Direct translation clients seem to be the Holy Grail to many of my freelancer colleagues. Better rates, more direct communication, increased likeliness to be credited… There are many apparent advantages in working without a middleman. In reality, there are all sorts of direct clients, just like there are all sorts of agencies, and in some cases the latter may be your best option.
What makes a good agency?
Very good question, one that would deserve an article of its own. To keep things simple for the needs of this one, we will consider here that a good agency is one that:
- Generally sends you projects related to your specialization fields
- Accepts to pay rates one judges decent
- Pays on time
- Sends file ready for translation (or is willing to pay extra for the conversion)
- Has your translation checked
- Handles basic end client requests
- Offers manageable deadlines
- Lets you work with the tools of your choice
- Ideally uses your services on a regular basis (let’s say once a month or more on average)
You could add more I guess, but that doesn’t sound too bad for a start, right? The majority of LSPs for whom all the above apply generally fall into one the following two categories:
- “Boutique” agencies, relatively small but very focused on a specialization or a language pair
- Very large agencies, receiving enough work to have specialization-based departments, or just large-enough volumes to keep you busy
The greater part of my income comes from translation companies meeting the criteria above, so nothing unrealistic here. The number of direct clients I translate for is slowly increasing every year, but I don’t feel any need to rush things. There’s a lot I love about the providers I work with:
1. Negotiations are much simpler
One reality of our industry is that many of the prospects you will meet have no idea about how translation works. I receive a lot of inquiries for projects that don’t even cover my language pairs or that are definitely not a match for my specializations. When their requests are relevant, they won’t always be sure of what they want exactly. You get a lot of “We’re pondering…”, “We haven’t defined the scope yet”, “We just want to know”, “At some point we may send you…”. Sometimes they will decide they don’t need translation services after all, for all sorts of reasons – price naturally being the most common pain point, as your average prospect also doesn’t know how much translation can possibly cost. Once I exchanged a long series of e-mails with a prospect for about 2 hours until she finally sent me a quotable file. I had told her my per-word rates in my first message, but it’s only when I applied it to the document that she realized that… well, let me quote “Im sorry its just too expensive. I have another 3 batches like that.” To whom shall I bill my time? Don’t get me wrong, rejected quotes are part of the game. But with agencies, you get a final answer much quicker. They know what they want and the profile they’re looking for. Which means the rejection rate also tends to be significantly lower, at least in my case. In the end, even if you get a lot of quote requests, it takes a lot of time to find a good end client.
2. The files you get are ready to go
A good agency knows that PDFs aren’t an ideal format to work with. If both of you are using a common CAT tool, they will prepare and send you a file you can start working on right away. If they can’t, they will be open to price negotiation. On the other hand, direct clients will rather send what is convenient to them. It can take time for them to understand you’re not overly excited about working with their exotic file format, and they may me surprised when you suddenly start talking about changing your rates. I’m an IT guy, I can work around most file types, but it still occasionally takes me an awful lot of time to have something workable. I can imagine the pain for non-technical people when they suddenly have to translate a website directly from random PHP or JSON files.
3. You don’t get (too many) unnecessary queries
A serious agency will act as a buffer or filter between you and the end client. They will be able to answer basic questions and queries for you, so that you don’t have to explain why your translation doesn’t look like Google Translation’s, or why it says your text back-translates to something nasty. They’ll often have someone in-house to handle small edit requests. And they will kindly let their customer know that “my cousin who studied French in high school and says your translation sucks” is most likely not in a position to judge your work. More seriously, people who think they know about languages better than they really do can quickly give you headaches. I’m happy for agencies to take their cut if they handle such persons for me.
4. The work stream is more consistent
Very large and boutique agencies will, in most cases, have several clients in your field, which helps maintain a healthy stream of work. In contrast, things tend to be more sporadic and unpredictable with end customers. Another thing is volatility. Cost reductions, people moving to another company, creation of an internal translation team… there are many ways a client can stop working without any further notice. While this also applies to agencies to an extent -I can only speak from personal experience here-, my average relationship time is definitely higher with agencies.
5. Think about customer acquisition cost
When we talk about direct clients, the focus is always on how much we earn. Yet, I rarely hear about how much it costs to get a direct client. How one finds direct clients? Conferences, associations? They’re rarely free and they can eat up quite a bit of your time. A well-optimized website? Hours and hours of SEO and content writing to get any results. Direct e-mails? You’ll spend a lot of time writing them if you want to do it right, for a low response rate. Social networks? Another time-consuming method. It takes time, money, efforts and probably a bit of talent too. That’s why agencies have their own sales/marketing people, sometimes dedicated departments for the big players. Agencies typically find me on translation portals or social networks, and it costs me virtually nothing, time and money-wise. I pay a small subscription fee for such websites, but I haven’t made any significant edits to my profiles in years. Compare that to the time spent maintaining a website + blog…
6. You can focus on what you like/are good at, and work faster as a result
If you start working on a large project for a direct customer, chances are that it won’t be 100% focused on your specialization. In the IT/software industry, for example, marketing texts, EULAs, etc. often get thrown in the mix besides purely technical content. A good agency will assign files to experts of their respective fields and keep a central TM/glossary. If you work directly with the end client, you’ll either have to a. handle those parts yourself, which will take extra time if you want to translate properly, or b. spend time informing them about the situation, possibly recommending a colleague and helping them reorganize the content.
So what is really better? Is there an ideal direct client/agency ratio?
If you put all of these points together, you may start asking yourself: When all is said and done, will I really earn more with direct clients? Is it really worth spending so much time looking for them? Spending time and money to get a deal done, explaining the process to your new customer, preparing the files, getting them to pay you, answering questions a good agency would not ask, dealing with parts that are out of your sphere of expertise… All these things will lower your average net hourly income. Working directly with the actual customers offers other benefits than rates alone, of course, but the possibility of a better income is often what motivates people to chase them. As I wrote before, though, raw rates are not nearly as relevant as your income per time unit. Sometimes a good agency can be your best bet. So what should you really be after? 100% direct clients, 100% agencies, 50/50, 75/25? Difficult to say. You will find extremely successful translators spread all the way between the two extremes. In a perfect world, you would only work directly with awesome end customers who perfectly understand your job and have a ton of work for you. In the real world, translators will often find it easier to build an agency clientele and progressively try to replace them with quality end clients. Easier said than done. In any case, and whatever path you choose to follow, try to keep these two points in mind: there’s nothing wrong working mostly with agencies if you are happy with them and direct client doesn’t equal quality client. If you build a clientele that gives you satisfaction, the rest shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t overlook LSPs only because they get in the middle.