Monday, 24 December 2018

As a Freelancer, I Want to Step It up a Bit and Improve My Agency Base. What do I do? (Pt 2 — 11 Pointers & 3-Step Action Plan)

Without much further ado — we did a lot of that in Pt 1 — these are two quotes I'd like you to keep in mind before we cut to the meat. Both are allegedly from Bill Gates and both lack a reliable source for that attribution. ;)

If you're born poor, it's not your mistake. But if you die poor, it is your mistake.

I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.

In short, we want to look at our problem from the practical perspective of finding a no-nonsense way of making your life a little easier, with (almost) no mumbo-jumbo. Jokingly we could say laziness should be your guide. Not in the sense of actually being lazy but in the sense of going for simple solutions that actually work and make a difference instead of trying to prove theoretical concepts.

Laziness in this sense means you want to avoid having to do the same thing twice (kind of like I wanted this blog to help me avoid wording the same advice for different people time after time again), you want to create some capital that will keep working for you when you're doing something else. You want to invest and profit — the investment is the money and time you spend on getting some professional basics right, at least the bare minimum, and the profit is more jobs and better rates as a result.

And you want to keep it simple. For a freelancer this largely means focusing on your passive marketing and maxing it out — not instead of doing anything else, but before you do anything else, as a matter of having your priorities in good order.


  1. You're in a better negotiating position when the agency approaches you than when you approach them. Again, this is where your passive marketing shines, as it both attracts them, which will get you their initial tentative interest, and, if you play it right, does much of the job of actually persuading them, so there's little left to be done when they get in touch with you. And if you play it right, you can invert the roles, so it's them wanting to work specifically with you rather than you having to explain and prove to them how you're a good fit for whatever client job they have and you don't. To get in this sweet spot you need: visibility, presence, projecting competence, confidence, moderate approachability/availability/attainability (not too eager, but not elusive to the point of not promising a good return on their invested time, effort and hope — psychology matters here).
  2. You have to be professional — be, act and look the part. This means acting and looking more professional than the average translator and in fact 90% of our casual and self-conscious lot. Not too laid back, too personal. Calm, collected, competent, confident. Not speaking out of turn, not afraid of silence or pause in conversation. Not jovial or airheaded. You don't have to and in fact shouldn't be dull, stern, pedantic or anything of the sort. Learn to see the difference if you don't already. There's gotta be a bit of healthy distance that inspires healthy respect, and getting too personable, as is the current trade in the freelance world, will that distance and will kill that respect. You need a bit of that ivory tower while still remaining moderately approachable — i.e. within achievable but not too easy reach (your road plan en bref) — and keeping them looking forward to the opportunity. Confident and slightly aloof professional professionals inspire this. Personal and personable hey look at me, hire me! choose me! choose me! I want to serve you! I live to please you! it would be the height of my day to take an order from you freelancers don't inspire it at all. In fact, they are like one of 20 desperate folks approaching a moderately attractive stranger and tripping over their feet bending over backwards and getting swatted like flies.
  3. Again, just like in dating, no desperation, no clinginess, etc., and for the same reasons. Plaintive behaviours and overeagerness are a low-value signal (LVS), meaning that you are in effect telling them your value is comparatively lower than theirs, and their market value (MV) is higher. Instead, you want to project high value, but without overdoing it.
  4. And the reason why you don't want to overdue HVS is because you don't want to have an attainability problem — like we said before, you must be within reach, not too distant to realistically work with. You must be reasonably responsive, just not tripping on your own feet running to the phone. But neither can you inspire so much respect and so much distance that people will… keep their respectful distance from you — and be afraid to disturb you at all, negotiate with you, ask about a potential rather than confirmed job, or project your rates as probably not being within their range (when you in fact don't charge as much as they imagine). 
  5. Part of passive lure is samples. Overload your website with various samples of your best and most interesting work; almost. Make it just a little less than too much. Note that this doesn't mean your most complicated or most difficult work; this content has to be able to engage and resound with the reader, including those PMs who are relatively lay or green folks in translation. Those PMs (and their bosses, secretaries, HR people and sometimes clients) still have to be able to understand the text and see what you did there and why and what that is good — good for them. So make sure the samples are simple enough, simple but brilliant, and interesting; exciting even. This is part of your broader story; you're essentially doing storytelling marketing here, just like you do with your bio…
  6. … which, of course, (i.e. the bio) must be interesting, engaging, sending the right message, and getting the right exposure. It will probably attract like 60% of all of your website traffic, so give it some love. Have it professionally written or get some professional assistance, to the extent it wouldn't be dishonest advertising by misrepresentation of your own writing skill.
  7. Professional image relies much on… images! Get a professional executive shot done; the kind that costs quite a bit and is on par with the photos used by top management in your clients' organizations, as well as top authors and experts in the relevant field. Or even better than most of them have, but without clearly being overdone, as you don't want to cast the impression of trying just a bit too hard. The mood had better be more serious than sported by most translators, but without getting too uptight (unless you're in legal, medical or financial translation). For concept and background pictures, you want to spend some money on professional, high-resolution photos that don't look like clipart and aren't used on thousands of other websites. Even if you have to pay like five dollars, most people won't, so you're going to be unique. And that's your goal.
  8. Follow through with non-plaintive, confident presentation of your credentials as highlights — with no begging for validation! Translators constantly beg their prospects to validate them. You don't want to do that. Instead, you have to validate your prospects. You have to validate them in having chosen you or being about to choose you or having shortlisted you or simply having decided to give you five minutes of their reading time. Don't overpromise — it's better to underpromise and overdeliver than the other way round — but be confident.
  9. So credentials, samples, good story. To give you more detail, this means a good landing page that conveys the most important essence of your message — the best of your value proposal — in less than 10 seconds. But also expand on the story for those who do actually want to read, in way that is friendly to the reader, which generally means that the text should be broken up into smaller portions unfolding gradually in order to avoid the 'wall of text' effect but instead suck visitors in gradually as they click to unfold more information.
  10. Don't be told — by defeatists with self-esteem issues, a lot of whom give marketing advice to others — that prospective clients aren't interested in reading about you because you're allegedly so far beneath their attention! That's clearly low-self-esteem thinking (which screams personal issues), and it's markedly different from what the clients actually think. Except perhaps for a certain margin of entitled, toxic clients that you want to avoid if you can help it. Normal people want to read up a bit on people they work with an trust their projects to
  11.  We've already mentioned professional photos, but of course you want a professional website and professional CVs and brochures.  Professional Wordpress themes cost far under $100 apiece and are often easily configurable by a layperson with plenty of help from attached instruction materials, or you can pay a webdesigner several hundred to about a thousand to configure and customize the template for you (or several thousand for the best designers or more complicated jobs). 

The goal is to:

(1) reduce, as far as possible, the work you still have to do when approaching them or being approached by them, because there's always going to be some such work to do; and

(2) make them approach you rather than you them, which reduces the amount of work you have to do in order to:
(1º) close the transaction at all; and
(2º) on as good terms for you as possible. 

Either way, this means raising your passive attractiveness to a point where it compels them to action, and this is the opposite of you being compelled to action, which typically results in worse pay and worse other terms than the maxium you could get with your qualifications and your other circumstances.

Implementing these steps will make your life easier and better — this much I can definitely promise you. But you need to make the effort and actually get around to doing all this.

For example here's a simple implementation plan:

  1. Get a professional executive photo & bio. And by professional I mean someone who specializes in high-profile portrait pics, not just any photo service.
  2. Iron out your CV, portfolio and (less importantly) other materials such as brochures.
  3. Get your website professionally done. Don't waste your time trying to DIY it instead of doing paid work for your clients and then paying a real designer to do it better than you could. Same as with photos really.

Don't be discouraged by the hundreds you need to spend so you can profit in thousands or tens of thousands. From my experience some people just won't make the initial up-front expense it takes to cover crucial parts of your professional image professsionally, and that is exactly what holds them back, by preventing them from being able to charge professional rates — which their semi-professional image can't support. Ironically, that's also similar to how clients end up having their sales materials machine-translated or translated by semi-professionals on the cheap side, with the obvious results that we often talk about in translator groups. By insisting on using selfies, beach photos and clumsy websites, and copy that sounds like a child asking a parent for a new toy, we make just the same mistakes. So let's not.

If you take this advice to heart — and, more importantly, act on it and do some work — I once again promise you're going to see some serious results. Also you can't get the results without the work. But if you don't do the work, you'll be in the same old place without being able to move forward. Once again, we aren't talking about any ground-breaking changes here, with overly ambitious goals. We're talking about professional essentials to not even help you get closer to fully realizing your potential but actually to help you stop bottlenecking yourself with inaction, passivity and defeatism.

… So for starters just go and have a nice picture taken of yourself. The results might give you the impulse and the energy to start working on your CV, brochures and other materials. Do at least this. If you see some improvement, spend some of the new income on a new website to amplify the effect and take a bigger step forward. Your bank account will thank you.

But if what you want to tell me is something along the lines of: 'Meh. Too much work. Too uncertain. Don't want to waste my money or time. Are you sure this will work?,' then I honestly don't quite care. Those are the thinking patterns of people who are in a rut and don't want out of it because being in a rut carries some sort of psychological reward for them, e.g. wallowing in self-pity and acting like a victim of fate. Shake that off. I'm not telling you to found a new Microsoft in a garage; I'm only telling you to get a professional photo, a professional CV and a professional website preferably. I'm not asking too much.

The final question — how this applies to your work with agencies?

The post honestly came out far less agency-specific than I expected, perhaps largely because my Facebook advice (from which this post eventually emerged) was more general than the question asked. But while this doesn't seem agency specific on the outside, inside it is. How?

For starters, agencies need translators. They are in a position to assess your qualifications on the basis of your credentials, the rest of your CV, and your samples, at least much more so than the typical end client. They are also repeat purchasers, and more concerned with whatever they're getting from you — which mostly means punctual deliveries and no quality issues to disrupt the flow, better still if you can impress their clients, hence keep those clients and win more by word of mouth and glowing testimonials — than with what sort of client service they're getting from you. Plus, you don't take such a big risk of losing them as a client if you aren't always available. In short, the marketing is so much easier than with direct end clients.

Getting your professional basics covered and continually improving, setting the bar higher and upping your game, gives you access to better-paying agencies and gives whatever agencies want to work with you more incentive to pay more for your work than if you had a barebones semi-professional image. The difference could be, let's say, 20% or 30% of your income, perhaps more. So what's that compared to some time or a couple hundred dollars/pounds/euros?

What you may not see so easily is that you need to keep upping your game to make any falls softer when you trip further down the road. Essentially, it's easier to win more ground than defend what you already have from shrinking. The same goes for your client base and income level. So keep growing, expanding, developing, improving etc., and that will make sure you still have plenty enough even in your worse weeks or months or years, even if you lose an important client or a couple of clients in one go, or if you stop being able to work full time, or some other misfortune happens.

… And the more agencies you have on the top end of 'nice to work with', the more leeway you have to avoid working with agencies on the bottom of the scale. For each new nice agency you land, there's a bad agency you can drop. And if you suddenly end up with a surplus of well-paying work… boy, we all wish we had such problems to worry about. (You'll just raise your rates, especially for the lowest payers, to reduce demand to a more manageable level. So nothing to be scared about.)

Pretty much the same will in fact apply to direct end clients, except getting them will be more complicated, as you'll need to go after them more proactively or at least be where they are and sometimes convince them that they need your services, which is far more work and which is less the case with agencies. Agencies, once again, are always there, usually on the lookout for translators and well aware that they need dependable, punctual, conscientious translators that are hopefully also on the higher end of the skill spectrum (and helping you show that was the goal of this post all along).

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