There’s an old adage that no one gets fired for hiring IBM. But does this adage transfer conceptually to the selection of a translation service provider? I think not. When choosing a vendor, size matters, and bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially for smaller customers.

I recall an incident that happened during my tenure on the buyer side of the translation industry. I sent out a request for a quote to three or four vendors. The sizes of the vendors varied. The smaller ones got back to me within a few days, but one of the large ones didn’t.

I called the sales rep to ask why no quote had arrived. She told me that she was very sorry, but Microsoft had been visiting their office for a week, so they couldn’t attend to my business. Granted, this wasn’t a very smart thing for that sales rep to say; however, it illustrates my point. Our potential expenditure simply couldn’t compete for attention when compared to the vendor’s expectations raised by the Microsoft visit. While I understand that vendor’s point of view, my understanding didn’t help me solve my problem.

Now, wearing my consultant hat, I am in the position of advising a client who is thinking of switching from their current vendor to another. This client’s yearly expenditure is small. Yet, they are in a niche field that requires a good deal of subject-matter expertise. They also have very high linguistic standards and service expectations that they wish their new vendor to uphold.

I don’t doubt that larger vendors have sufficient reach within the linguist pool to provide the prerequisite subject-matter expertise. But can I, in good conscience, suggest larger vendors? I fear that my client’s expenditure will garner only minimal attention, possibly receive second-string project management, and suffer from an unsatisfactory service ethic.

I’ve spoken with several mid-sized vendors about this client already. Two have told me that my client’s yearly spend is too small for them. I appreciate this honesty. Less scrupulous sales reps would promise first-class service. They would then pass the account off to production where it could get lost in the ongoing triage of projects that compete for scarce linguistic resources.

This risk is real. Vendors exist to be profitable. They have certain fixed costs that don’t vary much with job size. The cost of setting up a project of 200,000 words is not much different than one of 10,000 words. The contribution margin yielded by translating words must cover these costs. The fewer words translated, the worse coverage of the fixed costs and, therefore, the smaller the profitability. Economy of scale does not apply.

Client Evaluation Criteria

During my research, I asked a solution architect from a mid-sized vendor what criteria his company uses when evaluating potential new clients. His answers were illuminating. Although his company targets customers with a budgeted localization spend of over one million dollars per year, they look for other criteria, as well. Here are some of the points he raised:

• If the prospect’s current expenditure is low, what is the potential for future growth in translation requirements?
• What target audiences do the localized products or documents serve?
• Why does the prospect want to localize?
• What is the prospect’s attitude towards teamwork with suppliers?
• How important is customer service to the prospect?
• Does the prospect’s outreach appear to be honest?
• Does the envisioned vendor-client relationship demonstrate potential to become long term?

These questions made it clear to me that this vendor seeks customers who want to work together with their vendors over the long term to achieve a mutually beneficial relationship. The vendor prioritizes prospects who will stick around through the inevitable learning curve and, hopefully, an occasional belly flop. They also want prospects who exhibit understanding of their own translation mission, and who want to learn from their own mistakes and the corrective expertise that the vendor can provide.

Unfortunately, clients with small spends are frequently also inexperienced. Vendors of any size are hesitant to take on customers who throw chaos over the wall at them and then expect superior results yesterday. My client must convince potential vendors that they possess willingness to listen and learn. My client must also demonstrate desire to stick with their chosen vendor after the learning curve, when work for them becomes more profitable for the LSP.

I wish that this solution architect’s company would service my client. Unfortunately, despite potentially positive answers to all the questions, my client’s current and future expenditure may simply not make the cut.

Appealing to a Mid-sized or Large vendor

There may be some mitigating factors that could capture the attention of larger or mid-sized vendors. Many large customers are secretive about their translation suppliers. My small-spending client has definitive global cachet. They could be an ideal reference client for the LSP’s marketing efforts. Reference content can be in the form of a case study, a conference copresentation, or a good word put in with another of the LSP’s prospects in a similar industry. In short, they have the potential to make any LSP look good by association.

Another way to appeal to a midsize (or even large) vendor is to show an understanding of how the translation business works. My client can do this by offering to pay a bit more on the project management fees for the first couple of projects. Doing so might catch the attention of a desirable vendor that will establish a close partnership with my client.

Going Small

What option does this leave me in my role as consultant? I care about the client, and I want their localization efforts to be successful from every point of view. I find it difficult to envision this prospect getting the attention that they desire from a large vendor, so perhaps the best option is to go small.

Let’s assume that my client is on board with the notion of going small. I must find them a single-language vendor that has access to the needed subject-matter experts. Ideally, the budgeted expenditure forms a significant portion of revenue for the vendor. That vendor must also be able to provide excellent and timely customer service in English. This criterion holds even if their production center is in a target-language country that is on the other side of the world. This is no small criterion for a small vendor to meet, but there are some that do so.

Additionally, the customer can leverage the time zone difference to their advantage. Requests submitted at the end of the North American day arrive at the beginning of the work day in many target-language countries. Responses typically return by the beginning of the following North American workday. If this service level is acceptable, and the linguistic expertise fits the requirements, there might be a match.

In the End

To hedge my bets, I’ll certainly make my client aware of who the big localization players are. Perhaps they’ll choose to go with one of them. I’ll also suggest vendors in other size categories and tell them that, if I were the buyer, I’d look hard at the notion of going small. Being a Very Important Customer at a small, single-language provider, especially one that has been around for a few years, may serve their interests better.

I propose a different adage. Being a big fish in a little pond is sometimes really useful, and people seldom get fired for delivering great results.

Richard Sikes