I arrived in this industry ten years ago fresh from a global bank and fully expected my newly minted company to sit here in rural Oxfordshire, serving clients from every corner of the earth. So we engaged the services of a Texas-based public relations firm, identified translators from every continent, I racked up the air miles and waited for those exotic clients from foreign lands to beat down our door and our e-mail inboxes. But as we sit here celebrating ten successful years in business in 2013, I reflect that the core of our business is still in our domestic market.
Of course, we serve many clients in the United States and Europe, but in many instances, the origins of these relationships were via contacts here in the United Kingdom. It seems that we are not unusual in this regard — according to Common Sense Advisory, geographic location is the third most important factor for translation buyers, after price and speed. So why is this manifestly global business so often still purchased locally?
Really, it’s all about relationships. Even in this digital age of e-mail, video conferencing and telecommunications, you still cannot beat face-to-face interactions. Locally sourced translation is a consequence of needs and pressures on both sides of the client-vendor relationship.
From the client side, we need to understand the real trust needed in selecting a translation supplier. I know it’s a business cliché and that trust is required in all business relationships, but this need is heightened by us sending completed materials back to our clients that they often have no way of validating until after it leaves their inbox. Put another way, how are they able to assess whether the Japanese translation of their website we have just completed is of the correct quality and what they wanted, until it is validated by a Japanese speaker, likely a country manager in their own organization? Most of the clients we deal with — the people, not the companies — are in large corporations, fighting for influence, driven by time and budget pressures. Their reputation is on the line as well as ours. It’s much more comforting to be dealing with the business you see, local to you, faces you know who can be on your doorstep if a problem needs to be solved. I am talking here about the individuals who manage the projects day to day from the client side and not necessarily procurement or purchasing professionals.
Throw into the mix the inconveniences of time zones, different currencies and clashing national holidays and there is a temptation to stay local. But even among the smallest of language service providers (LSPs) there is now the ability to flex the service offering to meet clients’ needs wherever they are in the world.
The natural inclination, therefore, is for clients to go local and that is mirrored on the vendor side. I am aware that there are schools of thought that consider relationship selling to be dead. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. For me, with either existing or new clients, localization is still a consultative sell whether this is with expert or inexpert buyers. It is necessary in building the relationship to get underneath the skin of the particular client’s localization challenge by understanding specific needs, providing insights, challenging norms and suggesting solutions.
This is particularly important for LSPs. We are constantly competing for large volumes of business with some much larger competitors. So we win our business by being light on our feet, more competitive, more innovative, more flexible and quicker to react. It is only possible to present those attributes with people with whom you have a solid relationship based on trust.
If we accept this premise, the rest is down to economics. It’s less costly in terms of expense and time to manage local clients rather than international ones. Conversis generates around 50% of its income from our domestic market. The other 50% of the revenue is split equally from our clients in the United States and mainland Europe. Consequently, I spend around a third of my working life traveling to these destinations, not to mention the trips made by other members of the team. It works for us, but takes some business and personal commitment and I can understand the temptation to stay local. The alternative to this relationship style would mean supporting the drift toward commoditization of translation services. Personally, I think there is a place for commoditizing some of what we do — price competition for words at its purest. But without the human element it becomes the default setting and clearly there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. It depends on what the assets are, who the consumers are and what the purpose of the communication is. It’s this diversity that makes the need for consulting and exploring best practice and the best approach so important.
Of course, what works for one LSP doesn’t necessarily work for other LSPs. Our company tends toward the external communications end of the market, so typically we deal with large multinational corporations and have multiple and multilayered relationships within that corporation. I therefore consider effective relationship management to be a core competency of the business.
This is all well and good with clients we already hold. But what about winning new ones? I calculated, on average, that it takes 20 interactions to win a new client, with three of those being face-to-face. These interactions typically take place over many months and in some cases years. It takes real commitment and often leaps of faith to stick with this level of activity over a period of time when there is no guarantee of success. This is so much easier if that client is less than 100 miles away!
Another area in which we may differ is our lack of international offices. At the risk of being provocative, I have a sign in my office that says “keep it real.” This is not me trying to be cool (that ship sailed many years ago) but that I want my business to have a “what you see is what you get” approach to our clients and prospects. Virtual offices where we pretend to occupy geography just for appearance’s sake are not for us. So we want to develop international offices when and where it makes economic sense to have a proper presence and there is a real demonstrable benefit for our clients.
In the meantime, I and some of the team will continue to be British Airways’, American Airlines’ and Lufthansa’s favorite people. We consider our physical presence at our clients’ place of work, interacting with them and their colleagues, a critical part of what we do whether they are domestic or international clients. So accepting that there is at least a perception that local is easier on both sides of the supply chain, I also think that there may be more subtle forces at work here. We all spend our lives linguistically and culturally adapting communication assets for our clients. Clearly, if there is a monolingual Korean client who wants localization services, Conversis is not the supplier for them, as I have no Korean speakers on staff.
So even in the language services industry, in some instances language is occasionally a barrier. But interestingly, I believe that cultural preferences are also a barrier. There is not the space in this article to do justice to the works of cultural academics and commentators, but suffice it to say, the dynamics that affect our clients also affect the localization industry. Clearly, there are obvious differences in Eastern and Western cultures, but also more subtle ones among Americans, British, Scandinavians, Germans, French and so on. As human beings our temptation is to migrate to that which is familiar and comfortable. This means communications that are styled in a way that is suitable to our upbringing, experiences and preferences. That guy in the next town seems a lot like me; I like him!
We continue to strive to be relevant and attractive to buyers on the international stage. On a personal level, I will continue to rack up the air miles. Often this is in the hope rather than expectation of winning a new client. The long lead-in times mean that the commitment needs to be there in a situation where, ultimately, they will either deal with you or not and only through this courting period will you find whether there is a match that will lead to a mutually rewarding relationship. But in doing this we will not forget the opportunities that present themselves on our doorstep, whether they are local offices of multinational enterprises or domestic companies looking to break into foreign markets. Sometimes easiest is also best. This is the challenge that faces all small and medium LSPs. In the end, it depends on your ambitions and the way you want to do business. In reality, there should be no barriers that cannot be overcome for LSPs to sell internationally or for clients to buy out of their domestic market. But, as always, the decision will come down to a balance of factors and often the geography is a heavily weighted one.