How to get (and keep) direct clients.

December 30, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession, but unfortunately, it is not always perceived as such. To be recognized we need to look and behave like better-known professions like physicians, attorneys and accountants. A big part of this effort concerns the way we get our clients. As an attorney, I worked with direct clients, therefore, when it was time for me to practice interpreting, and understanding interpreters are also professionals, I looked for my own clientele. Every time I have a chance, I tell my interpreter friends and colleagues to look for direct clients and move away from the agency-dependent model.

The first thing many colleagues ask me is how they can get direct clients and free themselves from having to deal with agencies, and give them part of what they earned. There is no silver bullet. There are several approaches and we must use the tactics that best suit our specific practice, personality, and needs. I will now share some actions that have brought me positive results and have allowed me to directly work with my clients without intermediaries who tell you what to do, force you to fill out tons of paperwork to get paid, impose nonsensical requirements to the way you deliver your services, and often pay late.

One of the first things we can do is to look at our lives, relatives, friends and acquaintances and see if someone can be a direct client or could be a bridge to get to our clientele. Sometimes a cousin or an in-law might work for a business where our services are needed. Many interpreters live and work in countries different from their birthplace or where they went to school. Look at your classmates and their immediate environment. Sometimes you discover that the kid you saw at the school cafeteria or the college library is now a bank president, owns a big business, married an entrepreneur, or is now an elected official in a position to hire interpreting services. If you have a president, governor, CEO, business owner, or professional on your list, go knock on their doors and renew that relationship. I have done this often and clients have come through former college friends now high-ranking politicians, businesspeople, and professionals in various countries.

Another useful practice is to keep up with business developments in your community, your field of specialization, and economic and political changes where you live. I once learned that one of the biggest companies in the world was moving to my hometown lured by tax incentives. I visited them as soon as they opened for business and offered my services, followed up several times, and when the opportunity came, I provided my services going the extra mile to please them and to develop trust. They do business all over the world and they have been my clients for years now.

I am a firm believer in conferences and I attend plenty of them every year. I go to interpreting and translation conferences all over the world, but unlike many who only attend them to get continuing education credits or to see their friends, I also promote my teaching and training services with fellow colleagues and organizations, and I look for capable newcomers in all languages and from all locations, not to recruit them for an agency and get them to work for peanuts, but to add them to my database I share with my preferred clients when they ask me for a certain language or specialized interpreting service I do not provide.  Part of keeping your direct clients happy, and keeping them away from the agencies, is to point them in the right direction so they can directly retain their other interpreters. No agencies involved, and I do not charge a finder’s fee or take a commission from the interpreters’ pay. My benefit is not the few dollars I can make from sharing my interpreter databank with the client (If I needed that little money to make a living I would not be working as an interpreter) my benefit is the deepening of the bond with my client, that trust that makes you indispensable to them.

I also attend non-linguist conferences on subject matters and sectors I work as an interpreter. If you interpret medicine or biology, go to medical, pharmaceutical, biology and dentistry conferences, that is where you will find your direct clients. In my case, going to business, aviation, financial, legal, and sports conferences and trade shows allows me to meet potential direct clients and try my sales pitch.

Writing articles, blog posts, books and manuals helps you reach potential clients. It is also an ice breaker and a useful tool to back up your position or to explain why the clients need you.

A very successful and reliable way to get direct clients is letting potential clients watch you providing your services to another entity, even their competitors. At many times the counterparty at a negotiation table approaches me after the session and asks me if I would work with them; a person attending a conference talks to me about interpreting for a conference they are organizing somewhere else in the world. I cannot tell you how often attorneys from the law firm opposite to the law office I am providing my services for have asked me how I do long consecutive interpretation, tell me that all interpreters they worked with before constantly ask them to stop so they can interpret short segments, and then invite me to discuss a possible collaboration at a later time.

I keep my eyes and ears open all the time, and when the time is appropriate, the opportunity looks good, and the other person is receptive, I offer my services, it does not matter where: a bar, a sports stadium, an airplane, and many other situations.

I use these opportunities to explain what I do and the value of my services. I explain I am not cheap, and when I learn the person has used interpreters, or they tell me their company uses the services of an agency, I explain to them the benefits of retaining me directly, including the money they will save by elimination the middle guy.

Sometimes I work with agencies and I provide my services to international organizations and government agencies in several countries. There are good agencies, for the most part at the top end of the market, who care for quality and pay professional fees. Professional interpreters can work with some of these high-end agencies, international organizations, and government agencies for occasional services after signing a contract. In these situations, the agency that retains an interpreter to do a Nobel Prize winners conference, or the official entity that hires you for a service where you decide whether you accept the assignment or not, are your direct clients. This is a very different situation from an ongoing, several times a week (or month) assignments where the agency sets conditions, orders you not to talk to their client about your services or qualifications, and calls interpreters based on their availability, not individual skills and credentials. This is a direct client model and such practice is unacceptable.

Up to this point, we have covered several means to get direct clients; we will now deal with the most difficult part of working on your own, like a real professional: You need to keep the client.

Keeping a client is very difficult, mainly at the beginning of the professional relationship, but it is an ongoing challenge. You cannot assume a client will stay with you until eternity. Clients are vulnerable to market changes, economic developments, financial crisis, technological developments, legislative amendments, and C-suite changes that set different priorities and new policy. As interpreters we must navigate through these unchartered waters and stay afloat.

Because this is difficult, and time consuming, interpreters should need to evaluate every professional relationship, and assess each client’s value. When the return on your investment is poor or non-existent, drop that client. Keep the best of the best. Develop a strong relationship only with those clients who will benefit you in all (or at least most) of these areas: honesty, reliability, respect, easy access to the top, flexibility, cooperation, professionalism, pay, field of practice, loyalty.

These are your “A-list” clients. You may only have one, maybe there is nobody there yet. That is fine, but do not lower the bar. It means that at this time your best direct clients are “B-list” entities and individuals. Always keep, and fight to keep your “A-listers”, keep your “B-listers” until you have to make room for an “A-list” client, and dump the rest.

To retain “A-listers” you have to keep them happy all the time. This means you have to provide impeccable service and then you have to go the extra mile. Your job with the “A-lister” goes beyond the booth, the law office, or the negotiating table. It includes consulting, providing suggestions, volunteering evaluations, quick research, flexible hours, and priority services. From suggesting the type of interpreters needed, location of the booths, equipment to be used, cultural aspects to be observed or avoided, witness preparation, speaker orientation before a conference, review of printed materials and Power Point slides and translations, to evaluating sound quality of videos to be interpreted, most convenient hotels, restaurants and coffee shops near the venue in a foreign country, and escort interpreting for the principal, sometimes at no extra cost. To keep the “A-list” client you have to be willing and available to travel at the last minute when needed, and to take the four-in-the-morning phone call from the client.

Not all direct clients need (or deserve) that level of attention, but you have to give them something that your competitors, individuals and agencies, will not provide. You need to offer all services mentioned above, but you have to decide what level of intensity to offer as part of your service case-by-case. You now see why you cannot keep all direct clients, but just the best ones. It is time-consuming, you need to gain the client’s trust and loyalty. That is hard.

It is a lot of work, but it is well-paid, not just monetarily (although this is an essential element) but also in freedom, dignity and appreciation. All excellent, reliable interpreters can work exclusively with direct clients, it is a matter of time and effort. It will take some time, but if you are willing to try, start your transition to direct clients now. I now invite you to share with us your suggestions to get and keep direct clients, and please, do not write to defend agencies, they have their own blogs where they constantly praise the benefits of their business model in the interpreting industry.

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§ 5 Responses to How to get (and keep) direct clients.

  • Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I couldn’t agree more: Interpreting is not just a job, it is a profession, similar to a physician, lawyer or auditor.
    Some interpreters might prefer to sit and wait for agencies to call them, but others realise the business potential in the reputation and client base they have built up through years.
    However, as attorneys and accountants market their skills and qualifications actively, so should interpreters.
    RSI is an ideal tool for interpreters to expand their services. Top professional interpreters prefer to focus their time on what they are good at, interpreting. Being away from home and spending time in airports and hotels is after many years of service seen as a nuisance.
    RSI enables interpreters to offer complete turnkey solutions without middlemen or the need for renting and transporting expensive and cumbersome equipment. Everything what is required is access to a good RSI platform and the ability to assemble the correct team of interpreters.

    Interpreters unite! Don’t depend on agencies, become your own conference organisers!

  • Agree comopletely. I listed a somewhat similar set of recommendations for translators in an article for the ATA law blog. We have to get off our ass (and am trying to do so).

  • Gabriela says:

    Tony, I am in complete agreement. When I first got my state court certification in 2016, I went along with agencies because I was told that was the status quo and there was no other way to get experience.

    In 2019, after three years of subpar and insulting experiences with agencies I decided to phase them out following the advice from your blog and seminar. By June, I had phased them out completely and am so much happier now that I am working strictly with direct clients when I am out of court. I feel valued and respected as a professional by my clients. I was afraid that this would cut into my earnings. Instead, my earnings went up along with the dignity I felt on the job. My restored dignity on these jobs has also given me the backbone I need to stand up for myself in court whenever I encounter egos, ignorance, and biases against professional, certified interpreters.

    I can only hope that my colleagues continue to discover just how much power we hold as the interpreters and translators who put in the hard work to get the proper education and credentials. Without us, there is no interpretation and translation profession. Please continue preaching the gospel of direct clients. I will do so, as well.

  • André Csihás, FCCi says:

    All you have to do is what I did when I got my certifications and a little experience: Make some daring cold calls to every single attorney’s office in your area, make and appointment to see the principal person and tell him/her of your qualifications and experience, your rate and drop off your business card, and then go on to do the same with twenty or thirty attorneys.

    After three to six months, I guarantee you that you’ll have more work than you can handle (and I mean depos, court appearances, hearings, etc.) Remember my friends and colleagues, that YOU are a professional.

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