How to handle a sudden downturn in work

When things fall apart

Since the pandemic began, I’ve heard from a number of translators and interpreters who’ve had a sudden downturn in their work volume. In some cases–such as conference interpreting–their work volume went literally to zero overnight. What’s the best way to handle this very stressful situation? I have a few ideas, and I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

As I’ve mentioned before, my work volume during the pandemic has followed this pattern:

  • Translation work from direct clients never dropped off, and is stable so far (just signed a new book translation contract!)
  • Translation work from agencies has dropped off completely, and two agencies I worked for sporadically have told me that my rates (not raised in years) are too high for them (so I’m not working for them anymore). I’m essentially down to zero regular agency clients at this point.
  • Interpreting work has slowed to a trickle (mostly minimum charge phone interpreting assignments for the Colorado courts). This isn’t a financial disaster because interpreting was about 15% of my income before the pandemic, but it’s disappointing since I love interpreting and was hoping to expand that side of my business this year.
  • Online course registrations are booming

First: Don’t try to create demand where there is none

This is basic but really important. If there’s no demand for in-person interpreting where you live, lowering your rates isn’t going to help. If you translate for hotels, you probably need to target another specialization, not do more marketing. In the current economic climate, it’s important to make sure that the possibility of work exists before you start chasing after it.

If your clients’ own business has taken a huge hit, and here I’m thinking of sectors like travel and tourism, hotels and restaurants, live entertainment, brick and mortar retail, etc., don’t try to get blood from a stone. It’s time to move on to some new sectors or specializations.

Second, if you can afford it, invest in your business

Lower work volume isn’t always a crisis. How many projects (updating your website, learning a new piece of software, taking an online course, attending a client-side conference…) have you put on the back burner due to lack of time? Well, when you don’t have a lot of work, you have something else: time. And if you had a decent business savings account before the pandemic, then you can use that time to put some of those projects on the front burner.

This is the exact situation I’m in. Due to the loss of most of my interpreting income, my overall income will probably be down a bit this year over last year. But at the same time, I’m spending a lot less money. My total “meals out” spending since March 15 totals $13, and that was only because my husband and I went on a camping trip and an animal stole our food bag overnight, so we bought coffee and muffins on the way home. Other than that, I’ve eaten every single meal and snack at home or at my parents’ house for four months. I’ve also put my co-working office membership on pause; a significant savings at $500+ a month (although truth be told, I get much less done while working from home and can’t wait to go back). For those reasons, I’m not doing a ton of marketing, but rather using the extra time to have a new website designed for Training for Translators, and to do a two-week conference interpreting course in August. It’s actually nice to have some wiggle room to do those things without dipping into my sleep or free time, and it’s a strategy I recommend to other freelancers as well.

Next, nudge

Nudging dormant clients (again, if there’s the potential that they have work for you) is probably one of the most effective and least-used marketing techniques. Why don’t we do more of it? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because everyone loves new beginnings rather than reviving something old. Perhaps it’s not sexy. But every year in my March Marketing Madness challenge group, I’m consistently surprised by how much work people can bring in, simply by checking in with every client they’ve worked for in the past two years but haven’t heard from in at least three months (for example).

Here’s a blog post I wrote about it; and Madalena Sanchez Zampaulo wrote a great article about how to do this during the pandemic, in a way that is sensitive to your clients’ situations.

Think about what thrives in a pandemic

Back in November, I wrote a blog post about preparing your freelance business for a recession. That post, in turn, was inspired by a podcast about preparing for a recession. And the truth is that some things thrive in a recession. And even in a pandemic. Things like:

  • Videoconferencing software: For example, Zoom’s stock price has gone from about $68 in January to a close of $248 yesterday. And they’re not alone in the sector that serves the now-here-to-stay armada of home-based workers. The Zoom interface is currently available in 10 languages other than English.
  • Virtual event platforms. Here in the US at least, I think we’re looking at a looooong time until in-person conferences rebound to 2019 levels. My guess is that we’ll see few to no large-group gatherings until at least mid-2021. And people are starting to expect a full-scale virtual event, not a bunch of webinars patched together with a chat room. I’m guessing many of these virtual event platforms are, or should be, looking to go multilingual.
  • Medical supply companies that make COVID-related items. For example, the leading manufacturer of the swabs used to take samples for COVID testing is Copan Diagnostics, whose parent company Copan Italia is headquartered in Brescia, Italy. US-based companies that make PPE and other medical supplies are probably expanding the range of countries that they sell to. Same with companies that make things like sanitizing wipes, disinfectants, plexiglass shields, and so on.
  • Online sales of any type. By any metric, there’s been a “drastic increase” in online shopping. Statistics on this vary, but I looked at numerous articles saying that for the first time, online shopping has accounted for more than half of all non-essential purchases. Like online conferencing, I’m guessing this trend is here to stay, and all of these online outlets would probably love to capture customers in multiple languages.
  • Online learning. Whether their students are professionals improving their skills, or K-12 students trapped at home, online learning companies are also scrambling to keep up. Even within the US, I’m guessing there could be a demand for online learning interfaces in at least Spanish, and perhaps other languages.

Right now, don’t be afraid to aim high

A final thought. The pandemic really is a unique situation, in that we’re all in the same boat. People who would never have the time or inclination to talk to a translator might have that time and/or inclination now, because they’re home, and bored, and either really lonely if they live alone, or really sick of their families, just like the rest of us (as much as I adore my family…). So take a chance: send a high-ranking person a LinkedIn message, or offer a webinar and invite your dream clients, or anything else bold that you might not do in the in-person world. The other day I was talking to a consulting client about an online conference they were thinking of attending, and the associated fear of online networking, especially one-to-one, and I said, “Look, if it gets weird, just pretend to be having connection problems (“you’re breaking up a little!”) and log off. No one but you will ever know what really happened.

And on that note, I’d love to hear your ideas about looking for work if your work has dropped off, or what industries might be thriving right now.

12 Responses to “How to handle a sudden downturn in work”
  1. cboquin1964 July 16, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020
  2. translatortraductora July 16, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020
  3. Rachael Koev July 16, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020
  4. Laura Barzilai July 17, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020
  5. Ruth Hollard July 17, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020
  6. mctmdream July 17, 2020
    • Corinne McKay July 20, 2020

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