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.

That Interpreter should not be here.

August 24, 2015 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today I want to bring up an issue that definitely happens in the United States and perhaps (to some extent) elsewhere.  A few years ago I was working a conference in a big facility that can hold many conferences simultaneously.  During a break, I ran into a technician I have known for years. He was there working for a different event.  Over a cup of coffee we started a typical conversation, very familiar to those of you who work the conference circuit and from time to time get to see interpreters and tech support that are working another event.  From the conversation, I learned that the conference he was doing required interpretation, and the interpreters working in the Spanish booth were from another country.

According to the technician, the event organizer had brought these two interpreters from South America just for the conference.

Later on, during the lunch break, I decided to go to the other conference room to meet the South American colleagues.  I introduced myself and welcomed them to the United States. One of them told me that this was not the first time they had interpreted a conference in the United States.

More conversation revealed that these two individuals were very capable and knew the profession. I also found out the subject matter of the four-day conference and it was nothing that required of any specialized knowledge or expertise; in other words: It was the type of conference that any top-tier U.S. based conference interpreter can handle.  The only difference: These two colleagues were paid less than half of the prevailing interpreter fee in that part of the United States.  The event organizer got two good interpreters from another country for the fee of one interpreter living in the U.S. and still had money left over.  These colleagues disclosed that they had entered the United States on what they described as a visitor’s visa and that they were going to get paid back home in their own currency.

This made me quite uneasy, because, unless the interpreters were wrong and they really had a work visa, which would make their hiring more costly than retaining American colleagues, they were not supposed to work in this country.

Unfortunately, I have heard that several event organizers may be following this practice in the United States. There are other instances when foreign interpreters have been used for events in the U.S. because they have agreed to work for a lower fee. These interpreters, who many times are very good professionals, will get a paycheck bigger than what they usually get back home, but unfortunately, they could be at risk for potential violations to the United States immigration laws because they have entered the country on a visitor’s visa and they have actually worked without legal authority.  I wonder how many times event organizers tell their clients that those less expensive interpreters they are bringing from abroad may put the event’s reputation in a bad situation because of possible immigration violations.

Many of us have also heard about the very capable interpreters who live on the Mexican side of the border, and are sometimes brought to the United States to interpret events for a lower fee than a domestic colleague. We have heard how they apparently enter the country on their border crosser cards and possibly work without a permit issued by the immigration authorities.

I want to make it clear that I am not talking about the escort, conference, legal or diplomatic interpreters who come into the country to work with businesspeople, diplomats, or other dignitaries from their home country. I have no problem with that because these colleagues are coming to do a job that requires of their expertise and perhaps additional qualifications such as a security clearance, company requirements, or an established relationship with an attorney regarding a case litigated abroad.

I am not accusing anybody of violating the immigration laws of the United States either. It is possible that for some unknown reason, an agency or event organizer decided that it is more cost effective to spend money on attorney’s fees and pay for a work visa for an interpreter who will enter the country to work for less than a week, and will get paid considerably less than a United States-based interpreter. If this is happening in the country, local interpreters and their organizations should bring this up to the entity that is holding the event and to the competent authorities.  In my opinion, it is not right that capable and available local talent be bypassed to save some money, and it is even worse when there are violations of law. It is also wrong for the foreign interpreters, especially if they cannot work in the U.S. They will probably have to work even harder and longer than the local colleagues, as they will need to acquire the cultural context and local nuances that are so important for a quality and successful rendition; and they will have to do it for a low fee and a high legal risk.  I now ask you to share your opinion and comments on this issue, and I think we would like to know if other countries are facing this problem as well.

Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

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