Defining Your Client Is the First Step to Success

I have a friend who runs a we-media business who often says "I manage my work as if I were a company." I asked her why she says this, and her response was that during the year in which she was mulling the idea of leaving her 9-to-5 office job, she would think each day about how she could become a self-sufficient freelancer. She often considered what kinds of clients she wanted for herself, what these clients cared about, where these clients' haunts were, and how to contact them, etc.

Aside from those thoughts, she still thinks about how she manages and plans her time; how much time she will spend on the services she provides, which courses she should take to increase her skills and abilities and stay ahead of the game, which clients to work with so she can make her work smoother, as well as what tools to use so she can save time and effort in her work.

Then one day, she realized that she and her boss had the exact same mindset. Even though full-time freelancers are individuals, she said, they should also view themselves as a business. Relying on this understanding and experience, just two years after leaving her 9-5 job, she had already made a good track record and had gotten herself some sizable level of popularity.

Freelance translators are also freelance workers. If we hope to rise higher in our work, we need to use a company perspective from which to view our own career. Here are 9 questions we should ask ourselves:

1. Who are your customers?
2. What’s compelling about the value you provide?
3. How do you promote, sold and deliver your value?
4. How do you interact with the customer?
5. How does your business earn revenue from the value?
6. What uniquely strategic things does your business do to deliver your value?
7. What unique assets must your business have to compete?
8. What can you not do so you can focus on your Key Activities?
9. What are your business’ major cost drivers?


Who are your clients?

When you decide that you want to develop your own clientele, the first thing you want to ask yourself is what kind of clients you want. Or, put in other way, “Who are your clients?”

We discussed in Things translators should know before ending your relationship with translation agencies that we can split up the client base for translators into two types:

Indirect Clients: referring to a middleman; in our case, they are often translation agencies which may also be "Language Service Providers" (LSPs). Middlemen scoop up end-client case commissions, and then forward these cases as project packages to individual translators. After translators have translated the case, these middlemen will do document proofing. Once that's finished, they will send the polished end-product back to the end-client.

Direct clients: referring to an end-client that wasn't contacted via a middleman. These clients are mostly small or medium-sized enterprises, often just an individual. Translators can regularly make comparatively large commissions from working with direct clients, and even double that of an agency's rates in some cases since there's no middleman getting involved and taking a cut.

Many translators work with agencies when just starting out because a rookie translator often isn't well-experienced enough to get cases independently. Getting case work from agencies that have abundant sources can help a translator to get work within a relatively short period of time. But in order to increase our earnings, many translators start to think about the possibility of starting up their own shop after working for a while with translation agencies. If you're sure that you don't want to go through agencies and instead cultivate your own end-clients, then the first thing you should do is defining your clients.


Why is it important to decide what kind of clients you want?

Perhaps you might think, "Can't I develop clients in wide range of fields?" The answer is that it is impossible. First of all, your time is limited. If you're doing something generalized, your work could represent something not done expertly - or incomplete even. Secondly, low-entry-barrier fields are already filled with many, many people. All the low-hanging fruit has already been taken. There's more room to move about when you've gone further into a niche market, so if you want to find a high salary and position, then you need to strive hard towards a professional in-depth knowledge of an industrial or academic area.

According to the translators I am acquainted with, none of them making high-end incomes have a "hypermarket." They've all been working hard for several years at plowing their knowledge in their own particular field, and creating "boutiques" that specialize in translations related to those niche areas. The typical route for these translators was to find a niche in something, gradually determining the field they wanted to delve deeper into. Then, as they worked continuously to combine the three skills of translating, professional area knowledge, and marketing, that's then how they earned their high incomes.


How do you decide who your client is?

Here's three options to consider:

  • Your Professional Background: Do you have the area expertise? If you do, can you consider starting your niche from this field? If so, then this field is your quickest way to make inroads to becoming a competitive asset. 
  • Your Interests: If you don't have expertise in any particular field, could you consider making one of your interests a starting point? You should consider it because the topics you're interested in are something you may easily solidify into your own expertise area. 
  • Take inventory of your past clients: Among the clients you've worked with in the past, what kind of clients did you most enjoy working with? Why?


Defining your clients

When you likely know what area of knowledge or expertise you'd like to develop, please remember that you first need to understand the group of clients in that field. But what exactly do you need to understand about your clients? The following are some important items I think you should keep in mind:

Client Background

1. The Industry: What industry does the client belong to? What are the characteristics of their industry? Are the gross profits for this industry relatively high or low? What is your client's position within the industry? Are they in the upper, middle, or lower reaches? What are your clients' products? Who are your clients' clients? Are your client's clients an enterprise or the general public? What's your client's current market situation like?

2. Location: Even though the internet is pretty well developed these days, any company around the world could theoretically be a potential client for a translator, but really, some clients only want to work with local translators. They believe that if the translator is in the same country, that not only won't there be a cultural gap, but that the time zone and business hours are the same, and that if they really need you, then they could meet with you face-to-face. Be certain about whether or not your clients fall into this category. If you want to develop special clients but nearly all of them are overseas, or moreover, that they all often work with local translators, are you able to provide a competitive advantage to these clients that local translators cannot provide? Do you have some quality that would draw the client over to your side?

3. Your Clients' Business Phase: Which business development stage is your client currently in? Are they in the start-up phase, are they expanding, or are they a matured company? Generally speaking, unless they garner a lot of investment, a start-up company's spending ability is generally quite low. Companies in an expansion phase are a pretty good client category because they are often more willing to spend resources to expand their market by purchasing peripheral services, including translations. Established business clients sometimes nitpick about cutting down on expenses because they tend to already have the market locked down, and their room for expansion is already limited. As a result, it's easy for that type of client to think of translation as something they can try to bargain down to save costs.

4. Work Styles: Does your client have a reserved or a positive outlook? Are they bureaucratic or are they open-minded? Are they slow or quick in their dealings and communications? These will influence the communication costs of a partnership between you and your client. Oftentimes, the more positive, open-minded, and quick a client is, the lower your communication costs will be.

Client Behaviors

5. Usage of Translated Materials: What are the applications for the translation services that the client has bought? Are they used in an official capacity (product manuals, annual reports, etc.)? Are they used in marketing (fundraising drive materials, public relations drafts, etc.)? Or are they intended for market development (localization) scenarios? Different objectives will influence how much the client is willing to spend on your services.

6. Goals: What kinds of benefits does your client want to obtain? What are the pitfalls they want to avoid? Clients sometimes buy translation services due to regulations. Others, on the other hand, do it to develop their own market. Because the goals are different, these differences can influence how much money a client is willing to pay.

7. Monetary Amount: Each time the client buys a service, how much money are they paying? How much are they spending in total? Do they tend to spend more or less each year?

8. Frequency: How frequently do your clients buy your service? Do they have "fat" and "lean" periods? If they do, what's the relationship between the client's fat and lean periods with regards to translation services and the client's operation cycle?

9. Decision Making Process: What's the client's case entrustment decision process like? Are they used to going online to search for a translator, or do they go through a trusted friend or acquaintance to find someone? After they've found a potential translator, what means do they use to determine whether or not they're going to work with that translator? After they've decided, whose permission do they need to obtain in order to formally entrust you with the job? Who is the final decision-maker in the process? What's that person's position within the company? How long does the contracting process take? Can you go out of your way to contact that final person? Which people may influence that person?

Understanding your clients is critical. Being able to possess an anthropologists' spirit for "doing fieldwork" to understand our clients is much better because the more you understand them, the more you can then provide them with an irresistible service.

After you figure out the above details for your client, you can then start to figure out your future annual income, as well as estimate the possible communication costs incurred for this income. This is an important clue for how to gauge whether or not we should invest in a specific professional field.


Some examples

I know a translator who never accepts cases from certain institutional groups. It doesn't matter how great the price tag is for those cases. If she doesn't accept them, that's final. She's told me that these kinds of organizations are too set in their bureaucratic ways, and it takes forever to get an answer from them, and so she figured out early on that she'd rather refuse to work with these kinds of clients. Whatever you do, DO NOT underestimate the cost of having to communicate with people to get them on your side. Many cases will end up being such a pain in the neck that it's not worth the costs and risks of taking on their project. Often it's because of the communication issue and it has nothing to do with translation or professional area expertise or knowledge.

I also know a foreign translator who works with marketing materials. He's told me that he never takes on start-up companies as his target client because these companies often have limits on how much they will pay, and they cannot afford his services, and so he doesn't bother wasting his time trying to lock these clients in. He often goes for expansion-phase clients or mature, large-scale corporations because these companies are more capable of paying his rates.

As for my own personal experience, my recurrent work with lawyers, accountants, designers and other professionals leaves me quite happy because they themselves are professionals and they understand a professional price. I don't need to spend a lot of time with them going back and forth in explaining why a document is going to cost them $0.20 per source word. Even if their demands are high, as long as the task is complete, payment is more or less an afterthought.

Do you already have desired, cultivated client types in mind? If you do, then you should quickly take stock and do an analysis. Figuring out who you want as a client is a very important first step!

career translation


Joanne Chou

Joanne is an English-Chinese translator, a UI/UX designer, and the co-founder of Termsoup.