Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Market Is Not a Reverse Auction

You've probably heard a lot — including from me — about how prices are falling, status is falling, respect is declining, all of which is true, and allow which keeps intensifying as we speak.

But this isn't the whole truth. Things don't have to be this way.

You may've heard from so called business experts and frontline fighters about how this is what the clients want and how we must provide. Suck it up and deliver. Like the tough guys we are. Or they are. Bullshit. Stupid, ridiculous bullshit.

They make it sound like being a tough guy is about putting up a brave face as you cough up protection money for a guy who certainly is bigger than you but not nearly big enough, or relevant enough, to shove you around at will. How tough indeed!

No matter how distorted and unbalanced, there is still symmetry in the market. You don't have to do whatever you sense — or, more likely, are told by pundits and sometimes even your own client — 'the market' wants. Meaning what the buyers want.

… This is because 'the market' ≠ the buyers. The market is also the sellers. It's a two-way street.

There is no 'new reality of the market' that buyers supposedly now want more goods or better goods for the same or lower price, which they supposedly didn't already want before. Any guy who says that certainly is so no prize-winning material. There is nothing remotely inventine or innovative about that kind of statement. Buyers have always wanted to buy more for less and sellers have always wanted to sell less for more. Everybody has always wanted to make a good bargain. Nothing new there.

Now, even supposing that you're going to deliver that good bargain as opposed to sticking to your guns and negotiating harder, even that still doesn't mean you need to start selling more for less. Because you don't.

On the contrary: You can explain how what you already are selling, at the price you already are charging, is a great bargain and always has been. (Just perhaps there was no pressing need to go into the details of it until now.)

As a translator you are opening doors that would otherwise be closed and building bridges where people would otherwise need boats, or at least building and navigating those boats for them so they don't have to swim. Those doors and bridges and boats lead to potentially unlimited opportunities, which, while probably finite, are still worth times and times more than the price of your translation calculated as the number of words times the per-word rate.

It's only that as times get worse and competition gets tougher and scarier there may be more storytelling for you to do before the story falls in together and sells. But, unless you're translating contracts and marketing blurbs written anew at each time for every $100-$1000 transaction, you should still have more than enough wiggle room to carve out a decent fee, if you're willing to put some work in it.

And before you put in the work you must realize and accept that the work can be done and will make a difference. At least try.


Consider that a lot of the information you have comes from (i) battle-scared warriors who want to appear tough as they make the brave decision to give the opponent what he wants without putting up a fight and still hope to get the hero treatment; and (ii) people who have a vested interest in making you think that you already are buried neck-deep in reverse auctions, sucked in and unable to go anywhere else. Which you aren't. Not remotely. Not even if your situation actually is somewhat bad in objective terms. It just isn't as bad as that.

Consider how many times they have:

  • asked if you are available
  • stressed that it's important it's you who take up that project
  • tried to evoke your sympathy
  • … or threatened you
  • or resorted to flattery
  • or even made small concessions such as waiting their turn or paying a slightly higher rate

Boy! (Of either sex.) All of that means you do have some pull.

It's just that the opposing side of the negotiation table may want to prevent you from actually using that pull, for example by making you believe you don't have it or shouldn't use it because it would somehow be unethical. (Or, most frequently, because their procedures, same for every contractor, don't leave room for it.)

See, contrary to what they would like you to believe, the market doesn't consist of millions of sellers, trying to win the favour of buyers who are free to pick and fuss all they want, pretty much because that's they way of things, which is how it should be and the only way it could be. Nope, it isn't.

All of those buyers also need to contend with the scarcity of the goods or services they want to buy, or even of the sellers who sell those, as well as the higher or lower attractiveness of their, the buyer's, budgets and other terms they are able or willing to offer. There is nothing which prevents sellers from selling to someone who offers a higher price or is willing to wait longer or sweeten the deal in some other way.

The market is more of a free-for-all. Everybody is auctioning. Everybody is competing for the other party's side of the bargain. There are elements of reverse auction and there are  — or at least could be, if translators or any type of sellers were more proactive — elements of normal, straight auction as well, where the highest bidder among the buyers and not the lowest bidder among the sellers wins. There are no formalized bids or rules to cover the entire market as a whole, and you need to play it by ear and by trial and error and by guessing a lot. But the essential mechanics are there.


Try to break out of the psychological compulsion to please the client (or else!), at least for the sake of a little exercise we're going to have.

Suppose there is a job you don't to do or in any case can afford to 'lose', i.e. simply not get, which is not the end of the world. You won't actually 'lose' it if you don't get it and it was never years. You will simply not have got that one particular job, and that's it. For the record, you don't need to get everything single job you see, nor could you humanly process them all anyway. What you need to get is enough jobs to make a comfortable living at the rates you charge.

So, take that problem job and try to up the rate or move the deadline. Be fair, don't shortchange them, just don't be as acommodating as before. Mind your need for sleep and free time, or give yourself an 8-hour day, 40-hour week, occasional holidays, you get the point. Or, if they're a new client and you know they have the money, then don't charge them the same rate you've been charging everybody for years on years now for the same work — raise it in due proportion to your increasing experience. And inflation. And everything else.

In other words, stop giving so much **** about 'being competitive'. Allow yourself to be less competitive. In the meaning they attach to it anyway.

(Remember that, in the real world, you're competitive or not depending on whether you win the competition. Not depending on whether someone says you are.)

There is a good chance you will get those higher rates and longer deadlines, if you actually try. You should try, if only to know more or less where you stand. And remember that you can always grant a discount on the invoice or deliver early or even agree to grant them a one-off discount if you become convinced that their reasons are sound, that their cause is a legitimate one.

Most people who will turn tail and pass up on you are going to be those on the lookout for a cheaper provider, not really the few people who have a real need but too much pride to ask for a discount (hint: if their statements are public record and they've been awarding juicy bonuses to their management, they are not in dire need), so don't worry too much about that. You can still make it clear (somewhere, somehow), that discretionary reductions and otherwise unique terms are available on a case-by-case basis to clients who can show a legitimate need without being able to pay the normal fee. That will keep the needy in and the bargain seekers out.


What else can you do?

Yeah, it's not all wrestling about the fees. Supply and demand can be influenced — or brought out — in subtler ways that don't involve violence.

I say 'brought out' because the advantages of what you already provide — the good features and the useful benefits of it — are often hidden and underappreciated, and it's up to you to change that state of things as opposed to simply heaping even more at an even lower price.

Thus you may need to do more work to make sure that clients realize just how much they're getting from you — or how much more they're getting from you than from someone else.

Many of them will still try to get it cheaper, that's sort of how human nature is, at least for some humans. The trick is to not cave in the moment they say that (to try costs them nothing, so in a certain sense they would be stupid if they didn't), but instead reiterate the value that you provide and the fact that your prices are already quite reasonable and (if true) that many other clients are perfectly willing to pay them (which means they see the value).

A client who already sees he's getting a good bargain but would like to turn it into an even better one doesn't have too many strong arguments to show for it, and chances are that if things were to resort to open violence you would come out on the top. Especially if he already is getting better terms from you than anyone else is giving. There is an old Latin saying: quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. If someone asserts something without proof, you don't need proof to negate it. You just negate it.

Remember that in such situations the burden is on them to convince you. You discharge your own burden by simply quoting a fee that falls within the market standard or as much higher than it as your qualifications are or the difficulty of the job is. Anything more favourable to the client is for the client to justify, and you have no obligation to give him an A for effort.


To prove your qualifications, data in on objective, legible and concise format are always good. Just pile up the degrees and accreditations and certificates and years of experience and testimonials from happy clients (both the content and the sheer number matters). That is something your client cannot claim to disbelieve or challenge without a good foundation.

Also include samples so that you can refer your prospects to them instead of translating something new for them free of charge for their proofreader's reviewing pleasure.

Speaking of which, obviously, just about any random QA'er from a translation agency or business company is not going to test you more reliably than your professors at university and your state examiners and exam boards at professional associations already have done, unless the test is more difficult and the reviewer is more qualified than your previous examiners were, which is simply not very likely.

It's only that some of your prospects may prefer to have the privelege of acting unreasonably and disbelieving anything which they haven't personally put their hands on — and very literally so because they won't even accept credible documents from respectable institutions in lieu of a first-hand check. Guess what? You don't really have to put up with that sort of treatment. (Unless you actually have to.)

It's kinda like maths. You don't need to prove that 5000 words times 0.12 a word makes 600 to pay. That's just the kind of thing you just don't have to prove in the face of feigned or even actual disbelief.

But you will still need to use your own good sense to find out where the limits are because making conclusions about your skill level on the basis of your papers is a bit less forward than simple arithmetics. It just isn't some kind of murky waters of non-knowledge and uncertainty that somehow means you should be charging peanuts because your actual qualifications are intangible. And even if they were.


Finally, you don't need to talk business. At least not only it and not all the time. I suggest you do read a bunch of course materials about the basics of economy, management and marketing just to know the setting you work in (and if you do business translation, you need that knowledge anyway), but instead of focusing solely on the business terms that are native to your clients, you also use terms that are native to your art.

After all, they need a translator, so it makes no point pretending they don't need one but only have a business problem to solve. Which is not true.

So you don't want to only use some business references that they're going to downplay and counter easily simply because they're more fluent in the lingo and carry more authority in the area than you do. You need to establish yourself as an expert in what you do, which is what they need.

And no bullshit like you still need to prove you're needed. If you weren't needed, they wouldn't be there asking. Or that you need to prove your monetary value. If they didn't sense the value… yes, correct, they wouldn't be there asking (which is even fine to tell them, at least without using the 'BS' word, usually).

So if they know it and you know that they know it and they know that you know they know it, and so on and so forth, then it makes no sense to act like you don't know (and you don't know etc.) and grant them a victory in their own silly game. No unfair downplaying of the importance of your art, and no gratuitous refusals to recognize your qualifications should be your rule no. 1 for them. And yes, you can set rules. To some extent at least. (Precisely to the extent you can get away with, which is up to you to find out.) This remains true even if it's you contacting them rather than the other way round. You're still talking business and fees and not charity and donations.


I suggest you also use the talents that you already have to deliver a convincing value proposal that does a good job of showing — and claiming the credit for — the value and meaning (and cost-to-provide and scarcity and difficulty to find) of the services you provide.

Thus, if you are one of those people who came to translation from a different profession, one which is somehow involved in most of the stuff you translate, you could simply use that to establish a connection and to establish your relevance. And show yourself as a competent fellow (of either sex) who understands the stuff.

On the other hand, if you have more of a language background, you should use that. After all, you are an expert on language. So rise and shine. And if your bacgkround is more on the literary side, especially if you know how to write or edit a story, then certainly use that to your advantage. It's actually becoming quite hip in the business world these days.

And, once again, if they gratuitously negate or downplay your importance or relevance, call them on it. Don't be aggressive or rude, but force them to back out of it, if only by asking questions — for example: why they think that, why do they think they know better than a recognized authority — or repeating the obvious — for example just how authoritative the institution is which granted your credentials or was satisfied with your work as your client.

Again, you don't need to act like every shit argument is good currency, because it's not. But you need to build some confidence. I've already suggested expanding your knowledge and re-evaluating your status as an expert in your field with a useful role to play for experts in other fields, but there are also other ways, such as developing your soft skills, including the art of negotiating and saying no without breaking up the negotiation. Everything in due time, not too much at once, but I suggest you take a look at those. I did as an adolescent (a bit overeager to please and a bit shy to stand up, a bit inept at defending my right to stand up and reasons for it etc.), and it did me some good. It prepared me for some things later on.

The no. 1 realization to make is that there is bullshit in this world and that that bullshit isn't binding on you, you can call people on it and refuse to accept it (as a reason for them to get a discount or otherwise).

And the no. 2 thing to do (more like even no. 1, in fact) is to use your knowledge to demonstrate… your knowledge. And to show in all sorts of ways (not always by talking directly about it) that your services are valuable and that you're a competent provider, and (if you need to) that your fees are reasonable and offer a lot of value.

If you have lawyer clients (small firm or solo), or doctors, or architects, it could be a good idea to ask them for some tips, as they've probably already had to deal with the same problems. There should also be more literature available from lawyers' perspective than translators', nearly all of which is going to be applicable to translators without much adaptation left to do, given how similar the professions and the problems are.

With time, as your means allow it, you will want to use a real marketer and a real ad man to make your message heard, to give it more reach and make it more resounding. The goal is to make your perspective matter too and not only the perspective of people who want your services to be cheap and underappreciated (also because it makes them cheaper).


Additional reading:

major auction types at Wiki

I believe the market is closer to Walrasian auction than a reverse auction, but the point is not to analyse the theoretical model of that (which I haven't even done myself), the point is to realize that it all goes two ways.


As a (wo)man of letters, you simply have an advantage there, and you should use it. Good marketing kinda always comes down to a good story, especially when it comes to creating a brand.

Walrasian auction and Walras's law

… If you're more mathematically inclined, this may do better than a narrative explanation.

As well as a bunch of how-to books, starting from 'for dummies' and moving up. It's only reasonable to know the setting you're forced to operate in and the setting that's native to your prospective clients. It will help you get better fees and otherwise better terms from them, but it will also help you better serve their own needs, which is a win-win situation. (Just like being a good legal translator helps you identify and refuse to sign, or renegotiate, an abusive clause in a contract.)

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