The word “boutique” has become a business cliché: everything you see is “boutique”, or “elite” or “upscale”. But what distinguishes the highest echelon of translation and “interpretation companies?
We can identify these 9 characteristics.
- There are only a few who truly qualify: any market is like a pyramid with “ambulance chasers” at the bottom and true professionals at the top; the latter treat their trade as their true calling and not a quick way to make money or satisfy appetites of their shareholders. These people and companies are few, but they are, indeed, worth working with, because you will be getting benefits of their years of experience and knowledge, and will receive, just like in an old fashioned tailor shop, a completely custom made result that will make your conference event a success. They are not necessarily the largest or the most known companies: just like some interpreters do not need to advertise, a lot of clients come to them from referrals.
- Run by professional interpreters and not middlemen: they may be interpreters with years of experience or a Master’s Degree from a prestigious interpretation school. In any instance, they have a unique “insider” perspective that allows them to account for the needs of both their clients and their interpreters. They can do the job themselves, and not just manage others.
- Hiring top 20% of best interpreters: a translation company is only as good as its interpreters and translators. We need to remember that the overwhelming majority of conference interpreters are freelancers, they can be busy for 2-3 months in advance and work for major US and international organizations. We are talking about crème de la crème here: they provide truly impeccable quality over a variety of topics and fields of expertise for world known clients and personalities. They have been honing their skills for decades and, in a way, any client would be lucky to get them. Downside: they need to be booked well in advance and they are expensive. You may need to bring them from out of town. They require a cancellation fee in their contract. All that may increase the final price tag significantly, however, we are also talking about clients who want such elite services and for whom guaranteed quality is more important than the cost of an extra airplane ticket or a hotel room.
- They are not on the mass market: the problem here is that most translation companies are in one way or another involved in bidding wars: the lowest bidder wins by default. Because any company would like to maintain a reasonable profit margin, the only way to handle the conundrum is to hire less expensive interpreters, which, per se, may be OK, but may still compromise quality. Sometimes mass market companies offer the price so low, that they cannot deliver. In other words, from guaranteed quality, we enter to category of “hit and miss” when the client may get lucky and get decent interpreters or may not. Elite interpretation companies do not play such games: they will offer you “A List” interpreters first, they will let you know if qualified interpreters are not available for your event, and will not sell you the first name from a telephone book.
- That is why such boutique companies do not accept every customer either: only when you start working with a variety of random clients, you realize how different clients’ needs, indeed, are. Some want “quick and dirty”, some do not understand – and, more importantly, do not want to understand – the value good interpreters will bring to their event. They just need talking heads, or think that “my dog can do it.” The relationship between an interpretation company and its client is that of mutual respect: the company understands and appreciates the needs of the client and the client respects expertise and value of the interpreters as true experts in what they do. If potential clients do not want to understand it, they are not worth taking onboard.
- But sometimes it is just a sign of lack of knowledge, and not of arrogance. That is why a real translation company will work with a new client to educate and this “client education” about best practices is critical for the final success. Preparing for a conference that uses interpretation services is a joint exercise and is beneficial for all parties. Clients should understand its value and be willing to do it.
- Respecting both clients AND interpreters: because boutique company owners are mostly interpreter themselves, they understand the needs of both their clients and the interpreters. It means that they will create the best working conditions for the interpreters with least fatigue and best performance. Why? Because, to be brutally honest, clients come and go, but the elite professional market is very tightly knit, where everyone knows everyone and people have been working together for years and years. That is why a respectable company would never throw an interpreter under the proverbial bus (or train), because their long term working relationship is more important than a whim of a random customer.
- Boutique translation companies provide not only language services: their job is not just to translate words from a foreign language into English and vice versa, but to help people achieve true communication and get value from their language interpretation services. That is why maximizing the value for the client would be yet another goal for an elite agency: it could include guidance on cross cultural communication and cultural consulting. Interpreters, on their end, will also strive to facilitate communication and not just repeat words.
- And, finally, reputation is above all: it is all we have as businesses. That reputation is built on respecting clients, respecting interpreters, using best practices and advising what is best for a particular client and a particular situation, even though sometimes it may even be not as profitable money-wise for the translation company but will be best for the client. Reputation also helps create repeat business: mass market companies do not care that much about customer retention, volume is the king.
What is the bottom line? Just like in a good restaurant, you do not buy a service, you buy an experience. Experience of working with truly consummate professionals who have devoted their lives to interpretation and deliver at the highest level. It helps your conference to get to a new level too: new level of understanding, rapport, human connection. This is something that cannot be measured in price tags.