Lesson 72: If we have to compete with other translators, what should we compete on?

Lesson 72: If we have to compete with other translators, what should we compete on?

In the past weeks I tried to explain my point of view on competition: that in fact, freelance translators shouldn’t compete with other translators. I talked about making competition irrelevant and avoiding competing on price.

However, not all competition is wrong. In fact, it is owing to some of my greatest “competitors” that I managed to take my business where it is now. A healthy form of competition can be extremely motivating and drive growth.
Another way of looking at competition is the fact that there may be some factors where healthy competing makes perfect sense. In this article, I’m trying to look at these factors and argue for competing on them for our individual benefit, but also for the benefit of the entire profession.

Specialist knowledge

By competing on specialist knowledge I mean going deeper and deeper into our areas of specialisation because there are others out there who have more of this knowledge. If I look at my career, I know that there are Polish English legal translators out there who know more about the law or have even completed law-related degrees. I want to compete with them in terms of this specialist legal knowledge and I’ll be studying more to bring up my understanding of this area to their level and beyond. I want to compete with them in terms of how much I know. And then my clients can choose.

How’s that beneficial for the entire profession? If we compete on specialist knowledge, we’re quite naturally increasing the level of professionalism and education in the entire profession. We’re raising the standard overall.

Customer service

I’m a big fan of perfecting customer service and doing more for my clients, in pre-purchase, during purchase and in after-care. I like hearing that my clients are delighted and I believe that customer service is a factor we could start first benchmarking against and then trying to match what our competitors are doing. It can only be good for me: happier clients bring more clients, even if that’s not my sole motivator.

In a macro-perspective, raising the levels of customer service will eventually benefit the entire profession. Excellent customer service is something we can use to justify (even if subconsciously) higher prices. Isn’t that’s why we’re prepared to pay more for a better service at a five star hotel?

Personality

And no, in here I don’t mean competing on our personality traits, but on the level to which we infuse our businesses with our personalities. I’ve been advocating for that forever, and I’m not the only one saying we need to let our personalities shine through. Putting my personality in how I run my business is satisfying for a number of reasons. First, I feel closer to my business and my clients. Second, I work with clients who understand and accept my values and I don’t have to deal with those who’re guided by other principles. Third, I’m having much more fun in business. So what about competing on getting this personality in business thing right?

On the level of the whole profession, I dare say that the more personality we see, the more personalised the service becomes. If we have more translators and interpreters showing their personalities in the way they run their businesses, we may end up educating clients that translation is not just about chunking out words which could be done by anybody.

Flexibility

I don’t necessarily agree with competing on deadlines and delivery dates, but maybe competing on flexibility could be a good idea. I’m still trying to get my head around it, but maybe the fact that I can work on a Saturday could help me compete with translators who don’t work on Saturdays. Or maybe an hour or two of overtime in the evening could help me win a client. Maybe increasing flexibility (not only in relation to deadlines or working time) could be a good way of differentiating from competition? However, the reverse could be true as well: maybe by decreasing our flexibility in comparison with the industry standard could work.
In terms of the overall profession, increased flexibility could improve the image our clients have of translators and interpreters. If we, collectively, become more flexible, the clients may stop thinking that translation is this weird service delivered by people who’ll always find an excuse not to do it (I’ve heard that for a number of times).

Exclusivity

This is a whole new concept in my understanding of business. There are companies out there in other industries that managed to build their businesses only on the grounds of increasing (or conversely decreasing) exclusivity around their products or services. So for me, I could try to say no (even) more often and become a more exclusive service provider, as compared do my competitors. In fact, I’ve been instinctively doing that for a while now.

I’m not yet sure of the impact of increasing exclusivity on the entire profession. On one hand, if we all start being a bit more exclusive and say no more often, we may redefine some of the recurrent problems (low rates, poor treatment, tight deadlines). But partial exclusivity could lead to even a wider division between what we now call the “bulk” and “premium” markets. Is that something that we want?

Additional services

If we want to compete, we may look into offering additional services that not many other professionals offer. I keep repeating that it’s worked great with me and using Adobe InDesign to do basic DTP for my clients. This is not something that is widely offered by my competitors. Maybe finding an additional service you could offer would win you some clients over your competitors? And it doesn’t have to be about offering as many additional services as possible. It can be simply about offering the right service that your clients may need.

On the industry level, this could result in diversifying our portfolio and pulling other services under “translation”, yet again justifying higher pricing.

What do you think about these factors? Is there anything you compete on that I haven’t thought about? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

4 Comments

  1. Gerardo Bensi , on Dec 10, 2013 at 01:46 Reply

    Marta: thanks for this post, it is one of the most honest, useful and content-rich pieces I have read about the elusive issue of differentiation in the language industry.

    As regards flexibility in terms of working overtime or weekends, I am not totally against it, but it’s a strategy that should be handled with care, so that we don’t harm our work/life balance, which is already rather difficult to achieve. I guess it comes down to finding creative ways to meet clients’ requirements and occasionally going the extra mile.

    I can’t possibly overstress how much I support “increasing the level of professionalism and education in the entire profession”, something we badly need and that would go a long way towards changing the widespread notion that “anyone who can speak two languages can translate.” (!)

    By the way, some day a debate will be necessary about the role of translator-training institutions in shaping the translation market. What would happen if translation were not a degree in itself, as it is today in most universities, but a graduate course to be completed after you have already attained a degree in law, medicine, engineering and the like?

    Hope I will be able to put some of these ideas into practice. Warm regards!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 3, 2015 at 19:12 Reply

      Thank you so much, Gerardo, for your kind words.

      I do agree that work-life balance should be preserved, however sometimes, and especially when we’re starting out, it may be worth to use some weekends to build a network and attract new clients. I also have a friend, whose job demands working weekends and her husband, a translator, always works them too – they just have Monday and Tuesday off – they call it ‘their weekends’ and this works for them.

      As to translation being the graduate course – I think it works as an undergraduate course as well, seeing that I have one 🙂 But more seriously, I think the industry would benefit if some restrictions were placed on who can and cannot translate. What do you think?

  2. Gerardo Bensi , on Jan 4, 2015 at 03:28 Reply

    Hi, Marta! Yes, I agree that when you are starting out, you need to “sacrifice” some weekends or free time in order to build your network and develop your business in several ways (I did it too). It’s a stage in your career.

    Of course, you and many other translators, me included, have an undergraduate degree and we are brilliant, competent and sucessful (and most of all, humble :)). However, those translators who can supplement their linguistic training with a second course in a field of specialty (law, economics, medicine) have an “added value” which lets them differentiate their services more easily, sort of stand out from the crowd and access the higher end of the market.

    Admittedly, making translation a graduate course is wishful thinking: four years of an undergraduate course are just the minimum to fully train a translator (even if you have your degree, you continue to improve on your skills as you gain working experience, share work with others, get feedback on your work by more experienced translators, etc.) and very few people would be willing to study an extra 4 or 5 years after their BSc to become a translator.

    I agree that the industry would benefit from certain restrictions on who can and cannot translate. The picture, I think, is different in every corner of the world and for different types of translator. In the case of sworn translators, if I am not mistaken, such restrictions are already in force in several countries. This is an extremely difficult topic, because restrictions need to be enforceable (e.g. quack doctors can be sued and convicted because there are laws which provide for that, but what about “quack translators”, if such a thing could be said to exist? ). I don’t believe in professional associations enforcing restrictions: I don’t desire a world where citizens and institutions of civil society are allowed to freely police one another (even if in the name of values like professionalism and business ethics). For some time, and even if millions of details should be worked out beforehand, I have been thinking that the answer is legislation, understood as local laws that would be sensitive to the reality of each country.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 23, 2015 at 19:51 Reply

      Hopefully, the future of our industry will be brighter in that respect, but even if it isn’t, those who provide excellent services and know how to market them will never want for clients 😉

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