One of the adjectives I hear the most often when negotiating with new prospective clients or reading job descriptions or recruitment ads on the Internet is 'competitive'. Its goal is presumably to invoke associations with difficult market play in order to justify somewhat lacklustre rates offered by agencies or set the right mood for 'negotiation' of rates offered by translators. Just for the record, 'negotiating' basically means one thing, since you don't negotiate with someone you want to compensate on top of what he quoted.
'Competitive' also contains the hint for translators that not only should they understand the pressure agencies are force to deal with from clients, but also that they, translators, should compete among themselves on the agencies' own rosters of external translators.
We could say many things in this connection and explore a good number of different angles, but today I wanted to focus on one thing: competition works the other way round, too.
A translator may not even be aware that agencies and clients are actually competing for him, thinking instead that he's merely accepting or not accepting jobs as his skills and his calendar allow. To that translator I want to propose a new, different perspective: yes, they are competing for you.
To the Project Manager or translation business manager I want to propose a new perspective as well: you are not only competing for the client, you're also competing for the translator. Let's discuss this a bit more candidly. In fact, I'll be rather frank in the writing that follows. But everything in due order, and I'll try to start easy.
Even those among us who are new to the business, whether as PMs or translators, are familiar with the situation when a job simply can't be taken for objective, absolute reasons. The case of a specific specialised field, or language pair, is usually pretty straightforward: it either can or can't be done, just like you can't multiply time.
On the other hand, a full calendar also means that the translator is loaded full with jobs. And that means he can choose or even, in fact, has already been choosing. It perhaps won't hurt to mention that, after all, a translator's time (which enables the use of his skills) is a limited resource.
Consequently, he may want to sell it to the highest bidder just like a client or PM can assign a job to the lowest. He doesn't even need to put up an auction; chances are the bidders are already coming to him, whether he actually identifies them as being such or not.
To some extent, also, rather than comparing jobs to each other, the translator may be comparing a single potential assignment to the alternative of enjoying a peaceful weekend or a slower-paced day. In some other cases, the translator may find himself choosing between what's lying right there in front of him and the more or less uncertain future opportunities.
Neither PMs nor translators themselves should think that translators just simply take on all jobs they are competent enough to do until their calendar is full and they need to start refusing any subsequent inquiries simply due to a lack of time in which to translate – for a static pay and on static conditions. Choosing is involved. Even pretty desperate translators choose. Else, when did you last do full 'TEP' for $0.01 a word?
I will now provide a brief overview of some of the most popular factors that matter in the choosing. If you represent a translation agency, I'll take the liberty to say that it would be in your best interest to keep reading, as I take them right from the forums where translators share their experience and vent their frustrations.
Even if we include full calendars and unfamiliar subject areas in the contest, low rates are probably still the most frequent reason why translators decline potential jobs. This is just like a client can keep walking if the price is too high. (And just like you, dear PM, may and often will one day walk and start your own agency if your share in the mark-up is not satisfactory.)
After low rates, the second most important reason why certain outsourcers are avoided is irregular payment or regular payment squabbles (which is the most frequently cited reason for a low LWA on the BlueBoard, and yes, we check the record), perhaps on par with long payment deadlines that are requested openly and in advance. Do PMs think most translators would accept 60 or even 45 days if they had a choice? (What if you had to wait two months for your salary?)
Speaking of contracts, though. If you are a PM and your agency uses a long and complicated standard contract (to be initialled on every page, scanned manually and sent to your address), a complex online registration system and a couple of other requirements and processes like that, how many translators have recently indicated their displeasure with the formalities involved in establishing collaboration with your company or even unwillingness to jump through the hoops?
Actually, does the company's processing of individual jobs resemble the obstacle course of 'vendor' recruitment? What do you think will happen when the same translator receives an offer at the same rates, or even slightly less than you are paying him, but without needing to tread the same arduous path? (How much love do you have for ISO paperwork and translation procurement procedures?)
But enough of the examples. The bottom line is that agencies compete not only for clients, and not only translators compete for work from agencies. Quite the contrary, PMs and agencies compete for translators, whether either side realises it or not. In fact, just like downtrodden translators, some agencies also need to realise that clients too are competing for them or could be made to. (Especially those agencies which pit inexperienced staff against veterans of business negotiation.)
Outsourcers, however, are particularly in need of realising that, in the long run, being 'competitive' only on the agency-client front but not on the agency-translator one will not work. Caving in to client pressure and devolving the consequences of it on translators will make sure that only translators who have no better choice will take jobs from the agency.
In a vicious cycle, the above will continue to fuel and justify the end clients' demands for larger and larger discounts or more and more 'added value' becoming standard value (e.g. additional services or options with no additional payment), since the intrinsic value of translation is apparently so little and the service so unreliable. Worse and worse translators will be recruited, or, at best, the same translators will be able to spend less time on individual jobs if they are to feed their families.
If you are a translator and you do in fact think that you have to be 'competitive' the way it is sometimes expected and accept it as the 'new normal', think again. Think what happened when you last had your calendar full or couldn't take a job outside your scope of knowledge. The same can happen if you refuse due to the rates or conditions offered with the job. We don't know if it will, but we know it certainly won't if you don't try.
Perhaps next week (the first of September 2013) I will write about how I choose jobs.