American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Repeat Business

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Repeat Business

Repeat Business

This month's column addresses the issue of repeat business from a group of steady clients, which is the goal of many freelance business operators. Newcomers who do not hear back from a client after submitting a job often worry that something went wrong. While a lack of communication may have nothing to do with the quality of the translator's work, it is still worth taking the time to investigate.

Dear Business Smarts:

I have a question I have been hesitant to bring up in other online discussion forums. How important is it to have repeat business from the same clients? I work in a major language pair, but do not seem to get much repeat business. I started my own freelance business in 2003. I followed the marketing advice from our local Small Business Administration office, along with marketing ideas I read online. I am a member of many online translation job forums and frequently apply for offers. However, many clients only send one or two jobs and then fall silent, which forces me to return to my marketing efforts. How can I find out why I am not getting more business from past clients?
— Always-new clients in Colorado

Dear Always:

A steady flow of interesting repeat business from a fixed group of friendly and well-paying clients is every freelancer's dream and aspiration. That dream may take a while to come true, however, so do not despair. If most of your current clients send only a few jobs, start by taking a good look at your customers. Where did you make initial contact? Were the negotiations based on price or on quality? Did the clients provide you with any feedback after you delivered a job? Identify a handful of clients with whom you would like to establish a long-term relationship and contact them regularly with a short, friendly message saying that you are available for new assignments. You may also want to consider sending out a (brief!) "feedback form" to solicit opinions about your work from these clients. Another approach may be to request permission to list the client as a reference on your résumé.

The responses to these efforts can tell you a lot. If you hear nothing back, you may need to reconsider your marketing efforts entirely and focus on companies that value their freelancers enough to at least stay in touch. Advertisers looking only for the lowest price on online auction sites frequently lack an appreciation for the kind of skills involved in translation, and will never develop into steady clients. Instead, you may need to look for serious job advertisements in other venues. Reinforce your networking efforts by attending local translator meetings and events and keep your résumé updated to send out whenever a promising opportunity arises.

Next, carefully evaluate how you go about processing an assignment. Do you tend to ask a lot of questions by e-mail or telephone? Project managers are frequently under time pressure and prefer that you deal with self-explanatory questions yourself. Have you been careful to comply with all written instructions, and especially to use reference materials and formats supplied by the client? Did you deliver your assignments with time to spare, or at the last minute? Do you have the necessary experience in a field of specialization to avoid basic errors? Do you back up your terminology choices with thorough research? Take stock of your reference materials. Even in the age of Google, a good translator must have a solid library of dictionaries on hand to verify terminology. Keep in mind that mailing lists and forums are no substitute for doing your own research and establishing your own expertise, especially since agency owners and project managers also read such lists. Obvious novices who expect other list or forum participants to solve all of their terminological problems are revealing more than they may realize.

Share your work with a colleague you trust, and ask for honest feedback. Does he or she think your work is appropriate and professional? What kinds of improvements does the colleague suggest?

Lastly, remember that clients have to deal with ups and downs in the flow of their own incoming work. Maybe they have not called for a while because nothing in your subject area and language combination has come in. But whatever the reason, communication is — as always — essential. Never be afraid to maintain contact with the people who depend on your expertise.

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: November-December 2006, p 39