The Business of Interpreting: FAQ 11 – How do I win the bid?

We’ve all been there, right? We get a phone call with our perfect assignment, all but offered on a silver platter. It’s in our niche, with our ideal customer, we know what the market will bear, and we know we are in the right geographical area. We have all the information the prospect wants, and they are speaking to us one-on-one.

And then… silence. Or the dreaded “thank you, but” email comes – thank you, but we have decided not to go through with this job. Or perhaps – thank you, but we have found someone else who better fits our budget.

Why you don’t want to win the bid

Of course we didn’t win the bid! And frankly, under these circumstances, nor should we have. Someone called us and asked our availability and price. That’s it, nothing else. They didn’t offer any more information, and they didn’t answer any of our questions – if we bothered to ask any.

These are all signs that the prospect was just looking for the service provider with the lowest price.They have limited knowledge about our profession – all they know is that they need someone with our working languages. They assume we are all the same, because they found us on the website of our professional association. So their only point of comparison is price. Even if we volunteer more information, send in a CV, or try to engage them in a conversation, they would still only look at the price. And there is always someone cheaper than us.

That means that to win the bid, we have to be cheaper than anyone else the prospect can find with a quick online search. But do we really want to be the cheapest? It’s a tough position to defend, as someone else could always come in just that little bit cheaper. And it’s not like we don’t have bills to pay. It’s true that we can have a large amount of flexibility in the rates we charge, but if we are always the cheapest then we have to work more hours to pay those same bills.

Moreover, we have to find a partner to work with – interpreting with us, providing the equipment. Which means that the fact that we charged rock-bottom rates will spread to the rest of the market, becoming part of our reputation and brand. And even if we can find someone to work with us at these low rates, we won’t inspire loyalty in our partners.

Surely there’s a better way to win bids?

Don’t worry, it can be done. Perhaps I can illustrate with a personal experience:

A tale of two jobs

Two jobs, both alike in every respect:

two lawyers – let’s call them Lawyer A and Lawyer B – called within a month of each other

to interpret for similar legal jobs – Job A and Job B – with

the same language combination

the same team strength, and

the same type of interpreting.

Legal interpreting happens to be one of the areas where I do a lot of work. I know the pitfalls, so I know what to include in my contract. I know the rates that the market will bear. I know who I’d want on my team. I probably know more than the lawyers about the rules in certain venues.

I sent in my fees and conditions to each of them. I also sent in a CV, and expressed my desire to help.

This is where the story splits:

I found out later that Lawyer A was shopping around. They had spoken with at least one other interpreter, and most probably several. Fair enough.

As you can imagine, I did not get Job A. Lawyer A wrote a polite “thank you, but” email declining my services. Reasons given (to me and the other bidder I know of) were many and strange: they wanted someone closer to the city (where all of us are based), they wanted someone who could better accommodate their client’s schedule (we all could). And they wanted someone who better fit their client’s budget. Ah, now there’s the rub!

Lawyer B, in contrast, contacted only me. Having asked for my fees and conditions, they said everything was fine, and asked that I note down the dates of the event in my calendar. Thank you very much, very happy to do business with you, fait accompli!

Every respect but one

The crucial difference between Lawyer A and Lawyer B is how they found me.

Lawyer A searched my professional association’s website, and wrote to me (and others) from that list. There was no attempt at any personal connection and no relationship at all.

Lawyer B had a need, and asked a former colleague for a referral to a good interpreter. The colleague referred me. Lawyer B then contacted me, gave me the details, and accepted my fees and conditions. There was no bid, nor any competition. There was just a satisfied customer, with whom I stay in touch, giving a recommendation to a former colleague. This meant that from the outset there was a foundation for trust and reciprocity, even before we discussed availability or price.

Start the relationship

To convert your Lawyer As into Lawyer Bs, you must build a relationship. In Lawyer A’s case, I made sure not to send only my fees and conditions, but also a CV that showed my expertise in this field, as well as an email stating that I was ready to help. While nothing came of it this time, perhaps I managed to plant a seed. They may call again for a future client with an appropriate budget, after having had experience with someone with less expertise, or less of a desire to build a relationship.

In the meantime, Lawyer B will not have complete radio silence from me. Nothing too much, but a note now and again to keep me top of mind. If the job gets cancelled, it won’t be due to concerns about my professionalism, but because one of the parties decided not to continue. And by the time we meet in person, I will be cemented in their mind as the best choice they ever made.

Learn to recognize and avoid the reverse auctions out there. Rather, focus on building and maintaining relationships. In the longer-term it will pay off.

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The Business of Interpreting: FAQ 10 – How can I check my profit margin?

I just walked 3000 steps more today than yesterday! Recently I was given a pedometer, and now I can see how close I am to the ideal 10,000 steps per day. And more to the point, I can keep track of my performance.

As interpreters, there are metrics we should be tracking in our business as well: How many days did I work last year and the year before? How much did I earn during each of those periods? We may become even more detailed, noting the types of clients – international organizations, individual businesses and sectors, government ministries, courts, etc.

Two key metrics to evaluate profitability

As business people, there are two essential metrics that we should track, ones we hear about whenever we watch Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den: CAC and LTV.

CAC, or customer acquisition cost, is a business person’s way to understand if their clients actually make them money. In our case, CAC is the cost of convincing a client that they want to buy our service.

To put it simply, CAC may be calculated by dividing all the costs spent on acquiring clients by the number of clients acquired over the same period. For example, if we spent 1000 CX (currency X) on marketing in a year and acquired 10 clients, the CAC for each client is 100 CX.

In our case, we could measure CAC expressed in money or in time, since we usually charge by the day and we know what our day costs. If our daily fee is 800 CX (100 CX per hour for an 8-hour day, including all lunch and coffee breaks, to make the math easy), we just spent the equivalent of 10 hours marketing, and were able to acquire 10 clients, each with a CAC of 1 hour.

If we then consider how much we project to earn from a client over time, the LTV or customer lifetime value, we can determine if that individual client is profitable, and then compare that client to others to see which are the most profitable. In other words, we can see who is helping us to cover our expenses and earn us a profit, and who is literally costing us money to work for.

How it works

So let’s say it took us the equivalent of 4 hours to market to Client A before s/he agreed to sign a contract for 3 days (3×8, or 24 hours) of work. That client is profitable to the tune of 20 hours.

On the other hand, if it took us 10 hours to convince Client B, who ended up hiring us for only one day, Client B cost us 2 hours. If we do not expect to work for them again, and they are not amenable to giving us a referral or a testimonial, then Client B was not worth the time we invested.

Know your cost of living

Before doing this exercise, make sure you understand your expenses on a monthly (recurring costs such as rent or mortgage, food, health insurance, transportation, child care, office supplies, etc.) and annual basis (monthly expenses plus all one-off payments such as a car, a holiday, a computer, an emergency fund, etc.). Divide this grand total by the number of days you can realistically expect to work in a year to get the bare minimum rate you must earn per day worked to be able to break even. (Download Julia Böhm’s excellent article for information on what to include by clicking here.)

For example, if you must earn 2000 CX per month, then in the case above you would have covered only 1800 CX of your monthly expenses (Client A brought in 2000 CX, and Client B cost you 200 CX). So you would need one more day of work for someone who is easier to sell to than Client B.

If we expect to work for a client again, and don’t have to expend more effort or money to convince them to hire us, the LTV just keeps going up. So if we could plan on Client A hiring us even one more day, we would have just earned another 800 CX at zero cost. Whereas, unless they radically change their behavior or give us lots of referrals or an amazing testimonial, we should just stop trying to sell to Client B. After all, why keep a client who continuously makes changes, thus using up far more time than we have budgeted for? Let them go!

Of course, we may decide to work for clients who don’t make us much, if any, money – but only if we know our expenses, that they are covered, and we have another reason to work for them. Reasons abound: we like the cause, we want to gain a toehold in a new market, we want the prestige… but we must know what those clients cost us.

Evaluating your clientele

So how do you do this? List all your current clients, and try to remember how much money or time you spent in convincing each of them to buy your services for the first time. Expenses would include the cost of one business card, time writing emails, a portion of your website, any dedicated expenses such as transportation to a meeting, etc. It may have been very little, if it was a referral from another client; it may have been a lot, if it was someone whom you had to introduce to interpreting.

Do this for all your current clients and rank them by CAC. Do you notice any trends? Are clients from a particular industry less expensive to acquire than others? Make sure to do this exercise for any new client you acquire.

For the same clients, consider how many days you have already worked, and how many more days you might realistically work for each, as well as how much more money, time and effort you will have to expend to convince each of them to hire you again.

Then calculate how much these clients could earn you and see if there are any common features among them. If there are, this should be your niche, your specialization. In fact, this approach could be another way to come at the ideal client question I posed in FAQ 3: If you already know that your most profitable sectors (lowest CAC and highest LTV) are electric power generation, or environmental protection, then you have found your ideal client niche.

If this niche isn’t your favorite, consider if you can make it a favorite and specialize. You have already made inroads into the sector, which will save you a lot of preparation and research time for future jobs, meaning that your effective daily earnings have just increased without having to increase your nominal fees.

If you can’t, then try and understand why you are able to market yourself so successfully to one niche, and not so successfully to another. Once you have that figured out, your business should grow in your ideal niche, and you will know for certain that all your clients are profitable.

Time to start keeping track of your metrics!

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The Business of Interpreting: FAQ 9 – What is the customer decision journey?

What will trigger a potential client’s realization that they need an interpreter? And how will they go about finding one? Hard to say right off the bat, so let’s start by thinking about how we search for something, for example terms for a medical conference. The internet, of course – but where exactly?

There are many search engines available, bringing up lots of websites – some gathering all sorts of terminology, others giving you just one term at a time. One of the medical speeches will be about how substances in smaller quantities can be helpful, but larger can kill you – digitalis is one example. So you look up digitalis and get lots of photos of flowers, one of which you just saw in your garden. Really? What’s its common name? Foxglove! Hmm, where did that name come from? And you find that in various Gaelic languages, it’s “folksgloves,” like fairy folk. Then you wonder, do languages other than Gaelic mention the fairies when talking about this plant? And down the rabbit hole you go, not looking up from your computer for hours.

The internet has so many different paths that no one’s journey is alike, even if they start at the same place. And really, maybe no one even starts at the same place either – you noticed the digitalis, maybe another interpreter focused on nanoparticles.

Our potential clients face the same problem. They could start with a search for linguists; they may understand that they want spoken or oral translators. They might even know the word interpreter, though some of those hits will bring up actors or computer programs that execute other programs.They could look for an individual, or an agency. They may already know someone who knows someone. Or they may simply call the local university to ask for a student who speaks that language. Or the embassy of that country. There is no set path.

The customer decision journey

So let’s take a look at the typical customer decision journey. It starts off with a trigger, something that prompts a search, in this case for an interpreter. That trigger could be anything – the boss wants to invite a famous speaker from another country to the AGM, the CEO has just thought about expanding into overseas markets, or the EU suddenly realizes that all their French interpreters with German will be retiring in the next few years. In other words, it could be anything.

The next phase of the journey is research. This is the scary part, as clients most probably don’t know you, may not even be aware of your industry, and they could go anywhere. They have multiple paths available, such as recommendations from friends and colleagues, television, print media, the yellow pages, and of course the internet.

Social media may help, if you are a prominent contributor of content that educates buyers on your own website as well as on LinkedIn and other platforms where serious clients would expect to find a professional. But it may also hurt, since it is easy to find others doing the same thing as you, as well as numerous other distractions. And SEO doesn’t always work here, e.g. if the client heads in a direction that is different from what you consider logical – keep in mind that phone call to the embassy! This phase is when clients gather and evaluate most of the information they need to find the interpreter(s) they will finally hire. In today’s world of immediate gratification, it may take very little time.

Once they have evaluated the information, clients start contacting the interpreters and agencies they found. In fact, well over fifty percent of their buying process will have been completed before they ever contact anyone – which means that clients already have in mind a ranking of the people or agencies they are contacting, and if the first person who answers even comes close to what the potential client wants, they will most probably get the job.

So any information they get from you both during and immediately after the search phase will be critical, as it will differentiate you from the mass of other providers that they are in effect interviewing.

This is where all your homework on what value you provide and how you differ from other interpreters will come in handy. Never merely state a price and end the call – you must have a conversation. The easiest way to start would be by asking where they found you, which is good market research for you as well. After that, make sure to ask all the questions you need to do due diligence on the client and the event, and listen carefully to the answers. If their problem is one you can solve, let them know that you will get back to them in [name a time] with an offer. Then get back to them at that time without fail, to start building trust.

The next point on the journey is when you are offered the job. This is only the halfway point in the customer journey, and takes little time, just like the trigger. It takes place once and is the start of the second half of the cycle, a portion that most of us ignore.

Groundwork for the future

You shouldn’t think that you can simply sign the contract, provide the service, get paid, and have a satisfied client. You may not realize it, but there are multiple contacts you will have with the client during the process of providing your services: obtaining documents, providing input on equipment, advising on how to ensure the event is truly multilingual as opposed to an event with a superficial patch of last-minute interpreter hires. Each one of those contacts will lead your client into thinking that you are easy to work with, fulfill their needs, and have an engaging personality – or it could prove the opposite. At the end of the day, it isn’t just your interpreting – it is this phase that makes or breaks you.

In fact, mediocre to bad customer experience is the norm, so anything you can do to enhance this relationship and experience will ensure that clients see you not simply as a service provider, but as the expert and partner that contributed to a successful event. Clients will not only know, like and trust you for the future, but they will become your advocates in a densely crowded and highly competitive market.

If a client is happy, ask for a written testimonial or a recommendation online, and for possible referrals to new contacts. The written aspect of a testimonial cements their opinion of you in their minds, and the social aspect shows others that clients speak positively about you, which of course is much more valuable than you talking about yourself.

At this point, you have come full circle back to when something new triggers their need to hire an interpreter. But since the previous experience was so positive, why would clients waste time repeating the research and evaluation process? They call you directly, and you take the shortcut directly to the point where you are hired again.

This is a simplified model of how a client finds a service provider. There are many other models that make the rounds, such as the funnel model (you run into that when you click to receive a free report and are required to give your email address to have it sent to you), or the hero journey (described by Joseph Campbell and exemplified by Luke Skywalker), but this one sums up best what we ourselves have to deal with when clients find us.

I bet that most of those that called you out of the blue have already done a minimum of research, at least to find your name, even if that was simply searching for “spoken translator” + “your foreign language” + “your city”. It’s your job to then make their calls to you into such engaging conversations, showcasing your value to them, that they go no further, and become your biggest fans.

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The Business of Interpreting: FAQ 8 – What is the most sustainable interpreting market?

Things have been going well, you have lots of work with a great client, you are earning lots of money – and then suddenly bam! Something happens… and now you are making almost nothing. Your loyal client is no longer hiring you more than once in a blue moon. What can you do?

In actual fact, the question should be “what could I have done to prevent it?” Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good career move – that’s why there are sayings and fables about it. So let’s take a look at clients and how we can make our situation more sustainable.

The myth of the ideal client

Most of us would think that finding that one client who can hire us every day of the year for decent fees and conditions is a godsend. How fantastic, we don’t have to take the time to market, research new jobs, figure out how to work for a new client, or anything else! We are practically employees, but still able to take our vacations when we want to.

Most often, this type of client is the hiring agent in a government interpretation service, an international organization or an agency. You like the work and don’t have to worry. Your contact knows you and your work, likes you and the ease of dealing with you, and trusts you. For them, you are a consistent element, so why would they bother trying to find another?

This is all well and good, but have you considered how fragile this situation is? What happens if your longtime contact falls ill, or retires, or changes jobs? Have you been nurturing an authentic relationship with them so you know ahead of time that they are moving, so you can make plans? Have you been educating this person for a long time, and can you ask them to pass on the fruits of that education to their replacement or to include them in a standard operating procedures file?

Or even more out of your control, what if you’ve been working for an international organization, and your main language combination is dependent on the political or economic situation in the world? In other words, the major country that speaks your language does something the international organization considers to be beyond the pale, and suddenly they no longer hire anyone with your languages?

Or have you thought about subprime loan risks that spread throughout the global economy? Governments the world over cut their budgets, so many international organizations are now just trying to keep their heads above water and there is much less work for interpreters.

These are all-too-familiar situations that can happen to any of us at any time, and all have happened to some of us. We can cross our fingers and hope that things will pick up again in the near future –though this isn’t very helpful because while the economic situation has only just started moving, it looks to be sinking again; the political situation looks frozen. And how long will this new hiring officer who actively doesn’t want to hire us stay in the job?

Or is there a more sustainable way of finding regular work?

Alternatives

Somewhat counter-intuitively, direct clients on the private market look to be the most sustainable way of working as a freelance interpreter today. Such clients are easier to get to know, and have multiple means of entry – you may get a toehold in the export department, and then get called to work with the marketing and sales departments. Once the company has a long term relationship abroad, you might get brought in to help manage their customer relations. And any time anyone makes a trip to visit that market, you have another job.

If you think about it, even if governments aren’t talking to one another, individuals still do. There will always be some sort of business relationship that people need to maintain. When deals go wrong, there will be international arbitration. And there are always some sort of civil society efforts that need interpreters. It may not be what you would strictly call conference interpreting, but these are fields that many of us have worked in.

If you have a strong base of private clients, even if they are concentrated in a particular niche, you don’t have to worry as much if one of them disappears. Even if they are in the same niche, they maybe at different stages in developing their foreign markets. You don’t have to worry when the hiring agent at one of them changes, that the economic situation in one company will be reflected in exactly the same way in all of them, or that a suddenly different political situation will hit each of them identically.

Moreover, if you have been educating all your points of contact to work with you as a full member of the team, and if you have been maintaining an authentic relationship with them, then when they move on, it may be a great opportunity for you! They may leave instructions for their successors, who will then understand that the company already knows, likes and trusts you; you’ll have less marketing to do to keep them as a client. Plus, you will have the added value of knowing that a second company doesn’t need the same level of education, because your former contact point is now preaching your cause in the new company.

So if sustainability is the watchword, and market diversification is the best way of remaining sustainable, then put more of your eggs in the direct client basket!

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The Business of Interpreting: FAQ 7 – What is the rule of 7?

It’s funny how knowledge in one sphere of our lives is not always transferred to others. I know interpreters who own apartments to rent. They would never allow anyone to live in one of them without a written agreement, but would never think of putting anything on paper when hiring other interpreters.

In previous FAQs, I’ve spoken about relationships but haven’t really defined them. We all know how to make friends and have done since we were children. But for some reason, once we grow up and are no longer carefree students, we tend to forget how to enter into a mutually beneficial, authentic interaction with another person.

So let’s take a quick look at working relationships with clients who are not our colleagues.

The rule of seven

First of all, a very brief history of how sales used to work before we entered the brave new world of one-to-one marketing. Over the decades during which sales became a specialty, there were rules that salespeople sussed out on the job and that have since been validated through practice and research. One of the most important is the rule of seven: It takes an average of seven contacts to make a sale.

This is why cold callers don’t get far. It’s why sales people who call you in the middle of dinner get hung up on. It’s why you never hear back from people you sent your CV to.

Before one-to-one, or relationship, marketing became the norm, that meant literally contacting a possible client seven times before you would capture a sale. In the good old days of Wild West marketing for interpreting contracts, that meant:

  1. Call to find out who should get your CV.
  2. Send your CV.
  3. Call to confirm they received your CV.
  4. Wait a few weeks and send a card updating some of the information on your CV – you have anew skill, you offer new hours, whatever.
  5. Send a Christmas card to the person.
  6. Send a new CV reflecting an update to your skills.
  7. Call to say hello.

By this time, the prospective client would be so sick of you that they would give you an assignment just to get you off the phone. Or else you would contact them just as something you could do came across their desk; it was pure coincidence that they could hire anyone so quickly.

None of it was really building a relationship, but it certainly made sure your name was familiar. All the client knew was that you were familiar and persistent, and perhaps pushy. And frankly, as politicians all over the world know, even bad publicity is publicity.

In Europe, where Wild West marketing would get you shot down in flames in many markets, you still have to get through an average of seven contacts, it simply takes much longer. The three years it took me in the US to get to the point where I no longer had to market myself to have as much work as I wanted, can take at least 5 years in Europe, assuming you’re steady in your efforts.

The advent of relationship marketing

Today, “relationship marketing” rules. The idea is the same in that we still have to contact prospects several times before they become clients. But other things have changed making our job harder –such as having only nine seconds to make a good first impression instead of at least a minute or two. Some – like relationship marketing – make our lives more complicated, but a lot more fun.

One thing that I love about interpreting is getting to know people, and helping them to communicate their ideas to others. The better I know them, the better I communicate their ideas. Getting to know them is the fun part – and it is far from the traditions of waiting my telephone to ring, for someone to call and say they have an assignment for me, or just sending out my CV to everyone I know.

The key to relationship marketing is having an authentic connection. You don’t (usually) go on a first date with someone and immediately start thinking of baby names; why would you want to meet people only so they can hire you? When I meet anyone who could be a prospective client, I don’t think about that future job they could hire me for. I think about what they do, ask them questions to find out their interests, and talk about myself as little as possible. If an idea sparks during our conversation, I share it.

After I return to the office, I note the person’s contact details, along with anything I can remember that stood out from our conversation – especially the sparks. If they are proud of their son’s Little League win, I note that. If I promised them a book recommendation, I make sure to send it the next day with a message saying how great it was to meet them. If I run across an article that I am sure will interest them, I send it along. If we live in the same city, I may ask if they want to go out for a coffee or lunch sometime, and not necessarily to talk about work.

Prospective clients are people too, and will be turned off by a hard sell. The idea is to keep the relationship going. Then, when the company finally does have that event, they know whom to call. And you end up consulting for them, knowing more about what the goals for the meeting are, helping to organize it, and adding a new paying client.

Of course, the relationship is not based on that at all, so whether or not you get work,you still keep in touch. And even in markets where much of interpreters’ work comes from agencies, there is no reason not to call the person who hires you to ask them out for a drink. Agencies are not always our enemies, and if you are happy working for one, that means that you should have more than simply a sales contact with someone on the staff.

“Oh, but…,” I hear a lot from interpreters. “It just isn’t done.” Or “What will people think?” I am not advocating trying to make agency representatives or prospective clients into your best friends. I am not even advocating turning them into friends in the strict sense of the word. It is a very rare client who becomes someone you want to invite to your house, meet your family, or accept an invitation from to stay at their place.

But having a drink to talk about things other than assignments, being a“business friend”, can only be a good thing. It paves the way for more sensitive conversations later, such as, “You do know I have this other language combination as well?” Or “It would be better to organize this part of the meeting in a different way.” Or “It’s about time we had that conversation about raising my rates.”

Remember the earlier FAQ about your ideal client? Having an authentic relationship with an ideal prospective client should be easy. And the best part of this type of marketing is that you aren’t poaching on another interpreter’s territory, and you won’t be able to be poached from as you have a real connection. And when your contact changes jobs, as they will, you now have a good contact with a company that has never heard of you before – and a referral from your contact for the new person at their old desk.

So it still takes an average of seven contacts to make a sale, but those contacts are more authentic, more fulfilling, and a lot more fun.

Originally published on the blog for the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The business of interpreting: FAQ 5 – Why do I need to be a brand?

Do you know what people think when they hear your name? Do you consciously try to influence what they think? Or do their impressions form haphazardly while you hope that they will understand your underlying value without any input from you?

One way of intentionally influencing them is to build your personal brand.

What is a brand?

Simply put, a brand is anything that is recognizable, that is known, liked, and trusted because it is consistently the same. Let me give you some examples: McDonald’s, the Subaru Impreza WRXSTi, Bob Dylan. In each case, when you hear one of these names you get an impression, a feeling, an awareness of exactly what you will get when you open the box (sometimes literally).

In McDonald’s case, you know that wherever you are in the world, you will be able to find sustenance at a reasonable price, and in an atmosphere that reflects America – why else do you think it was a popular dating spot in Moscow back when the first restaurant opened? Russians didn’t pick up the hamburgers the way Americans did, and they didn’t see it as a cheap and easy way to feed the kids. It was seen as a way of visiting a small piece of America – so couples went dressed up, and pulled apart the burgers to eat the meat, bread and salad separately, with forks and knives. OK, the audience may have changed today, but the restaurant is still popular with people who want to eat something they already know, like, and trust, and they know they can find this little bit of Americana in Moscow, New York, and Paris.

The Subaru Impreza WRX STi (yes, all the letters mean something) is a driver’s car. In fact, it has long been seen as the supreme driver’s car at a decent price point, and it won many rally championships. Owners flash their headlights at each other when they meet on the road, like members of a private club, and they are immensely picky whom they will flash – if the model doesn’t have a turbo and the gold wheels, you don’t get the flash.

Bob Dylan – well, ’nuff said.

What is a personal brand?

Personal branding started back in 1997, with Tom Peters’ article “The Brand Called You.” Magazines started helping people become brands in a world where the cradle-to-grave job no longer existed or was no longer considered satisfying.

Unlike improving one’s skills, personal branding is away of improving the package those skills are delivered in, so that people see you as distinctive and not as an interchangeable, fungible commodity.

Why are we so different?

Nowadays, all entrepreneurs are brands; we trust the new company because that particular entrepreneur already had a company we all liked. Even employees inside companies are brands, or else they wouldn’t be able to advance. There is even a growing market for personal brand consultants to help you with just these issues.

So why should we interpreters be any different? After all, it is what clients expect. As you already understand, your packaging helps them know and like you and, secondarily, trust what you do even though they don’t understand it at all.

Why do you choose a brand?

Let’s think about this from a different perspective: why do YOU choose a brand? Why have you chosen to drive that car, eat at that restaurant, read that book? Do you make a practice of choosing goods or services with no research, even if it’s only asking your sister what she’s reading today?

Usually you choose to buy goods or services because either you – or someone whom you know, like, and trust – already knows, likes, and trusts – that brand. You choose that author because you have liked what s/he wrote in the past. You choose that restaurant because your Italian friend recommended it as the best Italian restaurant in the city. You bought that book because the bookstore staff highly recommended it. You drive that car because you like and/or admire the tribe of people who also own it, and you want to belong.

If YOU do that, why should your prospective clients do otherwise?

Surprises are not always good

And remember that you are not particularly happy with surprises when you buy and get something other than what you expected. Surprise does not always equal delight.

Subaru found that out when they changed the Impreza. They had originally focused on drivers, so put all the money into the mechanical side and very little into creature comforts: the dashboard looked like cheap plastic instead of feeling more like leather, the seats weren’t very comfortable -just very useful when cornering and driving sideways. When Subaru decided to make the inside more comfortable, sacrificing some of the driver’s features, their sales dropped. The new model alienated their ferociously loyal customer base, and didn’t attract a new demographic because everyone expected the same “driver’s car.” They went back to their roots for the next model.

And for an example from the culture world, just think of the furor that arose when Bob Dylan switched from being a folk music star to playing rock with “Like a Rolling Stone.”

You already know someone

In fact, you most likely already know colleagues with whom you are consistently delighted to work; they would be members of your dream team if you were staffing a meeting. You may even emulate them in your interpreting approach, your booth manners, your customer relations. I am sure they have bad days – they lost a lucrative contract, their kids were sick all night… But would you know it from their demeanor? Their performance in the booth? Their relations with other colleagues or customers?

These colleagues are consistent, so have a personal brand. Why not emulate them? It’s much easier to model your behavior on someone else than to make every little decision all the time. It’s very easy: you just ask yourself “What would [colleague] do?” If you can’t imagine the colleague you are emulating doing something, don’t do it. You become more consistent, people know what to expect, and you begin to understand the concept of a personal brand, if only in the interpreting world.

Become recognizable to your clients

Now take this to the next level. To become a recognizable brand for prospective clients, you need to find reference points that they would understand, from outside the profession.

So now is the time to put on your thinking cap: what brands do you identify with that are not interpreting related? Not brands that you merely like or follow; brands that, when you think about them, really resonate. You want to be that brand. Feel free to pick more than one brand, though if they resonate for different reasons, you should limit your choice to two or three.

Next, think about why the brand/s resonate/s with you. What are the main characteristics that call to you? Think about them, and see if you can bring them into your interpreting career. Create a type of“style guide” that will help you remain consistent with your chosen packaging.

Putting it all together

Now take all of that information and put it together with your interpreting market.

This first isn’t my favorite example, but it is an easy one to show: are you a complete fan of McDonald’s? Do you like their consistency, their delivery of a known product that won’t let you down, anywhere in the world, at a low price point? You could take the consistency as your hallmark, the fact that all your clients will get a known (if not high level) service for not a lot of money. What would McDonald’s do?

Maybe you prefer having more of a niche market like Subaru does with its Impreza model: that keen focus on what the core customer wants, the attention to detail specifically in that area, not being all things to all people. Are these characteristics that could serve you and your interpreting market?What would the Subaru Impreza do?

Even Bob Dylan can serve as a model. He pissed off his loyal fans when he turned to rock, but then proved that he could influence more than just folk and rock, and moved into blues, gospel,rockabilly, garnering new fans and a Nobel Prize along the way, and all with that voice. The characteristic of being ever-changing can work if you are consistent in your “ever-changing-ness.” Or the characteristic of being supremely good at expressing a message in a distinctive voice, or in different styles may be the one to focus on. What would Dylan do?

Now think about what you are selling, and who your client is. Consistently use your new style guide to refine your packaging when selling to prospective clients, and hey presto! You are a brand!

Originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The business of interpreting: FAQ 3 – Who is my client?

When we receive our degree, we all assume that now it’s only a matter of delivering our services. But very quickly we come up against the reality that work doesn’t fall from the heavens and we must think more strategically about our careers.

In FAQ 2 I noted some simple questions that are the basis of strategic thinking: “Where should I live?” “What field should I specialize in?” “What services do I offer?”, and the big one, “Why do I interpret?” But there are more questions down the career road and this article examines one of them: “Who exactly is my client?”

I can hear you asking “What do you mean, who is my client? Isn’t it obvious? It’s whoever pays me!” But this is far too simplistic an answer for so important a topic.

The forgotten client

First of all, your most obvious – but often forgotten – client is your colleague. Your partner in the booth is not only a fellow interpreter but may also have hired you for the job.

Colleagues are our best clients: they know exactly what we do, and best of all – they know the customers, so we don’t have to find them ourselves! They act as the middleman, organizing the meeting, making sure we get documents, and letting us know how we will get paid.

So why do so many of us treat our colleagues differently than we treat a chief interpreter or a business client? A colleague knows you better and may even be a friend, but this does not mean that they should be treated less professionally than a chief interpreter.

When your colleague calls, do you answer right away? When they ask you for information, do you reply immediately or do you forget, making them contact you again? When the job is over, is it your invoice the colleague is still waiting for to get everybody paid?

If we all made sure to treat our colleagues as potential clients all of the time, we would never forget to treat them as clients when they do hire us – which they might do more often if we treated them more professionally. A virtuous circle!

Who else?

“My client is whoever pays me” doesn’t work when it’s not a colleague either. Would you take any job at all? Would you work in a bar, interpreting for someone trying to get a “date”? When exactly would that job end? (Ewww.) And you would probably be paid in beer. This is exactly what a translation app is for. Plus, the app doesn’t get humiliated transposing bad pickup lines from one language to another.

Inventory yourself

You have to focus on your niche market to understand who your client is. The first step is to inventory yourself: your education, skills, likes and dislikes, hobbies and causes, what makes you tick.

Education: did you receive a degree in interpreting? An M.A.? A certificate? Conference interpreting? Public service interpreting? What else did you study – literature? Law? Engineering?Nuclear physics? All is grist to your mill.

What else do you know from life experience? For example, I have never studied medicine, but since several members of my family are diabetic, I need very little preparation to discuss diabetes, its causes, repercussions and treatment. Maybe you love Tom Clancy books – then you will know about the technical workings of submarines. Are you interested in fashion? Beauty products? Cars? Motivational speakers? These are all fields that use interpreters.

What about other skills? Are you a good cook? Can you make amazing gluten- and dairy-free chocolate confections? Are you a fan of musicals? Do you tango or salsa? Are you a great organizer? These can also be added to your inventory.

And don’t forget the valuable work we did determining why you interpret. This can help you understand if a potential client’s values match yours. You may think, “Well, they are paying me, so I don’t much care if our values align.” A valid point – but it is so much easier to sell your services if you really believe in what the client is doing and what you can bring to them.

Your market

Now it’s time to understand your interpreting market. With your language combination and education, what type of market can you target? Is this the market that you would ultimately like to be working in?

There are so many different places interpretation is needed: on the private market, for contract and business negotiations, sales conferences, information exchanges, seminars…; in the public service market, interpreting in hospitals, for insurance companies, in schools; in the legal market, for court cases, depositions, consultations, medical and mental health interviews; in the conference interpreting market, for international conferences, special courts, international organizations. Your possibilities are limited only by your imagination and abilities.

Now that you understand this, you realize that you cannot be all things to all markets, so it makes sense to focus on the market that will be most aligned with you.

Your Ideal Client

So who might work in your favorite place, field and market, using your favorite skills? This is where you develop your “ideal client avatar,” the description of the person you most want to work for. Of course, you will continue to work for the same people who have been hiring you already – but this focuses your attention on the clients you ultimately want.

When you make an ideal client avatar, you describe this person in great detail. The more specific you are, the easier it is to recognize your ideal client when you find him or her.

Approximately how old is your ideal client?

Male or female?

Married or single?

Would s/he live in the city in a house or an apartment, or in the country?

What kind of an education would s/he have received?

What type of company does s/he work for?

How much does the company earn?

In what position does your client work, and how much does s/he earn?

What hobbies, interests, causes, does s/he espouse?

What magazines, books, music, TV series, films, podcasts, blogs, social media sites does s/he like?

What kind of car does s/he drive?

What kind of clothes does s/he wear – designer, off the rack, what brands, what style?

Where does s/he like to eat, what cuisine, what does s/he like to drink?

What are the luxuries s/he can’t live without?

What will s/he want to buy from you?

And most important, what is the problem s/he has that you can solve?

For example, if you (1) have an MA in conference interpreting English and French, and a PhD in literature; (2) have always been very interested in cars – so much so that you worked for a stint as a mechanic when you were younger, and (3) keep up with all the car magazines, new car models, etc. For fun. Your ideal client could be: The head of PR for a large car company with international product launches, who makes a very good salary, reads car magazines, watched Top Gear religiously (while Jeremy Clarkson was the host), uses metaphors and colorful images, and sells to overseas clients. In this scenario, you should go to car companies, contact the PR Department, and show your specialized knowledge.

Or perhaps you (1) have been working as an interpreter and translator for years with Russian and English; (2) your university education was in policy-making with a concentration in the environment; (3) you like designer fashion and good food; (4) you like the prestige of working with important people, and (5) you are a good organizer. Your ideal client avatar may just be: A Russian oligarch, currently living in a house in London, eating in expensive but conservative restaurants, spending his money traveling to visit politicians and media heads, doing good in environmental remediation, and getting his point of view about the current government in Russia out to the West. In this case, you would actively find out who works on your avatar’s scheduling, see if you can get yourself in the mix as an interpreter, and try to make yourself indispensable, knowing all there is to know about environmental remediation, Russian politics, organizing, and policy-making.

None of the above means that you turn down work in other areas, or stop treating colleagues like clients. But it does mean that you will focus your marketing into more of a niche field, niche meaning less commoditization of your services, less competition, and more fulfilling relationships.

Now, all you need is to understand what you are selling, the topic of our next FAQ!

originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)

The business of interpreting: FAQ 1 – How can I get more work?

One question tends to come up quite often these days among colleagues, both old and new: “What exactly can I wear/say/do to get more work?”


It is a plea to learn that special something, that “je ne sais quoi,” to make sure that we get work and make a living in our most fascinating, but very difficult, profession. Difficult not only because speakers are getting faster and presentations denser, but also because familiar job opportunities are
becoming rarer. International organizations are cutting back on long and frequent conferences; and for those rarer days of work, they tend to hire people who are closer to the beginning of their careers because younger colleagues have a lower negotiated rate. So it is not only beginners who are looking for solutions; everyone is looking for that one wave of a magic wand, a magic bullet, without which they think their career is doomed.


In one way, everyone is right. The world has changed, and we haven’t yet changed with it. In the “good old days” (which always seem to be in the distant past for whoever is telling the story), international organizations had limitless work, conferences lasted weeks, and there weren’t enough
interpreters to fill all the seats in the booth. You just had to be good at interpreting for word to get around, and the cream rose naturally to the top. Interpreters didn’t advertise – it wasn’t classy. Consultant and chief interpreters found out about you from word of mouth alone.


Today, all organizations are giving us less work at a time when training programs have multiplied: in Europe alone there are 17 producing just French A interpreters! Interpreters who want to make a living have to create new niches for themselves, having moved from working only for international organizations, to international trade associations, to the private market. We now work on the private market for individual businesses who want to sign contracts with counterparts from other countries; for arbitration procedures when things go wrong with these contracts; and, coming full circle, for international works councils when the businesses expand. Word of mouth still matters, but connections are made not only from working next to someone in the booth. The world has become
more complex, and we as interpreters need to learn new skills.


Hope is not a strategy

Anyone who has studied economics in English has heard the phrase “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or its slightly less well known abbreviation TANSTAAFL. In this case, “free lunch” can be replaced with “magic bullet”. There are no easy, get-rich-quick schemes out there. There is no special suit you should wear to get the job (though, depending on the country, the color of your tie may play a larger role than you think!); there is no special key word you can include on your website to get it to the top of search engine results; a large ad buy in social and traditional media will
get your name out today, but without a lot of effort, will not get you any more work – at least not sustainably.


Among the hugely important hats that we interpreters need to wear – accountant, travel agent, bill collector, etc. – one that is only now being recognized by more interpreters is that of marketer. Too many of us hark back to those “old days” when advertising was the kiss of death because no member of a classy profession would sink so low, so you shouldn’t either. We still hope to rely on word of mouth alone.


Getting the word out


But really, marketing is just what we already do and always have done, simply in a much more systematic way. It is a way of getting the word out. In those “old days,” all we had to do was be good, and the word fell into the right ear. Today, we need to meet colleagues at conferences, give specialized training classes, and network. But since we now also have to create new niches for ourselves, our new clients are no longer only colleagues. And – again a new situation – when we meet these new prospective clients, they have no idea at all what it is we do, and why their nephew who spent his junior year abroad isn’t the perfect solution. So not only do we have to explain what we do, and educate people about our job, but we also have to convince them of the value of hiring us instead of letting things stumble along in “Globish” or “nephew-ish”.


Moreover, nowadays many things clamor for our – and our potential clients’ – attention. This means we need to be where they are, so they stumble across us without even having to look for us. We have to look familiar, by wearing what they expect us to wear; we have to sound familiar, by using their jargon; we have to present ourselves in a way they are used to; and we have to be present everywhere they are present: at industry conventions, at business gatherings, and on social media.


Being familiar doesn’t just mean going to one convention and handing out business cards. It means going to the same convention year after year, meeting the same people and building up a history: asking how their family is, checking in on how their projects are going, and generally becoming
their familiar choice because, “oh yes, wasn’t that nice person I see at our annual convention an interpreter, and couldn’t s/he help us out on this new project?”


Social media can be a bit like this as well, though rather less costly in terms of tickets, hotel rooms, and so on. On the other hand, when done correctly, this type of marketing can be just as costly in terms of time. You cannot simply set up a LinkedIn or Facebook account, forget about it, and expect
the work to roll in. You must keep the pages updated, increase your networks (and not only among colleagues), post articles, comment and “like” other people’s posts, and generally be present. You should say what people expect to hear, in ways they expect to hear it, while still explaining what makes you different – a daunting task, but not for language specialists! In other words, social media will help you to become the familiar choice without actually having to shake hands in person. But
just as shaking hands in meetings and conventions isn’t all that gets you the job, being present on social media won’t be all that gets you the job either.


Marketing, either through traditional means or social media, requires a strategy.

It requires mental elbow grease – you will have to sit down and spend time thinking about what you’ll do, for whom you want to do it, and how to get through to these prospective clients. It will mean that you come up with schedules for where and how you will be present, with whom to start conversations, and how to move forward in those exchanges. It is a long term, sustainable strategy, aimed at making you the familiar choice, and not a big spend on a large splash that then sinks to the bottom of the sea, forgotten.


And while it takes work and time to build up familiarity, once you are there you will be the preferred choice in your niche. So maybe the magic bullet does exist – it’s called a good marketing strategy!

originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (https://aiic.org/site/world/newsEvents/blog)