Dealing with turnaround time pressure

When language service providers (LSPs) quote projects and ask about deadlines, customers often joke that they need the files yesterday. Translation is frequently an afterthought, and clients rarely allocate the time for their providers to work at a comfortable pace.

With a growing number of jobs arriving as small drops of content that have to be translated and turned around in hours, the standard production model of LSPs is bursting at the seams. It’s time for LSPs to embrace a new approach to project handoffs.

Shrinking project timelines

To investigate the state of quoting practices at language service providers, Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) interviewed 22 LSPs. They were asked about the standard timeline they would quote a client who needs 2,000 words translated into the LSP’s most common language. The quoted turnaround time was the standard timeline without rush fees or added services such as desktop publishing.

Most answers fell in the range of one to two business days. The shortest timelines are tied to early morning approvals — such jobs are often delivered the same day. The survey also revealed some laggards that offer turnaround times as long as five days for such basic projects (see Figure 1).

Impact on business models

From a customer perspective, this data makes it easy to figure out why certain providers may not make the cut on a simple bid, even if their pricing is comparable. LSPs may hide behind their process as the justification for the length of time it takes to complete jobs. However, the problem often isn’t caused by the process. Instead, it is tied to how long a project sits around waiting for the next person to pick up his or her task.

Such delays, combined with email for handoffs and status reporting, are a death sentence for agile projects. Experienced buyers expect LSPs’ business models to support fast delivery times for these small content chunks that are updated continuously. Anxious to meet their clients’ needs, the typical response is to work around the clock to meet the deadlines.

Yet heroics wear out teams. When production teams work chronic overtime to meet client requests, the system is not working. In CSA Research’s survey of project management at LSPs, 11% of project managers have workweeks that last anywhere from 50 to more than 80 hours. We found that some LSPs try to shield themselves from such lifestyles by refusing to budge on client requests to compress timelines.

However, CSA Research does not recommend such rigidity, because in the long run that can hamper an LSP’s ability to grow. Increasingly, clients expect projects to be turned around quickly, and providers must change their business models so they can respond to such requests.

How to cut timelines intelligently

So which techniques do LSPs cite as helpful in reducing turnaround timelines?

Providers typically start by leveraging more complex project management techniques. On large projects, they use multiple linguists. They distribute the work among several translators who are preferably paired with just one editor, with more editors assigned if and when they’re needed. To reduce inconsistencies, providers deploy cloud-based translation memory tools that enable real-time collaboration regardless of the participants’ locations. They also stagger deliverables. A translator delivers completed work at the end of each day so that the subsequent person in line can start the next step before all files are completed. This method divides the waterfall approach into smaller, manageable project chunks.

Next, providers reduce word counts. Using advanced translation memory features, LSPs can minimize the amount of effort required, which in turn speeds up the project completion. Such techniques may include locking some segments or exporting repeated text to translate it ahead of the full set of files.

Some LSPs also reported skipping steps. In tightly compressed timelines, they may not have the luxury of performing all their standard process steps. For example, they may assign a premium translator to the job and skip editing by a second person altogether. By doing so, they deliver a level of quality equivalent to using two linguists of a more average caliber.

More advanced LSPs adopt a follow-the-sun approach. Being able to service translation clients continuously is becoming a major differentiator for LSPs aiming to sell to multinational companies, businesses with high volumes of rush projects, and organizations that follow the agile methodology. LSPs with global operations are able to leverage the time difference to always keep projects moving. A project submitted at the end of the day may be completed by well-spread-out locations before the client comes online in the morning.

However, the most important way to decrease timelines is automation. Many providers now use translation management systems to manage files and push them to the next participant with no manual intervention. Content connectors or application programming interfaces that pull the text straight from the content management system and push it right back in place are less work-intensive for the customer. Software-driven quality assurance enables LSPs to spot check quality as opposed to doing line-by-line reviews. And of course, machine translation can accelerate turnaround times for the right kind of projects.

Ultimately, LSPs have to remove waste in the process. Projects that sit around waiting for the next contributor to start his or her task take longer than they need to. By removing that dead time, LSPs can run a leaner organization. To achieve a high level of efficiency, they strive toward a greater reliance on lights-out project management technology in which software handles the project from quoting to invoicing without human intervention. People are freed up to do the work where a human touch is most important. The most tech-savvy systems from LSPs using artificial intelligence can even make reasonable timeline predictions based on actual resource availability. They can forecast whether project timelines can be compressed and determine by how much.

Rush fees or no rush fees?

Timeline compression represents a good source of revenue and better profit for many providers. Staffing, technology and follow-the-sun approaches require significant investment. Given these initiatives, the next logical question is whether LSPs should charge rush fees.

CSA Research’s interviews found that many LSPs do not add a surcharge for fast-turnaround work. They say that either they can do it for the price or decline, saying that they can’t do the job. Smaller vendors that subcontract for other LSPs stated that you need to be one of the big players or have some business leverage to get away with rush fees. An interview summed it up, “If the project is possible, then it gets the normal rate. If it’s not possible, then it’s not possible.”