Oliver Lawrence – Efficiency in Italian

Oliver Lawrence is a Chartered Linguist translating from Italian to English – specialising in tourism, marketing copy, transcreation and contracts – and a regular presenter with eCPD Webinars, in particular with the course Clear Writing, Clear Benefits.

How did you get started in freelance translation?

The school curriculum conspired to leave me with just one modern language at age 15. Maths and science ganged up on it, and I ended up with a degree in maths and a job in software. Feeling a bit stuck, I returned to languages in my spare time a few years later, grasshoppering from Estonian via Basque to Swahili and, eventually, Italian, with which I persisted right through to the DipTrans preparatory course at City University.

I can make this work, I thought, armed with my 2 distinctions and a merit. So I registered on ProZ, bid for some jobs, and quickly gathered a full work schedule and some regular clients. One or two of them are still with me, even though my rates have since gradually eased upwards.

What have you done to increase your rates over time?

I started out with the low-ish rates on ProZ and increased them every year or so when my schedule filled out; my minimum has roughly doubled in 6 years. I normally charge more to new clients and then gradually raise prices to my regulars when I am confident that I’d still be OK even if their volume reduced.

For translation, I charge per word/page. For editing, proofreading and transcreation, I usually work per hour, although this is not always possible, as some new clients are understandably wary of what they perceive as an open-ended quote. So I sometimes go with an hourly rate plus cap.

I am now focusing mainly on marketing to direct clients, as I seem to have gone as high as virtually all Italian agencies will stand.

I believe that pricing based on value is the way to go, but convincing clients of the real benefits to them of a skilfully crafted translation can be challenging.

What has been the single most effective sales strategy you've used?

Responding quickly to requests (seizing the opportunity before the client looks elsewhere), providing a reliable, high-quality service (encouraging repeat business), and cultivating an image of excellence and professional service in the way I deal with clients. Also, having a very clear idea of what my minimum rate would be for a given job, and walking away (increasingly quickly, these days) when it is not achievable.

Do you have a favourite 'type' of client?

Clients in my target specialist sectors. And, in general, those who are pleasant to deal with, reliable payers, and ‘low maintenance’ (responsive, quick at negotiating orders and answering queries, and ready to provide all necessary materials at the outset).

What was your most successful project ever, and why?

I wouldn’t single out any particular one. A successful project might mean an enjoyable text (e.g. my guidebooks on Venice and Verona), pride in the quality of the result, a highly satisfied client, a good effective hourly rate, a high-profile addition to the CV (e.g. the information panels for the exhibition “Numbers, everything that counts” at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome), and probably other factors.

Do you ever negotiate on rates?

I have a minimum below which I won’t ever go. I have a higher minimum for new clients, with a further mark-up for direct clients. If I like the look of things, then I might be prepared to agree a lower figure. But it has to be negotiation, not just beating down.

I seldom give discounts; on the contrary, I charge premiums for dodgy formats, weekend work, long payment terms, rush jobs, etc. That said, I’m reluctant to accept aggressive deadlines – partly because I don’t enjoy them and partly because they represent a higher risk (of error and subsequent liability, especially if the agency is tempted to cut corners on the proofreading).

There are not always as many opportunities for negotiation as one might like. The vast majority of the sales enquiries I receive are via email, so I can’t read the customer’s “body language” to see if they think my quoted rate is high but might still be acceptable if they could negotiate it down a bit – basically, you often send a quote and then never hear from the prospect again.

What would you ideally invest in next in order to grow your business?

I have my website up and running now, so I want to exploit that to the full. I am investing in developing some advanced copywriting skills to add even more value to my clients. Continuing to learn about my specialisms is important, too. And I am working on some more persuasive sales approaches.

Which tools have most impacted your profitability?

Too many to mention. Time is money, so little ways to squeeze more productive hours out of a day can help: e.g. a simple stopwatch app to monitor my time; Word macros for various tasks; auto-complete software to speed up typing; the CAT tool, of course, to automate certain tasks (and to get your foot in the door at the agencies that insist you have one).

I intend to implement a well-known speech-recognition program when I next upgrade my computer, in the hope that this will increase my productivity and profitability.

Do you have any advice for others looking to raise their rates?

Having started and nurtured my business during a recession, I have taken the prudent approach of raising rates only when my schedule was already full. Be aware that, for some clients, your current rate may already be the maximum that they are prepared to pay, so even a slight increase may be enough to drive them away for good (this has happened to me more than once). Others may go away then come back later at reduced volumes.

The most effective way to raise rates is probably to find new clients. Be continually looking for fresh opportunities with people who value quality, especially direct clients, to replace those at the bottom end of your price bracket.

[Interview updated 17/12/2014]

Thanks for reading. I do translation from French and Swedish to English, so if that's useful to you, feel free to connect and message me on LinkedIn or Twitter.