Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Praise of Excellence, or, How to Retain and Get More Customers

On this blog, I have given practical advice for getting started in translation, and how to get a freelance translation business going is probably the most common question people ask me. But it is not enough to set out your shingle and call yourself a translator; you also have to ensure that you get a steady stream of assignments. And that means that you need to make sure you get new customers.

I have found that word-of-mouth is really the best method for getting new customers. People are more likely to accept a recommendation from a friend or colleague than they are to be convinced by advertising. But in order for customers to recommend you to other people, you must do an excellent job. So how can you be a successful translator?

Here are a few tips from my years as a freelance translator. I think this method has been working, since nearly all of my assignments come from regular customers or people they have recommended me to (who often in turn become regulars, too). I do not actively advertise and I no longer spend time signing up with translation agencies or contacting potential direct clients. The “only” thing I consistently do is the best work possible.

First of all, it is vital to keep your language skills fresh. Just because you have taken courses or have at some point lived in the country where the language you translate from is spoken does not mean that you are still perfectly fluent. And sometimes you can even forget things in your native language (I certainly have been embarrassed to experience situations when I remember a word in Swedish, but not in English!). To combat this language-slippage, read widely in both the source and text languages, across as many genres as you can. Read books and online newspapers, and even participate in chat groups. The style of writing and the choice of vocabulary varies according to who is writing and for what purpose and what audience, so any texts you read can help refresh or update your language skills, and can also inspire you when it comes to how you write.

Besides reading texts, I also make a point of learning new words in both English and Swedish. Building your vocabulary is both interesting and helpful.

Also, try to regularly speak both languages, since even if you work primarily with the written word, speaking practice can positively influence your reading and writing. Except in certain circumstances, you probably can not live in a country where both (or all, if you have more than two) your languages are regularly spoken. That means it is up to you to find a way to practice hearing and talking. I’m lucky in that my partner is Swedish. We used to have a schedule in which we spoke Swedish for two weeks and then switched to English for two weeks and so on, since that way we each had an opportunity to use our mother tongue, which is important for us both personally and professionally. At this point, we haven’t spoken English in a very long time, but I do get to speak English with people at the university and when I am out, since I live in an English-speaking country. For people who do not have the asset of having a more or less built-in language partner, find some people in your area who speak the language in question and try to plan occasional get-togethers. This need not be formal; having coffee once a month and chatting in Gaelic or Tagalog or Italian can be enough.

But making sure you are fluent in both source and target languages isn’t all that you need in order to retain customers and impress them with your skills. There are certain personal qualities that have an impact too.

You should be curious and willing to learn new things, since many jobs will require that you do at least some research. Translation is not a matter of just looking up words in the dictionary; for many assignments, I have spent quite a bit of time reading other texts, searching the internet, or talking to experts or other translators, all for the goal of getting more information about the topic the text is about. And do not be afraid to ask questions of your client or other people. You can not do a good job if something about the document or the assignment confuses you or is unclear. You are definitely not stupid if you ask a question, though some people seem to feel it proves they are not intelligent enough for the job; on the contrary, it shows that you are intelligent enough to know when you need help. Doing it alone doesn’t mean much if you have done it incorrectly.

You should also be thorough. It is amazing how many people do not reread their work, leaving careless typos or other errors in the text. Edit the text before you send it off. Do not complain that it is boring to proof-read or that you don’t have time; it is a part of your job. I always compare the source and target texts after I have translated and then I read the target text again to check how it sounds in English. I do each of these things at least once; if I make any changes while doing them, I reread the text yet again. In other words, I edit until I feel the text is as good as it can be. It takes time, but it is worth it.

And speaking of time, an essential quality is punctuality. Always, always, always turn your work in on time, barring an extreme event such as a computer problem or an accident. If possible, give the translation to the client early. When I estimate how long a job will take me, I try to add on an extra few hours or days, depending on the type of assignment, to cover for particular situations or for anything unexpected happening. For example, about a month ago, one of my hard drives crashed, and that took some time to deal with, but not a single one of my projects was delayed because of it. There was no need for me to write embarrassing emails to customers about how I couldn’t do their work because I had a computer issue, since I had already estimated in a little extra time for my jobs (and also because I never wait until the last minute to start an assignment). Some people also like to estimate more time around holidays or in the busy seasons, since they know they will get more work in or have other activities, and they want to have room to prioritize. Usually, of course, the unexpected does not happen, and then you will be able to send the customer the work early, which tends to make them grateful. But don’t estimate that a job will take you two weeks when you know it will only require a few hours; that just makes you look bad, and it may even prevent you from getting assignments. Schedule reasonable deadlines and keep to whatever timeline you have agreed to.

A related point is to respond to all phone calls or emails from clients in a timely fashion. I try to reply within a few hours, or one day at the most. If I am out of town, I have an automated response set up on my email that lets them know when they can expect me to reply. It is annoying for customers if they have asked you to translate a text but you take a long time to reply; since then they don’t know whether you are available or not or even whether you have started translating the text without confirming the price and deadline with them, they may just decide to ask someone else. And if that someone else does a good job, the customer may go to that person for the next assignment, too.

In all your dealings with customers, be polite but firm. Customers may need to be educated about what translation is, but do so as politely as you can. If you snap or shout or send an angry email, you will likely lose the customer and he or she will ignore whatever point you were trying to make, too. Yes, customers sometimes complain about things for no reason, or act as though they are the language experts and not you. If their requests or comments are out of line, explain why and stand up for yourself, but don’t get yourself too worked up about it because it doesn’t help matters and it causes unnecessary stress for you, too. In certain situations, you will find that in fact you are better off without a particular customer. Remember, if you do good work and are polite, you are worth decent pay and respectful treatment from clients, and if you do not get that, move on to jobs from elsewhere.

Does this all seem obvious? Well, yes, it does. However, it is surprising how many people don’t seem to follow these suggestions. I know translators, for example, who see no reason why they should keep up their speaking skills in the source language, or who think project managers or end customers will edit the translation and they therefore don’t have to. I have also talked to people who are rather lax about deadlines or who don’t know how to plan their time. And I’ve heard stories about translators who argue with their customers or don’t let them know when they are going out of town. It is true that we translators offer a necessary service; it is not true that that means we can treat our customers and their documents any way we want. There is a lot of competition out there, so it behooves us to do the best job we can and to be polite, time-conscious, and careful while doing so.

Strive for excellence and I believe you’ll find that customers who care about their texts (i.e. customers who don’t just care about getting the job done as cheaply and quickly as possible) return to you again and again, and recommend you to others as well.

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