How to get clients to come to you
Adapted from my presentation at METM 16 entitled “Spinning your web”
Last year at METM15 in Coimbra I was inspired by a presentation by a very experienced translator called Graham Cross, which I wrote about here. Graham was talking about churn, the marketing concept that dictates how many of our clients end up disappearing for one reason or another, and his basic point was that, because of this seemingly inevitable factor, investing large amounts of time and money in marketing is a waste because, even if you do find new clients, it is highly unlikely that they will earn you enough to repay your effort.
This attracted my interest because it was certainly my experience that a great deal of time and effort can be wasted on marketing. Last year, for example, I went to a big trade fair in an attempt to sell my services. I had leaflets printed and went round meeting people handing them out all over the place. Some of the responses were quite encouraging but, despite this, the effort won me no new customers at all. The year before I went to a networking event for entrepreneurs in a bar in Barcelona. I prepared myself, got up on a stool and presented my business for two minutes, which is the format for these meetings. The reaction was very good and it was a fantastic exercise in getting out of my comfort zone, as I’ve never considered myself a public speaker. But once again, in terms of winning new customers it was an absolute failure.
My point isn’t that going out and selling yourself is never worthwhile. I’m sure the way I went about things in those two examples can be dissected and the reasons for my failure laid bare. What I am saying is that it is possible, and even quite likely, to spend lots of time and energy on it for little or no result.
Back to Graham Cross. He was asked the very reasonable question: “If marketing is a waste of time then how do you find clients?” He replied by explaining the two theories of capturing clients: the “Tiger” and the “Spider”. The Tiger represented going out and hunting for them, with the risk that you might chase a juicy deer and end up with a rabbit or a rat. But he identified with the spider, waiting for the clients to come to him.
So, how does being a spider work? Well, on this one I’m not with Graham, who was such a technophobe he dictated all his translations and had them typed up by a secretary to avoid having to have a computer. This is the 21st century and we have all sorts of electronic means within our grasp. First of all, there are the social networks. I’m not going to spend too much time on this because we all know about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and so on. All I will say about them is that, in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter which ones you use as long as you’re there somewhere. If you know me, you will know that I can be found on Facebook, for example, but, until very recently, not on Twitter. This has been a personal choice. I know many people who use Twitter very successfully. I simply have limited time to spend looking at and dealing with social media and have chosen to ignore it until an experiment which I’m currently carrying out and will no doubt report here at some point. All the networks have their peculiarities. Facebook lately seems to have been trying to discourage business pages; LinkedIn, as always, seems to be full of potential but never quite lives up to it and Google+ is dying on its feet. You can post across several of them using Buffer or Hootsuite, but my advice is to make sure sure the content you post is good and worthwhile.
Have I won clients through social networks? Yes I have, and one or two good ones, but to be honest not that many. A good spider’s web needs to have other strands. One of those, of course, is the online profile. There are many kinds of online profile on sites like ProZ and others and some of these may be worth having, particularly if you’re not ready to take the step of having your own website. They can attract offers of work, although often the conditions will be so poor they won’t be worth considering.
To my mind there really isn’t any substitute for having a website of your own, although I have to confess that mine hasn’t brought me huge numbers of clients. As much as anything, I see it as an electronic business card where I can direct potential clients to find more information and I know for a fact that my site has helped convince clients to entrust their translations to me. I believe the most important thing is that you try to connect with your customers, with a message that says a bit more than “Here I am, I’m very good at my job”. Mine, for example, makes the point that if you hire me, as a freelance rather than an agency, you know exactly who is doing your translations. You will no doubt either have found or will find a message of your own.
So, here are my website tips. First of all, as I have said: connect with your customers. That would include making sure you have your site in their language or languages. Then, use a professional designer. There are plenty of programs that allow you to do it yourself but I don’t see how we can in one breath ask people to use professional translators and, in the next, say we’re going to build our own websites. But even when you use a professional, make the style your own. There are lots of possibilities, but your site should be original and reflect your personality or the personality you want to put across. Tying in with that is the content: make sure it’s well written and don’t try to artificially fill it with keywords. Now, keywords are related to search engine optimisation, which means getting your site to appear high up when someone makes a search with Google or another search engine. As I’m not an expert on the subject, I asked a more knowledgeable colleague what she thought and I was greatly encouraged because many of her tips turned out to be very similar to mine. That means Google is now set up so it actually rewards things it ought to be rewarding. But she also had some other advice I thought I’d share.
First of all, she made the very important point that you should concentrate on the experience visitors have on your page, and, following on from this, pointed out that conversions matter more than clicks. In other words, it’s all very well getting people to your page, but it’s no good if they then don’t buy your services. Then there were two other points: consider all elements of SEO and use Google Analytics to make sure it’s working. Finally, there were some suggestions there for getting more information on SEO: visit https://moz.com/learn/seo, read Search Engine Optimization for Dummies or simply google “SEO basics”.
Moving on, there are also translators who have a blog. I’m one of them, of course, and blogs can be used for selling, although I’m the first to admit that mine actually isn’t. It’s written in English and talks about translation. If I was really going to use it for selling I’d write it in my source languages and write it about subjects of interest to clients. At the moment that’s a future project, although I have the capability to do it, as my website is multilingual. Strangely, my English blog has actually helped to win me some clients. I know this, because they have mentioned to me that they picked me because they liked my writing style, which only goes to show that you can’t always predict the results of what you do online.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far accounts for what you might consider to be the main strands of a spider marketer’s web. Nowhere, though, have I given examples of anything that has attracted lots of new clients. To explain why, let’s go back for the last time to Graham Cross. Right at the end of his talk he was asked another good question: “Where are my clients going to come from?” to which he replied “The people sitting next to you: your colleagues”. This set me thinking. The marketing initiatives I’d launched had largely failed. I had what I considered to be a good website, but it wasn’t bringing in lots of customers, and yet I considered myself reasonably successful, with plenty of work. So I did something I’d never done before and started looking at who my own clients were and where I’d found them.
First of all, I was amazed to discover that 85% of my clients had come to me, rather than me going to them looking for work. It turns out that I really am a spider. Then I was surprised at how many direct clients I have – they make up 36% of the total, followed by colleagues at 31% and agencies in third place at 29%. This year’s figures would show a different proportion, with agencies dropping still further after I put my rates up again at the beginning of the year.
Looking a bit more deeply I realised that a lot of the direct clients had also, in fact, come via colleagues. Taking this into account, colleagues were clearly my most important source of work, just as Graham Cross had predicted. So what is it that makes our colleagues such good clients? One reason is, as I have suggested, that they often bring us into contact with direct clients. More importantly, they bring us into contact with direct clients at a time when those clients need translations. Maybe if we’d run into that same client at some event or other they’d have taken our business card and by the time they needed work doing they’d have lost or forgotten about it. But if we’re introduced by a colleague it’s because that end client needs a translation now. If we do it well, we have a good chance of keeping the client. Not only that, but if our colleague has a relationship with the client, it probably means that the client is a low risk in terms of non-payments, something else it could otherwise be difficult to discover.
And even if the colleague does not put us in direct contact with the end client and decides to act as an intermediary, the rate we can obtain is often better than an agency rate. This is because, generally, our colleagues are not motivated by profit when passing translations on to us. What they are usually concerned about is solving a problem for their client. Sometimes they don’t even make money on these jobs, they just want to help the client by getting them a good translation with as little fuss as possible. Their profit will come from the translations they regularly do for the same client.
This is one reason why colleagues make up such a large proportion of my clients nowadays. My rates are becoming too high for many agencies to pay, but colleagues’ clients can still afford me provided the colleague is not concerned to make money from the job. Colleagues who work in this way are also generally reliable payers. I have some who pay within a day of receiving the invoice. Why do they do this? It’s obvious really. They know exactly what it’s like having to wait for payment themselves.
So where can we find these colleagues who are going to bring us all this work? It’s possible to find them online, of course, but I’ve found the best source is in translators’ associations. My survey of my own clients showed up clearly where a large proportion (31%) come from: my membership of APTIC, the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Catalonia. Why is this the case? Well, it’s because most of its members work in precisely the opposite language combination to me. A colleague in the same language combination will only send you work when she’s rushed off her feet. But when those working in a reverse combination are asked for a translation into English, they are professionals, who don’t want to translate into a language that’s not their own, and they look for someone who they think can do the translation well. The trick is, to be the person they think of when they’re looking.
There are various ways of being that person. You should, first, appear in the association’s directory of members. You can also, for example, participate in the association’s mailing lists and forums so that people get to know your name. Then you can go to its social events and get to know members. Just to give an example, I make a point of going to the APTIC Christmas party and chatting to people I know and people I don’t know there. You might think this is a trivial point, but when I went to my first one, several years ago now, I was sitting on a table with three other people. I still work for those colleagues and they are still recommending me to other potential clients. I should stress that I have done none of these things consciously, or at best with vague desire for “networking”, but I can vouch for the fact that they really do work.
Another way you can make the most of associations (and this is more the spider venturing out of its web once in a while) is by chasing after jobs advertised to members. This I would advise you to do as often as you can, provided it’s a job you can do well. But when you do it, be quick. With this sort of job offer it’s definitely the early spider that catches the fly. It isn’t necessarily the job that’s advertised which you’re interested in, though, it’s more the long-term connection with the client concerned, often a direct client. The job isn’t always what it seems, anyway, as demonstrated by this example. Last year I saw quite an interesting job advertised on the APTIC e-mail list. I wrote in response – it was a 3,000-word French translation related to history, one of my specialist areas. After speaking to the client, it turned out that what really had to be translated was an exhibition catalogue amounting to almost 100,000 words of Catalan and French – one of my biggest and best jobs of last year.
Of course, once you have managed to get orders for work from colleagues or other clients, you need to keep those clients and, just as importantly, find ways of getting them to recommend you to others. 11% of my clients, I discovered, came through this kind of recommendation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of the 44% of clients whose origin I don’t know or can’t remember also came in this way. So how can this be done?
I started writing down some tips, based on my own ideas and conversations with some of my colleagues and clients, and I can only apologise for the fact the headings sound a lot like the kind of dating advice you might receive from your mother:
- Be different. Sometimes it helps if you can offer something different – an unusual language combination or specialist area, for example. Mine is French-English, which isn’t an unusual combination except in Spain, but has opened a lot of doors for me.
- Be yourself. Remember not to work outside your specialist areas. You won’t impress if you mess up a translation you’re not really suited for.
- Be available. Sometimes you need to make a bit of extra effort to secure this type of client, working the odd evening or weekend, especially at the start. You can set boundaries later, but you want the client to come back.
- Be good. I can’t stress this one enough. Be the best translator you can be, taking advantage of all possible forms of self-improvement, including conferences like this. And it’s not just me saying that, I want to reinforce it with a comment left on my blog earlier this year from no less than Chris Durban, who many of you will have heard of as someone who has, in the past, stressed the need for translators to adopt business-like attitudes. She said: “I would dearly like to hear more support for the hottest tip I know of for translators looking to build their business. Ready? Here we go: *Become a better translator.*”
- Be on time. Deadlines matter, but it’s amazing how many translators don’t realise this. How do I know? Because some clients have been astonished simply at the fact that I always deliver on time. To me as a former journalist it’s second nature. Make sure it’s second nature to you too.
- Be nice. This can take whatever form you like, but it takes your relationship on to another level. In my case, I just try to be friendly and make my e-mails a little more personal, especially if the other person takes the lead. Others make homemade Christmas gifts. One thing I do is think about who might become a potential client in the future. Project managers, for example, often leave agencies and set up on their own. If you find out one is leaving, write her a message wishing her luck. Next week she may need a translator into English…
- Be reciprocal. Pass on work you can’t do to colleagues. It helps make them think of you when they need something doing.
Follow these principles and I can’t promise you’ll find Mr. or Miss Right, but you should satisfy your colleagues and clients and win more recommendations, which is the point of the exercise.
So, I would say that’s mostly what there is to being a successful spider. It’s a strategy that perhaps won’t take you to the very top of the profession. After all, a spider is unlikely to catch big game. What it will do is provide you with a good base to build on with clients who will pay you reasonably well and reliably and who will help you break out of the agency market – and that’s something well worth considering.
Thanks, Simon, for the great post. Just one thing to add – a downside to having your name “out there”, is that I keep getting contacted by little Ms CEO of SuperDooper Translations S.L., or whoever, who would like to have me on her books. I have no objection to being on her books – but she expects me to do a little translation test (no bother), and (big bother) complete her confidentiality form, sign and scan her terms and conditions, read and confirm that I have read her policy on Google Drive, etc., complete an Excel on rates and availability, etc. And then she comes back and quibbles with my rates. No longer, I can assure you. The next unsolicited agency caller will have to wait until they have a specific job and then we can talk about rates and confidentiality agreements, etc.
Thank you, Heather. And you’re quite right, if we’ve visible we’re always likely to be targeted by the kind of disreputable agency you mention. But we are always free to refuse to do anything that isn’t worth our while, as you seem to be doing. With agencies, I never read anything or fill in anything until my basic rate has been confirmed. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time.
I’m a spider! (Not something I get to shout out every day but after reading your two posts on this it’s clear I fit into the same category.) I couldn’t agree more with your list of anti-marketing-marketing tips, especially the "be good" one, which is something I also heard Chris Durban say at a conference this year and have taken up as a motto. I don’t get so much work from colleagues because here in Argentina it is the norm for translators to work in both directions (I don’t) so the outsourcing offers from colleagues tend more to be revising and proofreading non-native speakers’ translations, which I generally find not worth the effort. After 15 years living here, recommendations from friends and colleagues or contacts from my erstwhile life as a teacher do make up a big share of my clients, and many of these have gone on to become friends themselves. I work with a partner, which effectively duplicates this contact base, one of the many things I love about working as a team. Here’s to spiders.
Good to have a comment from a fellow spider, Victoria. I’m particularly interested in your comment about teamwork, which is something I don’t do. We will have to have a chat sometime about how that works.
Whenever you like. Starting to work with my business partner was the best career decision I ever made. I’m convinced collaboration (temporary or long-term) is a great way to grow in terms of both translation quality and the business side of things.
My question is a little late but I’d be interested to know if your partner works in the same, or the opposite, language pair as you. Thanks
Great blog post Simon. Sorry not to have been at METM this year or I would definitely have come to your talk. I completely agree that colleagues are a freelancer’s best source of work. I did a similar check of where my own clients came from and then expanded this to a survey of my local association of language professionals (SENSE). The 100 responses from other members confirmed what I had found i.e. that most clients come in through word of mouth. If you’re interested I can send you a PDF version of an article I wrote about the results of my survey, which was published in SENSE’s quarterly newsletter and in the ITI bulletin (March-April 2016 issue).
Thanks, Sally. You’ve obviously done more work on this than I have! I’ll be very interested to read your article.