Pressing Flesh is not Just for Politicians: The Value of Face-to-Face Sales for Translators

As a follow-up to comments directed at translators who have declared or are about to declare defeat to translation market forces or some imagined structural impediments that they think hold them back from advancing from the bottom end of the market into premium translation, here is an example of some chain-reaction encounters that can happen if you hang out in the right places. It goes without saying that what follows is a personal experience, but I think it worthwhile to relate what can happen when you get out from in front of your computer, look up from your small screen, and press the flesh.

To start off with some background, several months ago an interpreter friend A called to say that he was asked by someone to do some interpreting for a US attorney B (to him, an unknown attorney) that he could not handle because of a scheduling conflict. He introduced me to US attorney B, with the understanding that I would work for him directly. That is not the point of this article, but just the beginning of a string of events that confirm my belief in the value of making direct, face-to-face contact with potential clients.

Attorney B needed interpreting assistance with two things. One was a presentation to a huge Japanese printing company regarding his services (patent litigation). When I heard the name of the place we were to visit, I was pleased to see that it was printing company C, which I had previously done deposition interpreting for in Osaka and Seoul. And the very person we were to meet was the fellow that I dealt with in those two locations. I was working through a law firm at the time and had no direct dealings with printing company C, but certainly want to acquire them as a customer. It was a somewhat surprising and fun re-connection. A subsequent one-on-one meeting with their IP department manager made it seem like getting their work might take some time, but our discussions are ongoing. Yet that is still not the end of this story.

The next task for attorney B was to interpret for him at a presentation to the Japan Patent Attorneys Association event, which Japanese patent attorneys would be attending and getting CPE credits for. The presentation went well, and I exchanged a few business cards, but there was really not much time to do any serious selling, and engaging in such activity there would not have been appropriate. But again, the chain of encounters continues.

The youngish Japanese patent attorney D who introduced US attorney B and me to the audience at the presentation called me a few days after the presentation to ask me if I would like to attend a party event at the end of the series of training sessions for Japanese patent attorneys. I gladly accepted the invitation and put it on my calendar.

When the formal invitation arrived, I was a bit concerned, because it appeared that it was billed as an event at which the Japanese patent attorneys would have the opportunity to rub elbows with real-life foreigners and try out their English-speaking skills. This is not exactly the type of environment that would facilitate my selling to them, since I sell to Japanese customers in Japanese. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll go along with the game.

At the start of the party, a person from the JPAA announced that no Japanese was to be spoken. Alright, I’ll pretend to be a monolingual American for a while. It turned out, however, that it was easier than I had imagined to slip into Japanese. I proceeded to work the crowd, so-to-speak, and what ensued was a series of encounters that I feel will lead far beyond rubbing elbows as an English-speaking foreigner. Specifically, I ran into the following people.

  • Three attorneys from a well-known Japanese law firm, one of the attorneys on the letterhead of which I know from more than three decades ago, having been involved in a case with Kodak and Sony (he and I were on the Kodak side). My client was not his firm, but rather Kodak’s outside counsel, a large US law firm. In speaking to the most senior of the three attorneys, it turns out that he was involved with the very case I was interpreting for the day of the party, luckily on the same side.
  • Surprise! The attorney for the other side in the deposition I was interpreting in that day was also there. We had parted at 4 PM with no expectation of running into each other that night. I had done some work for his firm as an expert witness (and was deposed as a result) years ago, but I didn’t have much contact with them since then. I will not necessarily be selling to him, but it is an interesting demonstration of how small a world it is.
  • A US attorney from a large law firm that I have worked with fairly recently. I have known her for over 20 years and did not realize that she had moved to that firm. She has been in Japan almost all of those 20 years. I strongly suspect that this firm will be a continuing source of work.
  • A US attorney I have known for about 15 or so years on-and-off. He was formerly with a US firm in Japan from which I was getting translation and interpreting work. He subsequently moved to another firm and has very recently moved to a fairly small Tokyo operation of a smallish firm in the US. He is a strong prospect for work for us.
  • An in-house Japanese patent attorney at a Japanese company involved in manufacturing of displays. No, not the one that is now a Taiwanese company. This is also a good prospect for translation work.
  • Five Japanese patent attorneys from firms that I have yet to work for. I strongly suspect that I will be able to get work from one or more of them.
  • A Japanese patent attorney working for a Chinese electronics company but doing filings in the US for things developed in Japan.

All of this happened within about two hours.

The encounters with people I already knew were valuable in bringing my presence to their attention after a long span of silence. Naturally, it is unlikely that more than one or two of the new encounters will result in new business. But spending two hours or so and acquiring even one or two clients is a feat that is not easily accomplished.

And after all of the above, on the way out of the venue, Japanese patent attorney D mentioned that he thought he would be asking me to do some translation in a few months. And I had not even sold to him specifically.

All of these encounters are possible. If you think that you need to have connections to do this, let me just say that nobody is born with connections; they make connections. This is true of other professions as well. For example, successful litigation attorneys not only are smart but also are capable of making connections (and making rain, as they would say). And translators can make connections too, unless they have made career and life decisions that distance them from potential connections. In an upcoming article I will discuss some of the ways translators retreat from the market into a position in which they can rarely take advantage of direct client contact, along with some suggestions on how to network. Suffice it to say at this point that it does not involve social media.

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