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.

What ever happened to the written federal court interpreter exam?

May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.

The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”

This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.

In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.

Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.

We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.

I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.

If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of  both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.

This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.

We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.

Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.

It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.

It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.

Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.

Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.

Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.

When your new client used to have a bad interpreter.

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.

Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity.  Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.

The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.

I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance.  I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication?  Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.

If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.

On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad.  It is only then that you can start the client’s education.

Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.

If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience.  If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.

If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.

When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference.  A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth.  The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.

Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.

In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.

When the interpreter does not know how to work with the tech team.

September 17, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Some months ago the event technician approached me during a break and told me a story that made me think of a very important aspect of our practice that is rarely mentioned.  He said that during the prior weekend he had worked a conference with two interpreters he did not know (something extraordinaire for this individual who has worked with just about everybody).

Apparently, the agency had brought them from out of town because they wanted to abate their costs, and from the information the technician gathered, they were court interpreters with very little conference experience. According to him, they were very quiet and not very helpful, and to the dismay of the technician, he even had to decide the location of the booth in the conference room because the interpreters did not make any suggestions or give any input.  He also commented that the quality of the interpretation was poor.

Of course a story like this one frustrates me, as I see once again that there are many in this business with total devotion to the old mighty dollar and total contempt for the quality of the service; but it made me think about the importance of a good relationship with the tech staff.  It is obvious that it does not matter how well-prepared we are for an event if at the time of the rendition we cannot hear the speaker because of a sound system that was not tested, we cannot see the presentation on the screen because of poor location of the booth, or the audience cannot hear a word of what we are saying because of an equipment malfunction. It is essential that we learn how to work with the technician, and this includes not just being nice to the individual, but also our ability to use the equipment, our opinion as to the location of the booth, our willingness to participate in the final run through so that all microphones and consoles are tested and all levels are adjusted.

It is also very helpful to have a communication strategy. Sometimes the technician is next to the booth, but there are times when they are very far away from the interpreters. For this reason, having agreed to some signs and gestures ahead of time will let the technician know that something is bleeding into the system, that a relay button is not working, and many other things.

I have been in situations where the event organizer refuses to pay for a dedicated technician throughout the event, and everybody can tell the difference: When something goes wrong and the technician is there, things get solved and the conference continues. Things can get ugly when there is no technician on the premises, and there are just so many coffee breaks the participants can have while a well-intentioned but unskilled individual tries to fix a problem.

We interpreters should always consider the technician as part of our team. We cannot work without them, so we should include their function when developing our master plan for an event. Besides, having the tech support staff on your side can get you additional benefits: They are often some of the first ones to know of an event, and many times they are asked by agencies and event organizers to suggest interpreters for conferences.  We should recommend the good technicians and in turn they will put out a good word for you.

As you see, this conversation with my technician friend and colleague got me thinking of the importance of their job and how it impacts us professionally as interpreters. It made me pledge that I will never be like the interpreters he worked with the prior weekend who were quiet, had no opinions, and did not know how to work with the technician.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and stories about your relationship with the technical staff.

The Booth: Location…location…location…

July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During one of my recent trips I ran into one of my veteran colleagues. Of course, we talked about what we are doing and updated each other on our respective lives, but after a few minutes the conversation went back to the “good old days”.  We remembered a time, many years ago when we worked at a conference where the booth was right next to the door that was right next to the hallway where the bagels and muffins were served. Needless to say, the door was opened like fifty times, and on occasion it was kept open while a group of conference attendees entered the room carrying multiple bagels and cookies.  I know this is nothing new to any of you, but it got me thinking about what is the best possible location for a booth from the interpreter’s point of view.

To me it is clear: We need to have the booth where we can see the speaker, the screen, and the audience. However, because of physical or technical limitations this is not always possible. My question to you is: Where do you like to see the booth when you work, and if you need to make a choice between the features I mentioned above: Have a view of the speaker, the audience, and the screen, which one could you do without?

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