Do you hunt new clients or do they hunt you?
This year I’ve spent quite a lot of time and effort on marketing. I’ve also spent even more time worrying that I’m not doing even more. But recently I’ve started to wonder whether I’m on the right track.
This was brought home to me at perhaps the most thought-provoking of all the talks I attended at the METM15 meeting a month ago in Coimbra (yes, it’s still inspiring my blog posts). Graham Cross’s talk was called “Churn, the undoer of marketing” and his basic point was that, whatever we do, most of our customers disappear sooner or later. They may find another translator, go out of business or simply cease to need translation work, but the stark truth is that, as fast as we find clients, we will lose most of them before too long. Not only that, most new customers will bring us only small jobs before they fade out of our professional lives forever.
Put like that, it all sounds rather depressing, but Graham has had a long and successful career as a freelance patent translator. He may have lost a lot of customers along the way, but he’s always managed to find plenty of work. So what was his secret? “Simple,” he said, disarmingly. “I’m a spider, not a tiger.”
Tigers, it turns out, are those of us who go out aggressively hunting customers, whether through e-mail campaigns or trade fairs. In Graham’s opinion, the logic of churn means this is not a cost-effective strategy. “Because the tiger goes out hunting looking for a buffalo and most of the time it comes back with a rat or a rabbit.” A spider, on the other hand, spins a web. Then all it has to do is wait for its prey to walk into it.
Graham Cross might well be considered a little extreme in this respect. He is very much a translator of the last century, who doesn’t use a computer for work, claims to have done almost no marketing ever and certainly doesn’t have what I would classify as the ultimate tool of 21st-century spiders, a website, but I don’t think this invalidates his opinions, founded on years of experience. And when asked what he would say is the best source for finding customers, he was quite categorical: “The person sitting next to you”, meaning that our best clients would always come via our colleagues.
All this, of course, contradicts a great deal of modern perceived wisdom, as we are often told: “Don’t waste your time networking with colleagues, get out there and go where your customers are!”. We’re encouraged to find out who our customers are, what they want and even how they feel (yes, I saw that one this week!). This exaggerated market research may well work, but it also takes a great deal of time and effort, the majority of which, we already know, is going to be wasted, as only a small proportion of the people we reach will actually turn into clients. If on top of this most of the customers we manage to secure will only want small one-off jobs and even the one or two we can build longer relationships with will eventually disappear, the return on investment begins to look a little thin.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have found Graham’s arguments so interesting and refreshing if they didn’t chime in with my own experience. I only need go back a couple of weeks for an example, when a potential customer came to me saying he was approaching me because I had been recommended by someone I didn’t even know. I did a little investigating and traced the recommendation back to a coffee I had one morning a couple of years ago with some fellow translators in the city where I live. One of them had passed my name on to a friend who’d passed it on to this customer. Obviously it’s early days, but it looks like that coffee could be a very worthwhile time investment. And that’s just one instance. The fact is that every week I work for, with or on the recommendation of colleagues I’ve met at various social events, particularly those who work in the opposite language combinations. By contrast, my trip to a tourism trade fair earlier this year, my networking session with local businesses and last year’s meetings with entrepreneurs in Barcelona have, to my knowledge, yielded precisely nothing.
Why is this the case? What does it mean? I believe it happens because most of the time when you approach “potential clients” you are actually marketing yourself to people who don’t want translations at the moment, if at all. By the time they do, if they ever do, they may well have forgotten you or lost your details. By constrast, anyone who comes to you is by definition interested in translations. And if they come by personal recommendation they are very likely to choose your services, somethings without considering anyone else’s. It all makes sense.
Now, I wouldn’t want to say that all marketing activity is a waste of time. I would certainly go a lot further in marketing than Graham Cross. I count a professional website, for example, as a good spider tactic, making it easier for customers to find you. I also believe a professionally produced brochure or leaflet is a good idea because it provides information about you making a better impression than even the best designed CV. I also think very well targeted approaches to customers with great potential shouldn’t be ruled out.
But what I am saying is that, as our time is so valuable, perhaps we should think a great deal more about where we place our effort and even about how much effort is worth making. It may just be that what we might have thought of as self-indulgent socialising is going to be far more cost-effecive in the short run and even the long run in producing new clients than a visit to a trade fair or a time-consuming and costly marketing campaign. So tell me, when is that translators’ Christmas party again…?