Friday, 11 April 2014

Auctions V: Avoiding Reverse Auctions

This is the final instalment in our series. Thank you for sticking me through all this. I hope it's been worth it. Last time we discussed some ways or making the best out of the worst if you really need to participate in reverse auctions, notably in formal or sort-of-formal procurements, at least for the time being. Now I would like to take a look at what can be done to escape the reverse-auction misery. My translator friends claim I'm better at analysing the negatives than coming up with positives, but let's surprise them. Just please be prepared that there is no quick fix, no move of a wand kind of thing. It will take a lot of hard work, both mental effort and footwork, possibly some talent and some random factors commonly referred to as luck (luck doesn't exist).

Let's start simple. There's a short entry at Investopedia which will tell us exactly what we need to do:

It is important to note that reverse auction does not work for every good or service. Goods and services that can be provided by only a few sellers cannot be acquired by reverse auction. In other words, reverse auction works only when there are many sellers who offer similar goods and services.

Now, I wish to take issue with one thing: as long as there are still a few sellers (i.e. more than one), even rare goods can still be acquired by reverse auction as long as the buyer acts agressively and the sellers allow it to work. In other words, if the sellers — say, of some rare good or service that only 5 people in the world can provide and thousands need — allow a single buyer to round them all up in the buyer's conference room or online procurement system, that buyer can still have a reverse auction. And reap the benefits.

No matter than in the outside world there may be even thousands of eager buyers whereas the world's entire supply is completely represented in that small room. The buyer wins by just making things happen. The industrious buyer defies the laws of economy by redefining reality, by announcing new conditions to the buyers and their lack of defiance, or by taking a gamble and throwing bait and actually succeeding. And it costs the buyer nothing to try! There will not even be shame if the attempt doesn't work out.

On the other hand, a seller does not really need to be one-of-a-kind in order to get a stream of offers coming (just who would still be in business if that were true?). Just like industrious, proactive buyers certainly aren't one-of-a-kind in what they can offer. In fact, most of what they can offer are numbers, i.e. the price they can pay (per-unit or total). In translation, obviously jobs aren't actually unique, either. The demand is huge. It's just that a lot of companies who have those jobs to hand out are determined to sell them dearly.

So, in order to escape reverse auctions your offer must be unique. But definitely not absolutely one-of-a-kind. You can afford to be less unique when your potential buyers (i.e. potential clients) are not artificially unique — for example by just acting as if they were unique and you letting them, or by actually being unique in your pool of potential clients (because you don't get much exposure and your reach is limited).

Your potential clients shouldn't be more unique than they ought to be. Treating them individually and offering them personal or personalised service — and especially giving their texts all the individual attention they deserve — is not the same as caving in to unreasonable demands or accepting unreasonable demands and agreeing to be put in a position in which you can actually afford not to be put. And it's not just about money. For example, if they are rude (which is a noticeable trend in our 'industry'), you can always take a pay cut and work for someone who can't pay as much but is at least polite. Just because they ask, suggest, propose or 'require' doesn't mean you automatically need to do it. As long as you've made no promises yet.

However, obviously, the more choices you are, the more selective you can afford to be. And, the number of choices you have will depend on how many potential clients actually know about your existence and the services you offer. We'll return to this in a moment.

There is also a progressive scale. This is not a game of absolutes. Becoming a little more unique will net you a little better offers, being somewhat unique will get you somewhat better offers, and — obviously — being totally unique will get you totally better offers. So it's not all or nothing, the return grows with effort. Thus, small steps will also pay, although without making a dramatic difference in a short time-frame.

Here are some areas in which you can become more unique (i.e. differentiate yourself):

  • substantive personal qualifications (degrees, certificates, experience etc.), which put your translations on a higher level than the buyer can normally hope to find
  • soft skills and your other personal assets, which affects how good a fit you are
  • types and definitions of the services you offer, and the way you perform them, including any added services, convenient (or not) service plans and such like
  • client service (e.g. fast response, courtesy, personal approach, pampering, subservience), which is either about connecting with your clients or pleasing them
  • just being where nobody else is (for example an industry conference or business chamber)
  • missions, ideas, stories a.k.a. the why

The ways of becoming unique typically involve research and writing, whether on your own or with professional assistance.

There are basically two things you can do here:

  • adjust your business model (decide how you do things)
  • design, manage and publicise your brand (manage your image)

In a simplistic illustration, your work is the substance, your business model is the form, and your branding is the packaging. Let's take chocolate as an example. It's chocolate all right, as in the substance — some cocoa powder, milk, whatever they put in the mix, perhaps some nuts and raisins or some other stuffing to make it nicer and more attractive (and in many cases also unique). It needs to be sold in bars of various shapes or as pralines or sweets (candies) of some kind. Finally, you need to wap it in some nice paper or foil or put it in a pretty box.

If you don't, it will be difficult to sell even if it's really good chocolate. Achieving good prices would be even more difficult. Chances are the excellent chocolate would still end up being sold in bulk, i.e. stock quantities, perhaps for cooking, instead of e.g. serving as a unique gift to make a child happy on its birthday.

So, you need substance or there's going to be nothing to sell (only advertising agencies can sell ads). You need the form, too, or you won't be able to get the substance to be where you want it to be (as opposed to all over the place). And you need the packaging if you aren't selling it bulk, in stock quantities. And bulk sale or stock sale is not just about the volume, it's a type of sale rather.

Moreover, if you sell the chocolate in a transparent wrap — which is not actually a bad idea — then the chocolate itself takes over the role of the wrap and provides the visual attraction. And transparent wrap is still wrap anyway. The chocolate surface does not touch the shelf surface, or the chocolate would catch germs and the shelf would get stains and germs.

In short, you need to get some presence (exposure). You need to offer value to be paid, but you need exposure to even have a chance.

Develop and flesh out your offer. Identify your strengths, use them, communicate them. Do it in the right language — at least language which your client will understand but normally the language the client actually speaks in the client's own business should be better. Identify your weaknesses and either fix them or work around them and rely on your strengths instead. Identify opportunities and try to chase them, see if it works. In many cases it doesn't hurt much if it doesn't (gotta get over the fear of disappointment and rejection).

Just be there. Say something about yourself. Something which is relevant and something which is also understood. Better still (with time, perhaps), something which will translate into what your client gets from you, rather than what you need to sell. Perhaps it might be worth spelling out what the client gets from you as opposed to some other people, machine translation, or unprofessional inhouse effort — just don't concentrate too much on aggressive comparisons and negatives, as that will put you right back in the reverse-auction model.

You can probably even write a dedicated and explicit Why me page, nailing and detailing your unique propositions but remember you're writing it to get out of the reverse aution world, not to hop right back in. For example, some time earlier in this post I mentioned subservience, which is not rare in the translation world. Don't do it, it will only reinforce the buyer control and entitlement. At this point you're actually unique if you don't. Those who do profess their total subservience to the client possibly don't even benefit from it any more because of how commonplace that style has become. You need to be indispensable and very significant to your client, not expendable and insignificant. (As much as calling yourself the business partner of a Fortune 500 company would be a bit over the top.)

Think about what makes you unique. Low prices don't, not even lower than everybody else's — for now. Meeting project deadlines doesn't really. Using CAT tools (cutting edge technology, yeah, right) doesn't either. Handling secretarial work or running office and administrative errands for your client certainly does not — it's more like the wrong kind of added value, whereby translators become personal office assistants, a task for which they are overqualified. Plus, don't overemphasise added value or your core value will be overlooked and disregarded. You need first of all to make a strong case for the core value you provide to your client. Added value is added value, not mandatory or essential or indispensable or core value. Mention the added stuff anyway because it would a bit silly not to benefit from all the advantages of your offer, but don't do that in ways which undermine your professional status.

Still, as it's more about the client than it is about you (unfortunately), you'll need to show the client that you understand the client's needs, and that you care. There's a marketing saying that before you sell the solution you need to sell the problem. There's a grain of truth in that, but it might be better to talk about opportunities than about problems. Or perhaps both problems and opportunities.

This may end up requiring you to do more selling than you fell comfortable with, but it really is not the same as the client-centred or even client-centric mumbo jumbo which makes translation clients feel like the own agencies and translators body and soul, which then rubs off on rogue agencies which go over to the dark side. Remember: You own me, and I am your slave. I live to do your bidding and be your whipping boy, and I'm enthusiastic about it is not unique. It is commonplace. It's all over the place, in fact. You're actually unique if you don't think and communicate that way, although it may seem harder to compete (except your goal is not to outcompete everybody else but to make competition irrelevant).

First step is just doing it. Or even actually wanting to do it.

This first step is probably really the most difficult one to make. It is always difficult to just start doing things, unless perhaps you are the sort of go-getter born to just be doing things. Such people, however, are a minority, and most of us are not Alexanders or Caesars or even the general we saw on the TV. Fact: most soldiers are not commanders ;).

If you want to make the first step toward adjusting your business model and developing a more efficient way of handling your online image — and the beginning always comes down to just wanting to do something — then perhaps see these two presentations first. They are free to watch, and take about 2 hours each:

(Both @ Traduemprende, 24 May 2013.)

Books were written to facilitate freelance stats and introduce translators to some useful basics of business and marketing knowledge. They may contain a lot of basic stuff that any practising freelance translator already knows, so look at the list of contents first, but they generally come with useful tips:

Especially if you're new to freelance translation, take a day off and read. Perhaps read more than one book and compare those parts where different authors offer different points of view, to see why they the way they do and get a clearer perspective for yourself.

All of the people I mentioned above have blogs where they share useful insights, such as Corinne McKay's blog from which the material for Thoughts on Translation came, Marta Stelmaszak's numbered lessons or even a couple of useful tips periodically published on Latitudes.'s own blog keeps a list of other translation blogs, about twenty in all. A lot of them deal with business and marketing matters rather than chit chat and translation riddles or forecasts about the future of translation.

It should be worth looking at industry-specific business and marketing blogs relating to your clients' industries, or the field-specific marketing of other professions, especially those which are similar to our own. For example legal marketing has become a strong discipline by now, largely because of the tough competition in the world of legal services but also stringent rules on advertising, which are intended to keep it ethical and keep their status high. In short, they are another profession for the services of which demand is practically endless but few people actually want to pay the sort of prices which really make the professionals happy. Which is just like the current situation in our own 'industry' with its raging price compression.

Thus, for example you can look at the Lawyerist's marketing tab, Tom Kane's Legal Marketing Blog to name just two that come to my mind easily. However, as I said before, it's a good idea to look at business and marketing blogs relating to the subject-matter you translate, be it health care, finance, engineering, design, whatever it is in your specific case.

If you'd feel more comfortable having some expert assistance instead of researching and doing things totally on your own, then Marta Stelmaszak @ WantWords teaches Business School for Translators, and Nicole Y. Adams @ NYA Communications offers Translator Consulting Packages. Other popular authors and bloggers also may be available for consultation. Websites for Translators can take care of your website, logo and business card. Just to name a few of the more popular ones.


Be unique. To be unique, you need to be. So have a presence and exposure, preferably somewhere where competition is more limited. Try to make competition irrelevant rather than outcompeting the other guys (or it'll end up in an auction). Treat your clients uniquely and appreciate the ways in which they and especially their needs are unique, but don't allow them to act like they're more unique than they are and dictate terms to you monopolist-style if you have other potential clients to choose from. Try to avoid competing in ways which make you just like the other people, rather attempt to find or create niches. Think about getting professional business and marketing assistance — you've seen what happens when our clients translate on their own.

Good luck! (And yeah, luck doesn't exist.)

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