Dealing with lots of small translation projects and automation pitfalls

Last week, I wrote about ways of addressing price pressure in the translation industry. After receiving a lot of very inspiring feedback, I wanted to address one of the issues that was often mentioned.

One of the challenges that we face is the inflow of numerous small projects, each of them not necessarily conducive to an improved bottom line. Each small request becomes a project in its own right. Each has a start date, a relatively short delivery date, each has to be assigned, billed, accounted for, etc. The cost of handling it often does not reflect its size or value.

There is probably no one-size-fits-all solution to deal with them. So for the sake of brevity, I will not deal here with the broad subject of the retail side of the business, but will rather focus on small projects originating from strategic partnerships with Multilingual Vendors. It is crucial for a healthy translation agency to effectively participate in the supply chains of our industry, but at the same time this comes with two requirements: huge numbers of relatively small projects and a short turnaround time. Providing, at the same time, fast turnaround for a large number of tiny projects while maintaining control and operational efficiency is no small feat. My solution to this is the introduction of automated project management processes in translation agencies. The immediate advantages that it brings are:

  • Minimized costs due to the reduction of manual operations, the number of errors and inefficiency. Automation takes over such tedious tasks, among others, as cost calculation, project related accountancy, vendor assignment based on pre-defined criteria, Purchase Orders creation and even project delivery.
  • Developing an insight into your business process. Your processes become transparent and measurable. Having access to in-depth reporting, metrics and knowledge about your business helps you make informed decisions based on hard facts.
  • Increased customer satisfaction. Turnaround times are brought to a minimum due to the immediate automatic work dispatch between various project stages.
  • Time saving on small projects by allowing the customers to choose project flow templates through a dedicated Customer Portal.
  • All of the above result in reducing project management costs to minimal levels or even to zero.

But make no mistake. I have yet to see an easy and painless introduction of automated processes in a more traditional business. The end results are absolutely worth the effort, but come at the cost of a major paradigm shift. In my experience, these four guidelines are key for a successful transition from purely manual processes to a heavily automated environment:

  • Be prepared for big changes. In order to automate processes, you must first clearly state what the current ones are. This will immediately reveal all unwritten rules and commonly taken shortcuts that you were not even aware of and were detrimental to your results. Automation will enforce strict rules and accountability, especially in those areas where you were lax.
  • Be bold. Leverage technology by planning to automate as much as possible. Reshaping your processes into a more strict form takes a certain effort. If this effort is to bring the best results, do not restrict yourself to just a small part of your work. This approach will help you to use a big-picture strategy for your process restructuring and will allow for much higher overall savings than would have been achieved with an isolated case-by-case approach.
  • Work according to plan. Without losing focus from the final big picture, do not try to push too many changes at the same time. Prepare a plan for changes that are delivered in stages. Introduce new processes gradually.
  • You are not alone. Automation should also be facing outward, to your customers. Your clients will value immensely the possibility of submitting their requests to you 24/7 and getting immediate feedback through a Customer Portal. Customers also usually use their ownsuite of automated tools. Integrating them in your flow via APIs will help both sides to get the most benefits from the technical investment.

Some reluctance to automation comes from the outdated perception that canned responses and automatic job dispatching seem to lose some of the human touch so important in our work. Nowadays, however, the level of the customization of processes is such, that there is always a place for adding something personal. Even a slight modification of individual messages can make a great difference in the way your communication is perceived.

You should also consider the fact that if you won’t automate a significant part of your processes, some of your competitors will. That will allow them to keep their rates low while maintaining a healthy margin and providing short turnaround times. This sobering reflection should motivate you to consider using process automation as a part of your day-to-day toolkit if you have not already done so. It will take a lot of repetitive, manual work off your hands, giving you more time for the things you do best.