What makes a good agency great?

Localization agencies are always on the hunt for the best clients and projects, and likewise, translators wanting to collaborate with agencies tend to flock to those who offer the best “buck for their bang”.

Having worked with well over a dozen agencies over several years, both in a translator and localization manager capacity, I’ve noticed that some stakeholders don’t necessarily know what attracts the best talent (aside from the obvious – decent rates, deadlines, and working conditions), so I’ve decided to highlight what I consider to be a plus for any agency. As you can guess, this reflects only my experience, so YMMV.

Let’s start with a baseline – here are my personal criteria for what makes a good agency:

  • Offers rates that are in line with the expected quality of work delivered
  • Treats their contractors in a professional manner (no mass-mails full of “Dear Resources/Vendors”)
  • Doesn’t use a “first-come-first-served” or any kind of bidding system

This might seem obvious, but the localization industry is unfortunately littered with bad actors who will prey on the most inexperienced among us to run their business. As a result, I’ve made my motto to never work with any agency that doesn’t meet all three of those criteria. That being said, I’m privileged to be in a position where I can be picky about who I work with, and don’t blame those who have to take what they can to pay their bills (been there, done that).

Now, let’s say you’re already a good agency – what can you do to rise above your competitors and snag the cream of the localization crop?

Streamline processes & paperwork

There is one constant in the localization world: everything needs to be done by yesterday. Everyone’s schedule is always packed to the brim, so the more streamlined your processes are, the better: ideally, you want to have a dedicated portal that automatically tracks POs, checklists, deadlines, etc. Not only does this save valuable time for your collaborators, but also for your PMs: there are enough Excel files being passed around like hot potatoes, and you don’t want to add a bunch of loose POs to the mix. I’ve had decent experiences with Plunet and Jira, but the best portals are usually custom-made by agencies themselves, as they allow greater control over the workflow, mailing templates, and more.

As for paperwork (NDAs, contracts, invoices, etc.), I always recommend using signing systems like Acrobat Sign or, at the very least, accepting standard digital signatures. Small anecdote: an agency once asked me to print, sign and send no less than 44 pages (!!!) of paperwork, only to send me less than 5 EUR worth of tasks over the next year… and yes, I will forever be salty about that wasted ink, paper, and postage fees.

Have approachable and reactive PMs

Saying that Localization Project Managers are overworked and underpaid is the understatement of the century: I honestly don’t know how most of them manage to keep a cool head in the midst of seemingly never-ending crisis (or as we call it in the gameloc world, Tuesday 🙂 ).

Your average PM schedule

However, the best PMs in the business amaze their bosses, colleagues, and collaborators by not just managing a dozen projects in 30 languages simultaneously, but also by anticipating potential issues and solving them ahead of time: did the client mistakenly send reference sheets that are locked behind a password? Are there missing fields in the style guide that need double-checking? Has the translator expressed difficulties with a particular type of text and should be given a bit more time?

These are just some of the examples that make me go “Wow, this person really knows what they’re doing, I can’t wait to work with them again”. Of course, I understand that time, budget, and mental capacity constraints don’t always make this possible, just like expecting a translator to produce a 100% flawless output every single time is unrealistic. But again, these are the small things that make a difference (and trust me, most people will notice!)

Offer CAT tool flexibility

CAT tools are an essential part of our business: using TMs, TBs and all the other bells and whistles they offer is a must-have for both agencies and translators. However, with so many competing products in this space, all of which boast the same “baseline” features, finding out what’s best for your business is not always clear-cut.

Whether you decide to purchase a CAT tool solution from one of the industry juggernauts like Trados or MemoQ or prefer Cloud-based solutions like Phrase or Smartcat, be aware that each translator has their own preferences: some are fine with basically any text editor, others will want to maximize their output by working exclusively with tools they know like the back of their hand.

Ask me why optimized QA features and Regex filters are important…

The good news is that most localization data (namely XLIFF files and CSV/JSON resources) is interchangeable across all translation software: this allows translators to work in whichever environment they’re most comfortable with. However, some CAT tools only offer XLIFF file export/import options as opt-in, so it’s up to agencies or LSPs to allow them in the first place.

Finally, there are also certain CAT tools that must be avoided like the plague: I’ve heard enough horror stories from Across or XTM users to deter me from ever wasting my time on those, and I’m probably not alone in that situation. If you’re unsure, stick to what translators recommend – after all, we’re the primary users 😉

Pay on time

Just like you wouldn’t want a translator to constantly miss their deadlines, you shouldn’t miss payment deadlines either. Under normal circumstances, this would be on the requirement list for good agencies, but most freelancers understand that cashflow issues can and do happen regardless of where you are in the chain – After all, you’re only ever one accountant on holiday/executive approval away from complete mayhem.

In those cases, the best approach is to be open about the delay and ensure it doesn’t happen again – Just remember that we all have bills to pay and financial institutions don’t often extend credit.

Of course, if this is a recurring issue and your linguists end up wasting time chasing payments at the end of every month, you will lose them in the blink of an eye: word of mouth goes fast, especially with websites like Payment Practices that allow us to preemptively screen check companies.

Credit your collaborators

Crediting is a hot-button topic in the localization industry (and beyond), and some agencies claim that they can’t possibly forward the names of their collaborators to end clients, either because the client doesn’t want to credit 3rd party contractors (unlikely, but it does happen) or due to privacy concerns.

As a business owner, you can be tempted to skip this step to save time and resources – depending on the size of your team, it’s true that getting necessary approvals from each team member can be a significant endeavor. Another reason you could argue in favor of skipping credits is to retain talent: what if your end client ends up snatching your best translators?

Based on my 15 years of experience in the industry, I would say this scenario is highly improbable: LSPs almost always provide significant added value (project management, purchasing/distribution of CAT tool licenses/servers, team coordination, conflict resolution, etc.). Unless the client wants to build a permanent in-house team, linguists will likely stick with existing partners they can trust.

Finally, some gameloc agencies/teams systematically credit their translators (see a few examples here) and their business is none for the worse. So why wouldn’t yours?

Offer training

If you’re an agency that gives promising newcomers a chance (good on you!), offering them proper training is one of the best ways to engage them in the long term.

There are several ways you can do that: by giving them access to written guides or videos focused on the agency’s CAT tools/processes, offering regular guidance from PMs and other translators, and just overall fostering an environment where people always learn from each other, regardless of their level of experience.

Never stop leveling up!

Of course, one of the reasons people hire freelancers is because we technically don’t need training and are expected to deliver from the get-go. However, some of the best agencies I’ve worked with strive to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with insights that can be used beyond a particular project’s scope. Personally, those are the kind of people I strive to work with!

Ask for feedback

A good linguist always asks for feedback, but it should be a two-way street: as outlined in this article, there are many ways an agency (or any company really) can improve everyone’s working conditions. Beyond seeking the most interesting and lucrative projects, it’s always worth asking what makes your employees and freelancers want to work with you and make your business flourish.

I’m sure there are a thousand other ways to incentivize the best linguists in the business to work with you, but you’ll only know by asking them! Bonus points if you can make the feedback system anonymous.

If your agency already meets most or all the criteria above, congratulations, you’re in the top 1% (and I’d love to be working with you if I don’t already). Enjoy your well-deserved success!

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