The 7-Step System I Used to Prospect for Translation Clients and 2X My Free

Freelance translators commonly run into problems finding clients, especially with all the nitty-gritty details to consider. Add the fact that we hate putting ourselves out there, it's no wonder that prospecting is not high on our list of things to do.

But sometimes we have no choice but to reach out to new clients.

And this happened to me when a government reorganization in the health sector caused about 40% of client base to dry up.  

I had no choice but to proactively find clients.

But I had never done that before! In fact, I had prided myself on building a six-figure business with just an email address and a phone number.  

Yet, things change, as they always do, and I was faced with a whole host of questions:

All of these questions represent a million rabbit holes to get lost down.

And the fear of getting lost had me progressing at a snail's pace, especially since I still had steady translation work coming in, which always seemed more important.

I knew there had to be a better way to focus my efforts to keep up with my translation work while still reaching out to new clients.

Armed with my (then) 15 years of experience, I resolved to do away with the dilly-dallying and instead figure out a solid system that got traction. In fact, over five years, I have doubled the income in my translation business!

I can't promise that you will see the same results, but I wanted to share these 7 steps to successful prospecting to make your efforts that much easier.

Let's get to it. 

1. Take stock

Before getting out and looking for clients, you have some self-reflecting to do:

Go through that hard drive of yours and create a full-on curriculum vitae. Make a list of every job you’ve ever done, your volunteer experience, your skills and hobbies.

Unlike a resume, you want your CV to be super-exhaustive.

If you did babysitting as a teenager, ran odd jobs for a hardware store, or delivered newspapers (back when we had those things)—write it down!

Also, keep a list of every single translation client you have had, along with the type of documents you worked on and the sector. 

This initial trawl can be time-consuming, but it will save you time overall in your prospecting efforts.

2.  Fill in the gaps

If you are dreaming of translating for museums, your CV has to prove that this is a good option for you. 

Many kinds of experience could convince a potential translation client in the museum sector that they should use your services. And despite what many translators think, this experience does not have to be translation-related. Have you:

If you don't have at least 3 items on your CV that scream “This is my target sector!” then your chances of getting a client in that sector are much lower.  

If your CV looks slim, you have two choices:

1. Pick another sector that is a better match for you.

2. Start building your CV in this area by doing an action from the list above.

At this stage, you should have two or three target sectors that you are a convincing candidate for.

3. Compile companies

You now have your CV ready to go and you have chosen your target sectors. Now comes the part that make most translators freeze…

Which companies do I contact?

The obvious answer? The ones willing to pay for translation (if you are starting out) or pay professional rates for translation (if you have more experience). 

As a rule of thumb, the more revenue a company makes, the more likely they have resources to pay for translations. Whether they will pay a professional rate will depend on how much translated content contributes to their bottom line, their reputation, or their value as a company.

Start with some basic market research:

Below is an example of how I would go about this search for non-profit organizations in Canada.

First, a quick Google search for “average revenue for non-profit organizations Canada” brings up articles such as this one with quick facts about the general sector size. And this report from the same search provides interesting economic data.

What you want is information like the following (from the report above):

“Most Canadians are unaware of the role that the country’s nonprofit sector plays in our economy. However, data from Statistics Canada continues to show what a key player the nonprofit sector really is. It also shatters old stereotypes about nonprofit organizations relying mainly on donations and government transfers. But there’s more. It also shows that its annual growth has outpaced that of the broader economy more often than not over the past 11 years.”

This shows how non-profits actually do have some economic might, and enough that they would want to pay for translations.

In fact, many non-profits would also pay professional rates, as they must produce content (fundraising documents, grant proposals, etc.) to survive.

This doesn’t mean you need to go into the non-profit sector, but this is the type of information you are looking for to tell whether your sector is a good one to focus on. 

Then, from the broad information, drill down to specific data.

In this case, let’s target French non-profits in Quebec who are reaching out to an English audience. Although not new, this report from Imagine Canada breaks the non-profit sector down by type and revenue and makes comparisons with the rest of Canada.

For example, in Quebec, religious organizations receive the largest percentage of gifts and donations, meaning that generally, these types of non-profits have money for translation (which has indeed been my experience). 

This level of detail helps you to move forward in your search, because even within the target sector you identified in the previous step, there is still a huge number of companies and organizations to choose from.

4. Make your list

Once you narrow down your focus, the next step—and one where translators often get tripped up—is making a list of clients. 

Let's keep going with the example above for nonprofits in Quebec. In this case, I am going to Google precisely what I want to find, in both languages that I work in. 

In English, the best word to use is “directory” and in French, it is generally “répertoire.”

Keyword choice is important, because if you use something like “database” or “list,” the results might not be as complete.

Try as many keyword combinations as you can, and don't give up because one search term doesn’t pan out. Mostly, remember to use terms in both languages. Here is a list I used for my specific sector:

This step can be the most time consuming, but in general it should take you no more than a few hours.

(If it takes longer, there could be a problem with your search terms, or you are spending too much time reading individual websites. Avoid that!) 

5. Qualify your prospects

A big step that many freelance translators skip over is vetting whether a company they have found is a good translation prospect (i.e., they want to pay for translations and hire freelancers to do it). 

There are three key questions you need to ask to decide if a company is a good prospect:

Do they serve a bilingual audience?

Even if your company seems to do work with bilingual audiences doesn’t mean they translate content for those audiences.

For example, even though many restaurants in Quebec serve English tourists, they often shy away from English content due to French language laws in this province (i.e., Pastagate). Or, even if the menu translation isn’t the best, the server is there to explain the dishes of the day, so they can get around any communication problems.

So, if you want to translate in the tourism industry, you need to take this into account and choose your target clients wisely; instead of restaurants, target larger hotel chains or tourism institutes.

Do they want quality translations? 

Many translators target companies with poorly translated websites assuming that these companies need translation.

That is a big mistake!

While they may need professionals translations, companies with a poorly translated website is a sign that they don't really want professional translations.

If they don't want them, you will expend significant energy on a lost cause!

On the other hand, a company with content that is translated well may still need you: the translator who did their website might not be around anymore, or you could be their backup when they are away.

Can they pay for quality translations? 

Generally, you want to target companies with revenues of at least $1 million, and preferably in the $5 million to $10 million range.

Alternatively, you can check for a company size of at least 20 employees. These companies generally have the budget to pay for professional translation rates, so you don't have to waste time racing to the bottom for the lowest rate possible. 

There are a few ways to find this information:

First, public associations and non-profits generally have to publish their revenues in annual reports, and you can also find this information in government databases.

For private companies, you can search for them in a free database like Owler.

You can also find employee size by searching for the company on LinkedIn, which you see in the middle of the screen below: 

As you can see, you have many research tools at your disposal to help you get this information quickly.

6. Find the right contact information

The staff most likely to hire freelance translators are the directors of communications, although managers of other departments are also possible. 

However, since the communications department is also responsible for communicating, it is a great place to start! 

The very first place to look for a contact is in a recent press release: check out the company's news page and look for a name.

This is a very handy short-cut, as the director of communications is not always listed with the executive team on a company's About page. 

If they don't have press releases, then you can check the About page for the communications person. If there isn’t one, start with an administrative coordinator. Simply email them and ask who is the best person to contact about translations.

7. Make contact

What's great about looking through a companies recent press releases is learning what the company has been up to lately, which may give you a topic to start a conversation.

This is important, because you want the person to feel that you are contacting them because it makes sense to do so and not because you are spamming them.

Go back to your CV and pull out the components that best fit with the company. (Remember: passions and interests also count!)

Then you can write a note that goes something like this:

Dear Ms. X, 

I was just reading your recent press release about your new initiative for the homeless, and I am very impressed with the scope of your program. You are definitely going to help so many people! 

I was reaching out to you because I am a freelance translation who loves translating for organizations such as yours that want to make a big impact on people. I have also volunteered for five years for an organization in the social services sector, so I'm very familiar with your day-to-day experience and terminology. Below are links to my translation resume and portfolio, if you would like to get a better idea about my services and experience in your area.

Would you be free for a quick chat about your translation needs?


Amy Butcher

While you don't want to copy this message verbatim, you can borrow the main ideas:

1. Open with context: This explains why it makes sense for you to contact the company.

2. Explain your connection: Why you are suited to translating for the company? What have you done in the past that shows you would be a good fit for them in the future?

3. Ask for contact with a question: Asking a question makes it easier for someone to simply say “yes, I would be free next week" or “no, thank you.” It doesn't really matter which; you want a decision either way so that you know for sure. If you get a no, simply strike this company off the list and move on.

I do it, and you can too!

This system is exactly how I started finding clients that matched my skills and interests while avoiding wasting hours staring at the blank Google home page.

Getting used to this process can take some time, but after a week or two you'll be a master at figuring which prospects are viable prospects. 

In the grand scheme of things, a week or two is not much out of your life, so spend the time you need  to get it right.

Finding viable prospects will be so much easier, and you can relax knowing you’re on the road to getting the clients you want.