5 Things Freelancers Should Know About Translation Agencies

Not-so-obvious thoughts on the relationship between freelancers and translation agencies from someone who has been on both sides.

By Natalie Soper (originally on bellingua.co.uk)

It’s the ultimate dream to be your own boss, but with it comes great responsibility: not only are you managing and motivating yourself, but you have to seek your own income, do your own taxes, not forgetting to put money aside for retirement. And on top of that, any sick leave or holiday that you take all adds up to time where you’re not earning. It should come to no surprise, then, that if a freelancer in any profession feels like their time is being wasted, they may get a little... shirty. However, I have been on the receiving end of a freelancer’s wrath many a time, back when I worked as a service coordinator in one of my previous workplaces. And trust me, things look very different when you’re working in a busy office for just-above minimum wage, when your suppliers are sending invoices for 10 times what you’re earning in a day! I should clarify at this point that I have nothing against any of my previous employers, and the people I worked with (both colleagues and freelancers) were brilliant — some of the friendliest people I know. The reason I’m writing this post is just to share some of my personal experience from both sides of the camp. I recently read a blog post with advice to project managers from freelancers — however, this post is kind of the opposite. I believe that relationships are much more cohesive when you understand both sides of the story, and with that in mind.

1. Diva behaviour is never appreciated

“Diva?” you may be thinking. “I may be outstanding in my field, but I would hardly compare myself to Mariah Carey.” Well, imaginary heckler, I must admit that I’ve only encountered a few “diva” freelancers, and I remain optimistic that most of the human race are kind, polite and understanding people. However, that didn’t stop one supplier from flipping out when I politely told them that I was unable to print and ship multiple book-loads of material from the UK to Asia, due to the end client’s sustainability policy, and (as per the contract she had already agreed to) she would need to either use the electronic version I had sent her or print the material herself. Upon hearing this, the supplier then flat-out refused to deliver a two-day event (which would have meant a hefty loss for her, of roughly two months’ worth of an average UK salary). I was so shocked by her reaction that I never wanted to contact her again, and I vowed that if I ever became a freelancer, I would never be so mean! Even if you disagree with the company’s policies, it’s best to do your angry ranting in an e-mail that you never intend on sending — and then try and stay polite and work towards solving the problem in the e-mail that you do send. Remember, these administrators are often only the messengers!

2. If you’re too much trouble, agencies might look for someone else

In the situation with the above supplier, it managed to get resolved and the event went ahead after all. Meanwhile, however, my managers instantly asked the Vendor Management team to start sourcing more suppliers in that area, so that we wouldn’t have to rely so much on the availability (and whims) of one person. Sadly, our “allegiance” (for want of a better word) was to the end client who paid our company, not to the suppliers who delivered the events, and there was always a need to expand the pool of suppliers to keep up with the clients’ demands. This meant that we had some vendors who would constantly badger us for more work, and complain when they didn’t get enough. Not only was the number of events that a client wanted completely out of our hands, but the coordinators became reluctant to assign work to the people who were bothering them all the time, when there were plenty more easy-going, more understanding suppliers — who charged the same amount. It’s kind of a balancing act though, because on the other hand…

3. Agencies don’t mind paying more if you’re awesome

Since our clients ended up meeting our suppliers face to face (unlike the translation industry), they ended up having favourites and knew which ones would deliver great events while keeping it relevant to the client’s industry. From a pure business point of view, this created a dilemma for the agency — the client might request a preferred supplier, the supplier wins more work and increases their rates, and suddenly the agency’s margin is smaller. Yet, the end client would sometimes pay a bit more for a guaranteed quality service, than risk trying a new (albeit slightly cheaper) supplier. This actually varied across countries and cultures — but if you were new, and you got the chance to prove yourself, then there would be no qualms about giving you repeated work. I guess the hardest part is getting your foot in the door.

4. Invoicing can be a drag

When I first encountered the Proz Blue Boards (where translators can rate their experiences with agencies and companies), I was surprised at how many agencies were given a 1/5 score for paying an invoice a little late. Wow, these people have high standards, I thought — and rightly so, I now realise. I’m sorry to say that signing off supplier invoices in my previous job was the bane of my life. It was such a large company and there was a never ending (electronic) pile — and as a result, invoices always moved lower and lower down everyone’s priority list. It didn’t help that some supplier invoices were almost cryptic in their information — no PO, different costs to what was in the PO, no invoice number or job reference... sometimes it would take half an hour just to approve one invoice. Freelancers: if a client gives you a PO, put it on the invoice! It could potentially save hours of an administrator’s time — and you would get paid faster. If we couldn’t work out what job an invoice was related to, it just got left for another time. I know, it’s not cool. And I realise now, as a freelancer, that if a company’s payment terms are 75 days and they still haven’t gotten round to processing it, that is indeed unacceptable. Agencies know this too, which is why they’re so evasive when answering (or probably ignoring) your emails and calls asking where your money is.

5. There are good days and bad days in both jobs

So, which side would you prefer to be on: freelancer or employee? Both have their perks, I think: independence and self-management versus financial security and the “safety net” of a team or manager. They also have different versions of flexibility (would you rather work any hours you want, or have paid holiday?) and different everyday pressures. I’m kind of glad that I’ve worked alongside freelancers before becoming one, as it gave me an idea of how to build and maintain my own client relationships, based on the suppliers that I always enjoyed hearing from in my previous job. One thing is certain: by understanding more about how “the other side” works, or even being more considerate of a person’s individual situation, we can all work together much more effectively — and hopefully, some real, long-lasting professional relationships can be forged. At the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do their job.

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