Trust in the time of translation

Those of us in the language services business can easily forget that our job depends on solving a client’s problems. And who can blame us? We’re caught up in a whirlwind of diverse responsibilities. However, we lose sight of the client at our peril. The client cares not about our hectic work dynamic; our overburdened calendar gives us no free pass for sloppiness. The client cares only about getting the results they need. Generally, that means getting some sort of translation, interpretation or localization outcome. They need to achieve that outcome while experiencing the least possible amount of hassle. When they come to believe that our company can hand that experience to them, they start to experience trust. And trust is the most important aspect of the client-provider relationship. With it, long-term success is a lock. Without it, well, good luck.

I now have 12 years of language services experience behind me. For the past six years, I served as an operations director. I’ve seen it all. Every type of client. Every type of project. Every conceivable request from a client. My client-first perspective results from the distillation of these 12 years of in-the-trenches provisioning of language services to corporate America (and, to a lesser extent, international interests). When I talk about the importance of trust, I know what I’m talking about.

The ephemeral nature of trust

Clients don’t care about the latest and greatest process, software solution or service. Their eyes glaze over during presentations of our credentials, our 21 years in business, our sector-specific focus. While we regale them with our achievements, they have one question in their minds: can this company make me look good to my boss? Or, if we’re speaking to the boss of all bosses, they’re wondering whether we can help their bottom line while giving them one less thing to fret over. Regardless of their position in the company, they want to know if they can trust us.

If they decide that they can trust us, the rest is a given. Sure, prices must fall within an acceptable range. Et cetera. Outside of some major anomaly on our part, however, we have their business. Until and unless we break their trust. Which we try very hard not to do, and which we usually succeed in not doing. Trust, you see, takes effort to build yet can break in an instant.

When a client trusts a service provider, that trust contains several sub-trusts. They go something like the following:

  • I trust that this provider has the acuity and experience to understand my pain points.
  • I trust that this provider has the competency to execute on the project.
  • I trust that this provider has my best interest at heart.

The last one is the most important of all. True, the provider must understand the client’s need and have the capacity to solve it. Which a lot of LSPs have, and can do. But in a capitalistic world with the profit motive as the driver of the entire system, trusting a provider’s core commitment is a rare experience indeed. However, on the side of the provider, establishing such trust depends not on some altruistic bent, but rather on a longer horizon of selfishness: focusing on profit alone may pay off in the short term, but is hardly a long-term success strategy. We’ve been here 21 years, and hope to be thriving 21 years from now, 21 years after that and so on. The only way to achieve that is through taking care of the client and looking out for their best interests. In the case of our company, this approach has achieved for us a 98% client retention rate. The long-term approach pays off, but only over the long term.

How to establish trust

I can offer no template, no recipe — just a few anecdotes and some vague suggestions. Trust is not a cake. It’s more like a poem in its fuzzy weirdness. However, clear demonstrations of your client-first emphasis (which, needless to say, you first must possess) go a long way.

One sure way to demonstrate this: saving the client money even at the expense of one’s own revenues. I’ve recommended clients not translate certain aspects of a website, which I deemed unnecessary to render multilingual in the context of the client’s overall objectives. Even though these suggestions resulted in less revenue for our company, the client remembered them. At large interpretation events, I’ve pointed out ways for the client to use equipment in a more efficient way, enabling them to rent fewer units from us. Again, lower revenues but higher trust. And, naturally, I’ve had to execute the projects flawlessly as well. It’s not enough for me to save them a few hundred dollars but botch a major aspect of the delivery. Neither is in sufficient to deliver without incident — this is a baseline expectation that does not particularly distinguish us from our competitors. We must demonstrate our client-first mentality and our professional capability.

Flexibility, also, has been key. The client usually has their own system, procedure, or preference. Unexpected twists are practically de rigeuer (especially for large interpretation projects). They may need us to work with their obscure software system for translation memory management. Add to the work scope in the proverbial eleventh hour. And so on. When a client sees willingness to go above and beyond to accommodate them — trust.

Proactivity builds trust as well. Delivering the deliverables is expected. But looking beyond to make recommendations that have nothing to do with your contract, or are tangential to it — that’s rare. For example, a particular aerospace client did not realize that their translation memory had become corrupted (their internal management resource had not bothered to keep it updated). Though they had merely contracted US Translation Company to translate a service manual, I recommended that they allow me to restore the translation memory. Doing so, I pointed out, would offer huge savings on future translations. They agreed, glad that I had caught the issue.

If a client trusts you, their recommendation carries a lot of weight for other potential clients who trust them. Unfortunately, few clients will blab about your awesomeness to sufficient numbers of other businesspeople to gain you the clientele you seek. However, a testimonial from said satisfied client works as second-tier word of mouth. If I’m a multinational looking for an LSP, and I see a testimonial from a firm similar to mine, I already want to trust the LSP featured in the testimonial. I’m hoping that the testimonial is legitimate, and that I will have the same experience with that provider. Looking for good vendors, after all, is yet another to-do, and I’m eager to have the search come to an end.

Ultimately, you build trust when you put yourself in the client’s shoes. What would you expect from an LSP? What would impress you? What would thrill you? It’s worth studying, investing time and research into. Because, though not an exact science, trust pays handsome dividends.

Kathy Sprouse
Kathy Sprouse is director of operations for U.S. Translation Company, a localization firm focused on US-based multinationals in the life sciences, manufacturing and government contract sectors.


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