To be or not to be an RLV, for CEE or the wider world

Organic growth is a beautiful thing — although I do remember someone at one of the LocWorld conferences trying hard to convince me that I’m absolutely wrong and that it’s totally the opposite. You start as a freelancer and when things start to develop to the point where you cannot manage all the incoming projects, you find yourself setting up a team or a single language vendor (SLV) company to cover your clients’ needs. If things are further going the way you planned, meaning you develop successful relationships with your clients and you reach your goals, then your satisfied clients may start asking you not only for the target language of your core focus they’ve been ordering so far, be it Polish, Czech, Hungarian and so on, but also for other languages.

The temptation is as high as the risk. On the one hand, you want to meet your clients’ requirements. On the other hand, you may not actually be prepared in terms of know-how, resources or processes. For some time you’ve seen it coming, but you kept your focus on your single target language, as this was the most honest way to deal with yourself and your clients. Businesswise, your whole company image is built around your expertise in that one particular language. This is similar to the way you build your credibility around certain fields of expertise, such as IT, audio/video, automotive, medical and security systems, to name only a few. You’ve marketed yourself based on this specialized, targeted knowledge.

If you switch to offering more languages, you would to some extent be denying what you said before — such as that an SLV is a better choice for clients than a multilanguage vendor (MLV). Now you may be saying the opposite: that an SLV is a really great choice, but in certain situations a regional language vendor (RLV) may be better. Or even worse — that for some customers an MLV is the optimum scenario. Well, to be honest, all of the above is true. For an MLV, an SLV may be an equally good choice as an RLV, and vice versa. Moreover, in some situations it’s good for an MLV to choose another MLV. It all depends on many factors. Each project is different, just like each client is different.

To the point, though: to be or not to be an RLV? There is no easy answer. First of all, because sooner or later you will face the same dilemma but on a higher level: to move from an RLV model to an MLV model? And this question will be the root of the same storm in your head that the SLV vs. RLV dilemma triggered. Not long ago, I spoke with a CEO of one of the leading European MLV language service providers. We were discussing different topics in general, but the discussion went a direction I didn’t quite expect. When he was asking me certain questions regarding what the work of an SLV looks like, I thought that he just wanted to know how we work, to see if we would be a good fit for his company’s requirements as a subcontractor. But actually that was not the case. He told me: “I want to set up an in-house team of translators for Dutch and act as an SLV for Dutch.” My first reaction was, “But you are an MLV already. You cannot be an MLV and an RLV at the same time.” We had a great chat and some good laughs over that really important matter and then it occurred to me how simple but smart that solution was. It was fair to the potential SLV clients and actually gave some of them an added value (some of the clients think the in-house resources can be controlled more effectively, but that’s the topic for another long article), and, at the same time, allowed the company to keep its credibility across both SLV and MLV profiles. It’s even more interesting if you notice that the situation was kind of reversed — the company was not “upgrading” but “downgrading,” or perhaps it’s better to call it “sidegrading” — after all, they didn’t want to quit their MLV operations.

That example shows that what really matters is flexibility, but most of all integrity. You need to stick to what you do well and keep it as the main line of your translation/localization business. But you should also listen to your clients and react to their changing needs. Adapt or die, as they say. There’s even more to it: you can be proactive, as well. If you know now that sooner or later your SLV business will face the dilemma of becoming or not becoming an RLV, you may start preparing for that. Begin to gather knowledge and know-how, and source linguists for those additional languages. You don’t need to announce it to the whole world — “We have officially turned into an RLV.” Just prepare and see what happens.

In the worst case scenario, you will end up with more valuable knowledge and an expanded database of qualified resources for Central Eastern European, Nordic, Baltic or any other regional language groups. And when the clients start asking “Look, you do so well with Polish for us, do you think you could manage Czech and Slovak as well?” then you will have everything in place. Of course, the situation may become a bit tricky when the client asks “But wait, can you promise me that the quality of the new languages will be at least as good as the quality of your main language?” There’s always a risk of losing a client this way (it’s actually the first thing that comes to mind when analyzing the consequences of such changes). But one important part of our business as a language service provider is talking to clients and educating them. I’m not talking about hard-selling or promising the moon. I’m talking about explaining the benefits of this solution in the context of the client’s needs. It can be done without any quality bargains, company rebranding, fundamental activity profile changes and so on. And of course, last but not least, you can always say “We are sorry, but our core target language is Polish (or Latvian, Swedish or any other language you like) and we wouldn’t be able to provide you the level of service you expect with the languages you are asking for. However, as we value our relationship, we will make every effort to build the team you need and get back to you with the results for your approval. We will start with the new language combinations as soon as we both agree we are ready.” And there will be nothing wrong with that. Actually, you may get extra points in the client’s ranking for being honest and professional.

The major challenges entail keeping your credibility and keeping the level of service and quality that you have provided for your core single language. Your website may clearly sell itself to project or vendor managers who have the experience that “other vendors are good in some languages and not others, although they claim to be great at them all” or that “a vendor that’s big is no guarantee that the work delivered will be any good.” Maybe because of this, clients choose you, a smaller vendor specialized in one or two languages, keen to have the business and give excellent service. You need to deliver on your promises and their expectations. If you add the second, third, fourth or even fifth language, you need to be sure that your service is on the same level it’s been so far. Otherwise, you will lose your client, even for a core language they are happy with. In order to achieve this, you need to make sure your current processes, both for sourcing providers and for production, give equally good results as for the single language you have provided so far. That may mean the changes to those processes for one or even all new languages that will make you an RLV. As we all rely on the quality of our vendors, we need to know that we have access to quality resources. If you are not able to source the providers that will meet the requirements you and your clients set, stick to what you do well, as there is a high chance that you will overdo it. In certain Central and Eastern European languages, for example, there may be a limited to very narrow qualified freelance translator pool. Analyze the pros and cons, both for your business as well as for your customers. Make an informed decision. Prepare a good transition plan. Observe and tweak. Adapt to actual results and requirements. In an ideal world, you would have time for this, but business is being done globally 24/7 and the clients may not be ready to wait until you reach a certain level with your new languages. Take this into consideration before you commence changes.

So, to become an RLV or not actually remains an open question. It all boils down to two things: whether it is what you intended your business to become and whether your clients need that. The most fundamental thing in this is integrity: be open with your clients and discuss these issues with them. As long as your customers know what you are doing (and of course, you need to know what you are doing yourself) and you are prepared for the next step, the answer is definitely “Yes.” You can build on your SLV reputation and, at the same time, be responsive to the client’s changing needs by covering not only the single language you have provided them with so far, but by expanding your pool of target languages to the other languages of your region. As you gain experience, you will be able to use that new expertise with the new clients as well. That process doesn’t need to be an abrupt change of your business profile and doesn’t need to mean denying everything your business really is and what it’s been known for, namely being an SLV. Instead, it should be more like building and growing your know-how and resources with one goal in mind: staying in pace with your current and potential clients’ requirements. After all, what’s better than keeping your existing clients happy, your potential clients impressed and your business relying on its long-term foundation but growing at the same time? Remain an SLV and become an RLV when the opportunity is there. But on one condition: be thoroughly prepared. You’ve resolved the dilemma. Are you ready for the next step?