In tough times: Raise your fees!

May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.

Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.

Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.

Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.

Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.

Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.

With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.

I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.

I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.

It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.

For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).

I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.

I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.

The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.

Traveling interpreters, getting to the assignment, and the complexity of their work.

March 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreting is an exhausting, mentally and physically demanding task that can only be performed at the highest level when the interpreter is recharged with energy and has a rested brain.  Once we start interpreting, there is no room for any down time.  We need total concentration and full awareness through our five senses, and then some.  To make my point even clearer, I ask you to go back to the moment when you get home after a full day of interpreting.  You are extremely tired and ready to fall asleep on the couch without any warning.  Your brain is shutting down the same way a computer does when it is overloaded.

Interpreting is not an easy task, and the topics we work with are usually difficult, highly sophisticated, and complex.  The last thing we need is to show up to work tired or stressed out.  We need to be in top mental shape to deliver the kind of service our client expects and is paying for.  Interpreters need to rest before an assignment.  We do not need to be distracted with any “sideshows” or situations that can affect our concentration or drain our energy right before we get to the booth, courthouse, hospital, or table of negotiations.  The risk of not showing to work rested and stress-free is even higher for those of us who constantly travel to do our job.

Add two, five, twelve hours of travel time to the enormous task of researching and studying for an assignment. Factor in jet lag, changes of season (going from a summer weather in the southern hemisphere to a winter weather up north), altitude, local food, and cultural differences. All happening within a very short period, usually from the time you get on an airplane to the time you land at the point of destination. The results could be devastating. A tired interpreter could be the start of a disaster.

Because of the huge responsibility that is riding on our shoulders, and because of our professionalism, it is our responsibility to always bring our “A” game to the booth; but, how can we do it when facing these long trips?  The answer is relatively simple: Turn the trip into a relaxing experience; try to make it as pleasurable as possible. Rest, sleep, and try to keep a “normal” life despite of a traveling schedule.   It all starts with the way we travel.

We should always try to travel as comfortably as possible.  To me, the golden rule is to travel in style so you can recharge the batteries on the way to the assignment. Whether you get there by train or airplane, try to travel first or business class.  Leave economy to the tourists. Business class got its name from the idea of delivering a transportation service to the traveler who has a reason to be at the point of destination that is definitely different from going to the beach and drinking a piña colada.  When you travel by train on a first class, or private dormitory car, you can sleep, study, relax, and get ready for the job ahead. Flying first or business class is the difference between sleeping on your back, eating a fairly decent meal on the plane, and showering at the port of destination’s airline club before meeting your client and going to the venue.

Granted, traveling first and even business is not cheap. Fortunately, because we travel so much, we can do it if we are a little smart. These are some of the things I suggest you do to be able to travel as you should without having to pay an arm and a leg.

First, get the client to pay for it whenever possible. You will soon find out that in many cases, most clients are willing to pay for a business class ticket when you are traveling a long distance. It is not that difficult to explain how tiresome it would be to fly economy from Chicago to Sydney or even from Seattle to New York City.  Educate your client. Explain the advantages of having a well-rested interpreting team. You have nothing to lose.

Second, find out what airline has a hub, or at least has the most flights out of your hometown, and join their frequent flyer program. Most airlines will give you a bunch of miles, or kilometers, just for joining their loyalty program.  This will be your preferred airline from now on.

The third thing you need to do is to get rid of all those credit cards that you have, and switch to one or two cards (depending on the place you live) that give you air miles in the main airline that serves your hometown. Once you have it, pay for everything with that card, even those things you usually pay with cash. Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of the month, and there will be no interest to pay, and you will be accumulating miles.

Once you have taken the steps above, book all your flights on your preferred airline.  Don’t succumb to the temptation of saving twenty dollars on a cheaper flight with a low-cost carrier. You are now in the business of accumulating miles (or kilometers).  You can earn miles even when you travel to places that your airline does not serve. Find out what airlines partner with your preferred air carrier, and fly with them. Most airlines in North and South America, Asia, and Europe are members of the One-World or the Star Alliance.  You just need to find out which one of these alliances your airline belongs to.

Research what hotel chains, car rental companies, and restaurant programs offer miles on your preferred airline carrier and do business with them exclusively. You are now adding up miles (or kilometers) every time you buy a plane ticket, pay your cable TV, buy groceries, or go to the dentist.

Once you have enough miles, do not cash them in for a trip to Cancun. Instead, apply them to a yearly membership to your preferred airline carrier’s airport lounge.  In fact, if you believe that you can afford it from the start, when applying for the credit card that works with your airline, get the more expensive credit card. It will cost you some five hundred U.S. dollars a year, but it will let you travel with two bags at no cost, and will get you to the airline lounges for free. Do the math. I think it is worth.

Why are you accumulating all these airline miles if you are not going to use them to go to Cancun? Because not all of your clients will be willing to pay for a business class airplane ticket.

Many clients, especially international organizations and government agencies, do not pay for business class tickets because it is against their policy. They are mandated by law or charter to wisely disburse the monies of the taxpayers, members, or donors.  They will get you the cheapest ticket on the plane, because they have a deal with the air carrier to get the unused seats for a very low price.  You will get these seats, but once that you have them, on your own, without the client’s involvement, you will switch seats to a more comfortable place on the plane a little farther away from the lavatories, with more leg room, and you will not have to endure the middle seat from Toronto to Buenos Aires.  You will be able to do this for free because you will be an airline Gold member, Platinum member, and so on.  Next, you will ask your client to book you on a plane that leaves at odd hours.  These flights tend to be somewhat empty on the first and business class cabins because most business and rich people travel at more convenient times of the day.  The reason why you want to be on this flights is that once you have an airline member status, you can request an upgrade to the next higher class for free. There are many empty business class seats on the 5:00 am flight, and one of them will be yours.   This will be a deal between you and the airline. It does not affect your client, and you will be able to take care of your health and professional reputation by getting to the booth rested and ready to work.

My final piece of advice: Avoid discount airlines at all cost. You will never relax on these carriers. I truly suffer when I find myself on one of their planes (fortunately a rare event). I remember once around Halloween, when I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Seattle Washington, a flight that takes around seven hours, and a flight attendant decided to wake up the passengers , many of them were asleep, to “animate them” by organizing several games. Even one of the pilots came out to the main cabin (these airlines have no first or business class) dressed as a wizard, and they started to play these games, interrupting, in my case, the work I was peacefully doing on my computer. You should also keep in mind that most passengers on these carriers are not very savvy travelers, making the getting on and off the plane a very long process, wasting precious minutes that you should be spending taking a shower at the airline club.

Smart traveling is more than a mimosa before the plane pushes back. It is having a work and rest space while traveling to your destination. It is having access to the internet, eating a quality meal, to be able to shower or use the gym at the airline lounge at the airport; it is also getting to know the flight crew when you travel all the time and getting little perks from them during your trip.  Remember: it is called business class because it was meant for people like you who travel as part of making a living.  I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions as to other ways to make traveling more pleasant and relaxing for the interpreter who calls planet earth “my office”.

When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

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