly volunteering to pay you more is a completely unrealistic expectation. If you want a higher rate, have the stones to ask for it. That’s the way a free-market economy works. The lawyer sets his prices. The grocery sets its prices. YOU set your prices. We either pay them or we don’t. But please don’t toss a potentially wonderful work relationship aside because the LSP doesn’t volunteer to pay you more.

  • @ LSP Owner “But an LSP randomly volunteering to pay you more is a completely unrealistic expectation.”

    Nevertheless, translation agencies have offered to raise my rates without my asking.

    Let’s think about this another way. There are many levels of translation ability. The difference between a good translation and a mediocre one often is the difference between winning a new contract or losing one, or keeping a client or losing it.

    With the knowledge that your best translators are getting work from other clients, it seems obvious that you’ll try to make your work more attractive than the work from other clients.

    I’m in the rather happy position that I’m offered more work than I can do. I therefore need to refuse some of that work. Assuming that one of the agencies I work for wants me to keep accepting their work, offering to raise my rates is one way to get my attention. 🙂

    Not to say that I’m the world’s best translator — I’m not. But I do have clients who appreciate my work, and are willing to show that with the rates they offer.

  • bugbread

    I’ve had an agency offer to pay me more as well. Each agency pays very different amounts, with the highest payers paying 1.5 times the lowest. One new agency asked me my going rate. I gave them my average (higher than the lowest, lower than the highest). I guess they generally paid more, because right off the bat, they said “Ok, we’ll pay you that for the first month or two, and then if you’re working out, we’ll raise it”. That in itself surprised me, but with the vague “month or two”, I thought “Well, we’ll see”. Sure enough, a month and a week later, I get an email saying “you’re doing good work, so we’re going to go ahead and raise the rate”.

    I’ve worked in a free market economy before, and you know what? Every year or so, there would be an evaluation, and the employer would give people raises. They did this even if no-one asked for raises. This isn’t a 1950’s sitcom, where “asking the boss for a raise” is an opportunity for hilarity. In today’s free market, companies know that they need to pay competitive rates in order to avoid losing employees, so that’s what they do. The relationship between agency and translator doesn’t perfectly map to “employer – employee”, but in many many ways its very close.

    Now, would I toss an agency aside because they didn’t volunteer me a raise? Of course not. But that’s not what Ryan’s saying. He’s just saying that, like any other company, an agency that gives performance based raises in order to avoid losing someone to better paying agencies is a company that “gets it”.

  • LSP Owner

    We pay you what you ask for. Again, if you want more money, ask for it.

    To bugbread, every single place where I’ve ever worked, if I wanted a raise I had to–guess what–ASK FOR IT.

  • @LSP Owner
    We pay you what you ask for. Again, if you want more money, ask for it.

    There are many, many clients out there, and my approach has been to become less available to the least desirable of my clients as I find new ones.

    Maybe clients that I’ve down-ranked in the past would have paid more if I’d asked, but in my experience it’s far easier to find a new client at a higher rate than to convince an existing client to raise their rates.

    Note that rates aren’t the only way that I rank clients. More important than rates is how much I can earn per hour of work on average. It’s also very important how easy the client is to work with, how needy they are, etc. This is why I often find agencies more desirable than direct clients.

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