Agencies often set the tone for initial meetings as something closer to a job interview. In truth, you’re a business meeting with another business to see if your values align and you’d like to do business together. Will they offer you more work? Yes. You’ll also be bringing your specific skill set to the table to offer them and their clients.
While the initial meeting may feel like a job interview, it’s important to remember that as much as they are assessing your value… you should also be assessing theirs. When working in private practice as a freelancer, you’re responsible for maintaining client relations, procuring new leads, making sales, invoicing and debt collection when necessary. An agency’s role in your practice is essentially to relieve you from this work with the added benefit of offering work to you. If you consider yourself as “represented by an agency” you’d be really relying on them to find work that fits your practice and skillset. If you consider yourself as someone sourcing work through agencies, you’re simply adding options to your available work.
I personally maintain private clients and schedule agency work around them when things get slow but often when starting out, freelancers don’t have that much private or direct work. If you find yourself in that situation, consider the value in diversifying your portfolio. More agencies competing for your time means better rates, more choice in the work you accept and more flexibility to refuse work. Having the ability to say no (while easier said than done) can greatly improve your ethical decision making and professional discretion. If you’re strapped for work for the week and the one agency you’re working with offers you a single job that you’re on the fence about taking, your wallet may be the single decider in accepting the work. Having more options from more agencies and of course in time private clients, reduces the chances of money moving up in the list of priorities when evaluating work opportunities; this allows you to focus on the client as well as skill growth and the health of your practice first.
So, what do I recommend when going into an agency for that initial meeting to take the interview pressure off and putting your best foot forward? Few things actually…
First, bring a portfolio.
Having a clear and confident sampling of your skills establishes who you are to the agency or entity looking to hire you. It also gives them a clear indication that you are focused on your career and the growth of your practice. Entering into initial discussions focusing on money first is a clear sign to them that you’ll accept concessions when choosing assignments as long as the dollar sign is right.
Having a portfolio that displays your strengths is always a strong first step but also consider the value in repairs. Flamingo Interpreting prefers to see portfolios that include errors, repairs and the ability to recover under pressure. When you feel that you’ve turned a situation around that could have landed pretty cringe-worthy, consider putting it in your portfolio, it’s a great indicator that you accept the practice and invite others into your process.
You can find my tips on creating a killer portfolio here.
Having a portfolio often will reduce the likelihood that an agency will ask you to assess, especially if you’re keeping it updated with your most recent work. The goal is to provide the most holistic view of your practice with easily accessible points of entry in order to replace their process with something more robust.
Second, come in on a referral whenever possible
Agencies like to meet people they’ve already heard of. If an interpreter working with them and providing great services can refer your name in, especially with an intro you are much more likely to be required to send in the necessary paperwork without ever taking a meeting. I’ve signed on with countless agencies over the years by being teamed in. When a colleague is in a last minute job the agency is struggling to source a team for, it’s a perfect in to be referred in. In fact, to my knowledge it’s never not worked. Usually I come in on a last minute rate, team with my friend and get to negotiate down from a much higher price point. This isn’t always just about the money, sometimes it’s about showing that you can work with high level situations or clients they struggle to source interpreters for and represent the industry well. Often agencies are hesitant to send a new interpreter to a long time client, with good reason. With these last minute situations, you have an excellent opportunity to make a great impression and really shine with both the client and agency.
Before meeting with any agency I ask around about them and listen to which interpreters signal having a great relationship with the team. When I feel like I’ve met someone close enough with a strong enough name on their roster, I ask if they wouldn’t mind making the initial intro. This is usually immediately followed by a bottle of wine or coffee on me. If the interpreter has a rate higher on the spectrum, I can count on a little bit of that residual shine and the agency seeing me closer to if not in the middle of that rate tier.
Third, have a career that speaks for itself
Represent yourself every day as though that will be the only day people will ever consider or talk about as a reflection of your career, because it is. Years ago I worked with an interpreter who had quite the mess to clean up after her name was dragged in the community for having a bad day at work. She was exhausted, hungover and by her own description, a little depressed. So she made some bad decisions at work. Haven’t we all? We’ve all felt the pressure turning up on days when we feel hardly strong enough to be in the chair. Considering that every day is a new opportunity to shine and to improve the practice you carried the day before, might just be the one thing to convince you to breathe and do your best.
People only talked about her worst day, because it was a memorable experience. The same can be true about a positive experience people have with you. While consistency might feel impossible, we can always aim to provide the best experience to our clients for the future us. The future us really loves it when the past version of us laid out the path to a new opportunity, just by showing up and trying our best when we didn’t want to.
Those stories resonate through the community and our clients do talk about them even when we expect the opposite. You’d be surprised just how many times clients have referred to a time they had with me that was so completely unmemorable but made a strong impression on them. Those tiny moments over the years have laid out miles of pavement for me when meeting with agencies. I keep those anecdotes in a notes app on my phone if ever needed.
Fourth, know that you don’t have to assess.
We’ve just accepted in this field that video assessments prescribed by agencies are mandatory. Let me tell you, they are absolutely not. You can ask for alternatives, question what they’re looking for, offer a live demo of your work through them (paid of course) or you can simply decline. Now, I won’t lie to you, this is much easier if you have a strong practice with clients keeping your schedule full. It’s not quite as easy when you’re looking to get your bills paid but the point is still the same. If you don’t feel that your skills are going to be adequately portrayed by their assessment, tell them that. Ask them to find something in your wheelhouse to really show off your abilities to restructure, conceptualize or transliterate if that’s your thing.
Remember that no one can make you do something that you don’t want to do. Sometimes you’ll decide to play ball to avoid dying on the wrong hill but truthfully, having that knowledge in your back pocket can be the difference between a stellar meeting and walking out feeling defeated. Don’t forget that you’re there to negotiate the rates you can charge in the community against their business overhead costs. This is not a dance recital, it’s a dance… take an active role.
Finally, be prepared.
I keep a running list of the most interesting, challenging or niche work I’ve done over the years in my pocket at all times. Before any meeting I will run through them and pick out three or four that I can pull experience or anecdotes from. It’s usually the ones I think they will ask more questions about that I like to discuss in meetings because if things fall into a lull, it’s an easy way to keep the conversation flowing. While as interpreters we’re usually pretty great at this, you’d be surprised just how many people in charge of onboarding new talent at agencies know nothing about our work. Many of them don’t know any sign language, so I am always prepared to translate my own experience to a hearing person with zero exposure to the work we do.
Don’t let meeting with agencies scare you. If you land in a meeting feeling defeated, like you could have negotiated better or generally leaving with a poor impression just breathe. There are always more agencies that you can meet with. While I recommend meeting with the one carrying the worst reputation in a new market first to play around in the meeting before taking your talents to the Bergdorf-Goodman of agencies, not everyone thinks to set that up and that’s okay. There are plenty of ways to redeem yourself with agencies (INSERT LINK TO REDEEMING YOURSELF WITH AGENCIES HERE).
So, ready for your first meeting? Maybe you just finished one? How did it go? What questions are you grappling with? Leave them below in the comments or send them directly!