May 12, 2009

Which 95% are you?

Something a lot of freelance translators (and perhaps a few agency folks) don't like to think about is the sales role of our chosen profession. Or if we think about it, we do so from a perspective that is not necessarily productive on any time scale you care to choose. Once in a while I find it useful to look "outside the box" of translation and see what those in other fields have to say about selling products and services and consider if any of it is relevant to my situation. Some time ago I became aware of Jeffrey Gitomer through another translator's blog. In some ways he seems just the kind of guy to raise my blood pressure and make me want to retire to a quiet, tenured teaching job somewhere. Over the top colors in his promo material, graphics in your face and fairly hardcore hype right up front. I can just see most of my translating colleagues run screaming from this.

Their loss. Some time ago I subscribed to his "Sales Caffeine" newsletter, which often makes a rather overcaffeinated impression. But when I manage to quiet my sensitive artist's nerves and look past the obnoxious graphics and the fact that much of the content is aimed at staff salesfolk, there is a lot of useful stuff left lying around for the likes of me to pick up. Often it's just reminders of things I learned long ago in sales training with Apple Computer or observations I've made in my own businesses over the years. But known or not, his tips are often good reminders of things I ought to do to improve my ways of doing business as a translator and consultant.

Jeffrey's latest article, "The 95/95 proposition" emphasizes once again the importance of structuring your marketing efforts so customers contact you rather than you spend your time chasing them with cold calls, Dear John mailings, etc. That is a goal that cannot be emphasized enough for people in our business, which is why advice to improve one's online presence is so valuable. It does indeed draw business over time if done right, and having the service requests come to you put you in a better position for negotiation. If your online presence draws only bad requests from cheap time-wasters, take a careful look at it. Statements about "competitive prices" signal a willingness to work for peanuts or sacrifice quality for price. Comments like "Holder of in with top grades" on your home page might not interest a customer who is more interested in sound experience and the quality of your work than what your GPA was 20 years ago.

If you want to catch a certain kind of fish, you have to bait the hook correctly: present the value your ideal customer is looking for and eventually customers of that type will come to you. Like Jeffrey says in his article: there are two 95% selling scenarios. Which one do you want?


  1. Very interesting. I just heard about Sales Caffeine when I was presenting at the Colorado Translators Association last month about -- marketing for translators! While the site's interface and lay-out are a complete mess, there certainly is some great information out there. What I emphasize a lot in my presentations is what you point out, too -- that we need to think of ourselves as business people who are selling products, whether we like that or not, whether it sounds intellectual enough or not. I am a huge believer in highly customized marketing materials and doing extensive research into the customer you are pitching to. There's no one-size-fits-all approach. I also think cold calling is a waste of time -- we always try to find someone to introduce us to a customer we would like to have, which works a lot better.

    Agreed on the rates. We always cringe when folks put in their e-mails that "rates are negotiable". We don't think that's a good strategy, because you are voluntarily and automatically devaluing your services by saying it can be negotiated. We suggest showing pride in our highly professional work. For the record, in our marketing materials, we say that we are the "Porsche of translations" and that if a customer is looking for a low price, that we are not the right vendor. Fair enough, we think.

    And all "Dear sirs" e-mails that we get go directly into the trash. Surely every customer does it as well.

  2. @Jenners: The "Porsche of translation"? Are you sure about this? Feuding families, 9 billion euros in debt, environmentally unsustainable cars..... :-)

    Kevin: The lack of business - incl. selling - skills among translators is legendary. However, my experience is also that the aggressive sales forces of the large agencies are equally ineffective, except perhaps for potential clients who are purely price-driven. My experience is also that outstanding subject area knowledge and a willingness to understand exactly what a client's problems are, coupled with a professional but relaxed negotiating style, beat the high-pressure sales pitches of the big guys hands down, any day of the week. If you market and sell your translation services in the way that other professionals (lawyers, accountants, etc.) market and sell their services, the slick agency sales people mainly come across like, well, slick agency sales people.

  3. I would prefer to be known as the Toyota of translation. Every one of their cars that I've owned has been extraordinarily reliable and a pleasure to drive. Well, except for the driver's seat of my present station wagon: I'm waiting for the car to die so I can replace it, but at 19 years old on crappy German roads (I live in the east), it's still going strong. I'll probably still be driving that car in ten years given Toyota quality.

    Robin: you're on my wavelength with regard to the marketing approach. Agencies which act as supportive consultants to help their clients be more successful are exactly the kind I prefer to work with. These are often specialized in certain fields - "boutique" agencies as one of my friends likes to describe his business. Among the various blogs and newsletters for freelance graphic artists, salespeople, etc. I find a lot of useful reminders of important psychological principles as well as the need to be genuine in one's approach to selling. I've got a pretty strong BS filter to tune out the rah-rah sales pit bull nonsense.


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