Business Aspects to Interpreting for Commerce and Industry: Learning to think like a business owner (Part 3) Offers

Not Off-the-Shelf

Because interpreting is a professional service, interpreters cannot sell their offer in the same manner as a physical product. Unlike a banana or a wrench, there is nothing to put on the shelf of a retailer for a customer to examine and place in a shopping basket. Though now fewer in Japan as retail chains and online retail continue to win market share, small independent greengroceries and hardware stores still exist, and for these outlets the wholesale purchase of bananas or wrenches is a relatively simple operation. They simply access the wholesale market or wholesaler and purchase the products that line their shelves.

But it’s not quite that simple. How does the greengrocer or hardware store know what to purchase from the wholesaler? There may be similar, but not identical, bananas and wrenches available at similar, but also not identical, prices. How can the retailers be certain of good quality for the merchandise? Among the similarly priced bananas and wrenches, they must pick out good quality at the right price. What quantities should they buy? The retailers need to plan their purchases according to the quantities they expect to sell to consumers over a certain period of time. How and when do the products actually arrive at the store and get placed on the shelf? The simple answer is to purchase in-person and self-haul the inventory back to the store. The real operation, of course, is multiple items of fruits and vegetables for the greengrocer and multiple items of tools for the hardware store. In the real world, logistics requires planning also. Our inspection so far suggests the need for purchasing expertise—before any selling occurs at a retail store. For chain stores and large stores in the retail sector, buyers in a purchasing department work as specialized executives tasked with obtaining all of the products offered for sale to consumers.

Defining the Offer

As professional interpreters, we should be able to take several hints from the retail-owner illustration above. First and foremost, activity comparable to purchasing should take place before selling the service. In accord with competitiveness and differentiation discussed in Part 1 of this series, the interpreter should endeavor to present a few different illustrations describing the service offer. Because the exact needs called for by client assignments vary, the tendency is to describe a general availability for a full day or half-day and the style of interpreting offered. By being presented with specific examples or typical cases, however, the potential client can gain a better perception of what the interpreter appears prepared for and ascertain whether the description matches the need. Moreover, the consistent goal of the service provider (interpreter) is to obtain desired commercial business. If the interpreter is not seeking extended multi-day assignments that require travel and lodging away from home, then that fact could be mentioned. A description of cases that describe only in-town settings, however, is a positive and non-direct message that suggests a preference for no extended travel. Such descriptive information can be placed on one’s own website at any desired length, possibly squeezed into a directory listing, and definitely be included in an introductory piece about your services sent out via email to a client.

Specific examples: An interpreter who specializes in simultaneous conference interpreting can describe this service in terms of requiring a team of two or three interpreters and the associated equipment. The offer could indicate whether the interpreter can supply just his or her services, the team of interpreters without equipment, or possibly a complete package. Result: An uninformed client can ascertain what full simultaneous interpreting entails for a conference and what portion of the package the particular interpreter can supply. Another offer could describe chuchotage employing handheld wireless units as an alternate, overall lower-cost option for less formal settings. For an interpreter with experience and further interest in on-site audits or corporate training, these cases become examples that illustrate his or her services—along with reference to either simultaneous or consecutive interpreting for the format and their particular features.

Articulation of the offer should not be underestimated in usefulness. The interpreter as first person to the practice of interpreting tends to assume that “everybody already knows” the details about the profession and how interpreting services actually are performed. Preparation for an assignment by receiving materials to read in advance is one vital detail to the interpreter, but not (at least initially) a requisite client concern. A client is very often a commercial business or organization composed of many individuals. The contact there who orders the interpreting services usually becomes quite acquainted with the various conditions and details of providing the service. Other individuals at the client, however, may not be well informed and become interested at some point when they participate in an interpreted meeting, for instance. Such additional people at the client could also constitute opportunities to provide more services to the same client. Publishing a description of offered services on a website enables interested persons to review the information at any time and can confirm the interpreter’s status without further intervention required. Relevant listing on a membership or service directory can corroborate such information.

Just like the greengrocery or hardware store that has shelves stocked with goods to sell, the description of interpreting services can provide details to allow the client to determine whether the service will fit his or her need. Additional information could describe ways to get the best performance out of an interpreter, such as allowing for preparation and how to conduct the actual meeting(s). The descriptions should also assist in the interpreter receiving inquiries for desired assignments. In essence, this information on a website can create a 24/7 virtual “store” where clients can shop. Although the likelihood of a client’s Google search and arrival to your website is slim, anybody with some prior referral will have the opportunity to locate the site and gain understanding without any time constraints.

Price for the Offer

As briefly noted in Part 2 of this series, prices need to be disclosed carefully. Especially on a website, the independent interpreter would not ordinarily indicate price. I do recommend the separate preparation of a price schedule, which can be handed out judiciously to clients with a serious interest. Some practical considerations follow with respect to price.

Agency Work as Reference

Once the interpreter completes a clear description of services, the next step is to consider the prices for services offered. Many interpreters who work through agencies may refer to a straight-forward full-day rate and half-day rate, but a closer inspection has merit. Existing relationships with agencies can serve as reference in deciding on the service price presented to a prospective direct client or agency. First, rank the agencies in terms of overall preference of accepting interpreting work. In essence, the top-ranked agency would be a personal favorite to work for. From a strictly commercial perspective, preferred agencies would rank in sequence of highest pay. In other words, the top agency would pay the highest rate. If the rankings do not line up that way, other criteria exist. These criteria mean that price is not everything! Hence, a likable agency may not pay as much, but have different, advantageous elements. With careful analysis, such elements can be identified and used to understand when a price can be lower. The reverse exercise might reveal disadvantageous elements that call for a higher price. With a little effort, the interpreter may find—for purposes of his or her business—that a full day of consecutive interpreting for on-site civil engineering needs to be priced higher than the base rate, while a full day of simultaneous conference interpreting can be priced lower than the base rate if certain conditions make the assignment less burdensome. The analysis here provides a way of sorting out tough assignments and facilitated assignments, and reinforces a habit of getting the full scope of any assignment. Particularly for a direct client, no agency intervenes to cushion the demands or to carefully confirm the details. For this reason as well, the price charged to a direct client is generally different from the price charged to an agency for a comparable assignment.

Based on the analysis made, the next step considers the actual prices for interpreting services. A rate agreed to between an interpreter and any particular agency is a private arrangement. Neither party would commercially benefit from disclosing the rate to a third party. A direct client, however, would like to be certain that no other client is getting a better deal for a comparable service. Although two clients may never compare notes on the prices of the same interpreter, such a possibility exists. Client referrals, for instance, may arise out of relations between two closely connected businesses or organizations. The interpreter’s rates may already be known in such a case. Thus, the interpreter typically needs to guard against randomly agreeing to a significantly lower or higher price compared to what other clients are charged. A particular moment to watch is during negotiations for new work from a potential new client. Appropriate reasons for the lower rate (e.g., regular, repeat business month after month) or higher rate (e.g., complex legal environment, highly stressful) should be thought through in advance for any explanation.

A standard price schedule for interpreting services, therefore, must concurrently allow for any differential based on objective criteria, such as repeat business that satisfies a volume discount or grueling on-site assignments like at a mine—aligned to the description of services previously prepared. In order to land on firm prices for the offered services, empirical interpreting rates established with agencies are the ready reference. The agency rate paid to an interpreter, however, is probably inapplicable as a rate charged to a direct client. We know the interpreting agency must generate its own revenue to remain in business. The interpreters’ services are sold at higher rates to clients than rates paid to interpreters. How should the direct-client rate be determined?

An agency provides value to the client that the interpreter would be otherwise expected to provide in serving the client directly. In theory, if the provided value is equal, the interpreter can charge the same client directly for the same service and price as the agency. Given the rate paid by agency to interpreter, this ideal scenario teaches the percentage earned by the interpreter versus the percentage earned by the agency, if the interpreter can discover the price charged by the agency. Alternately, the percentages found in Figures 1 and 2 and related to the value discussion in Part 2 of this series can provide a guideline for agency percentages that may allow an estimation of what the agency charges. Careful analysis of the actual rates paid to the interpreter and how much value the agency provides is key.

In an ideal world, more value provided by an agency would increase the percentage earned by the agency. A conscientious agency may take care of meticulous arrangements for an assignment and supply large amounts of reference material in advance. The interpreter would receive everything for the facilitated turn-key assignment in advance and not be out-of-pocket for any expenses. In such a case, the agency earns revenue for ancillary services performed that the interpreter does not perform or benefits from. On the other hand, a deal-focused agency may merely be passing the assignment from left to right. The interpreter becomes more active in asking for reference material in advance and demanding details on the arrangements. The interpreter may be left in a position to pay out-of-pocket expenses and invoice for reimbursement.

What are the actual rates paid to the interpreter in the above two cases? The former agency has earned a lot for itself; therefore, the interpreter could end up with a smaller portion of the purse and thus a low rate. The latter agency has seemingly done as little as possible except secure the contract. The earnings for this agency amount to little more than a sales commission. The interpreter, therefore, could receive a large share of the purse and thus a high rate. But the first, meticulous agency may be efficient in its practice and generous in dividing more of the total to the interpreter. The second, “wheel and deal” agency may be less scrupulous, taking a high margin and disbursing a smaller share of the total to the interpreter. By examining the different remuneration arrangements from various agencies, the interpreter will deduce, as best as possible, the most likely rates the agencies charge to end clients. These figures form the basis for preparing the rate schedule for direct clients. The schedule will reflects, as an independent interpreter, the levels and types of services that can be competitively provided, relative to the best deduction made on other rates in the industry.

Completed Price Schedule and Re-evaluation

After a thorough effort of analyzing empirical agency rates, the completed rate schedule may list higher prices than the rates charged to clients by certain agencies from whom the interpreter has been accepting assignments. Over time, the interpreter must reconcile its agency relationships and either agree on the transaction terms, or no longer accept assignments. Commercial business is about money, an inescapable reality. The above efforts to analyze services and payments can be emotionally difficult, because the results can reveal (or reinforce) uncomfortable truths. For instance, a certain agency should clearly be paying the interpreter more, but the long relationship and support provided early on make it difficult to request a higher rate. As another example, an agency is sub-standard in its panache of brokering interpreting, and continuing to engage reflects poorly on the interpreter’s professional status. The interpreter, however, receives many assignments and relies on the relationship from an economic standpoint. The process of creating a price schedule thus presents an opportunity to re-evaluate existing business relationships. The professional interpreter may then require the poise to discontinue some business entirely, or to insist on improved commercial terms for the relationship to continue.

In Japan, low inflation has persisted for two decades and cast a decidedly deflationary sense of pricing on the economy. With menus at restaurants seemingly fixed in price for many years, interpreters can easily assume that their own “legacy” prices are non-negotiable. Supermarket prices have actually increased, but in many cases this action has been concealed through a size reduction rather than a visible price increase. Since interpreters cannot perform a size reduction, they have to request a higher rate. Many interpreters have expressed doubts to me about existing clients accepting such a request. The only way to find out is to approach the subject.

What about the CV?

As discussed in this segment, the two tools to prepare for a potential client are a description of services and associated price schedule. Neither presents a personal professional history or qualifications typically found in a curriculum vitae. In the process of some clients ordering professional services, the CV provides written assurance of an individual’s qualifications and experience matching the service to be performed. In practice, determination of whether the interpreter can provide the desired service is made on actual performance. If the performance is satisfactory as judged by the client, service is rendered well. The CV has no value at that point.

In essence, a client looking for an interpreter seeks two answers: (1) Can you handle the assignment we need you to accomplish, and (2) How much does it cost? The client assumes that a professional service is qualified, so the CV is more of a compliance check. In particular, a commercial business ordering interpreting is tasked to deliver results, not to thoroughly analyze CVs from multiple interpreters.

Professionally Done

Just like physicians and attorneys, professional interpreters have a practice based on personal performance of highly skilled work. Medical and legal professionals typically specialize within their field, and their practice will be commercially oriented around the medical procedures performed or particular sector of legal services offered, for which some sort of price schedule is normally presented. In a similar way, the professional interpreter can present a competitive and appropriately distinctive description of services and prepare an accompanying price schedule. Arriving at the actual prices takes methodical, conscious effort to analyze existing commercial business obtained through agencies and direct clients, and to consider the entire value offered as an independent, professional interpreter. In addition to the pure value of performing the interpreting, other pieces of providing the service and thus ancillary value should be included.

Seth A. Reames

Raised in Japan, the US and briefly in Indonesia, Reames started translating professionally during his college education years, including a stint for one year at a translation company in Japan. An undergraduate degree in chemistry (1988) laid a bedrock of technical knowledge in material and molecular science, chemical engineering, semiconductors, nuclear energy, computing and telecommunications. He has over 30 years of experience as a J>E and E>J translator; conference, simultaneous, consecutive, and deposition E<>J interpreter; and business owner offering translation and interpreting services. Principal fields of practice include legal, technical, commercial, and financial aspects of future automotive, mobile communications, fast-moving consumer goods, steel manufacturing, luxury goods, retail and wholesale distribution, and fintech. Currently a certified member of JACI, past member of JAT, past active member and former treasurer of the ATA, and previously an ATA-certified translator for both English to Japanese and Japanese to English.