“You will come running back to us, you’ll see!”

Those were the words uttered to me by a representative of one of the largest national interpretation agencies about five years ago. What led to those words, and did they become reality?

A determination of who I am and what I shall become.

Like many people starting out, I began interpreting by signing up with as many national interpreting agencies as possible. At the time, there were a lot more of them.  Many have consolidated.  Agencies typically try to negotiate the cheapest price possible to pay interpreters in order to maintain profit margins. They often scramble to find coverage for assignments and make very little effort to provide professional, qualified interpreters.

Early on, I recognized many problems in the industry, much of it due to the way the system works to promote cheap service over quality. Imagine for a moment an interpreter accepts an assignment from an agency that pays him only $15 an hour. On the day of the assignment, another agency that pays $25 calls him for a different assignment at the same time. Ethically, if I have accepted an assignment, I will fulfill my agreement.  However, many interpreters will just jump to the better pay. They will also reason that if you want to talk about ethics, the agency should agree to pay a better price so that they don’t run into that problem.

After a very thorough self-examination, I made a determination of who I am, what my principles are, and what I would become. It began with core values. My company needs to follow a moral, ethical code. I began with simple things like doing what I promise to do. Investing in myself, studying to transform my interpreting skills. I joined associations such as ATA and CATI to keep myself sharp and in close association with the best experts in my field.

After a while, I began to raise my rates, because I deserve it. The agencies began to push back and remove me from assignments. So I began to search out new direct clients that were willing to pay for the value we provide.

I would never burn a bridge and fire a client, but I began to raise my rates on the more problematic agencies. The result was that one by one they would stop using us. At first, they would only use us if they desperately needed coverage, but once the price increased, they stopped all together.  My company reached the stage that our prices were competitive to the other agencies, but way too expensive to work through them any more.

Determination of who I would become.
I decided that my company must maintain its moral ethical code as it grows. My goal is to fix the problems rampant in our industry. Typically, when a company gets large, quality goes out the window. For this reason I have maintained my company as a small statewide provider instead of going national. Until I can figure out a workable different business model for going national and maintaining quality and our core ethical code, We will hover in this position.

The scary end to a long-standing big relationship.
The day came when it was time for us to risk losing our biggest volume yet lowest paying client. We raised our rates and immediately were told that it was unacceptable. They declared that they had become a massive giant in the industry and we depended on them for survival. They provided a large volume of work and had most of the contracts with national insurance agencies.

At this point I stuck to my guns on the rate and they begrudgingly accepted with the statement that we would be rarely used except for last resort.  When we received the new contract, it had a non compete clause stating that we cannot work with any company they have. Additionally they had a section on dispute resolution. They basically stipulated that if there is a payment dispute, they make the final and binding decision. In other words I would be legally agreeing to let them screw us over.

I knew that if we refused to sign the agreement we would be losing our biggest long standing client. That was scary! Of course I had made a determination to follow an ethical code and now my decision was being tested.
When I refused to sign the contract I was told that our company, just like many more all over the nation were dependent on being fed by them. Many have tried to make it on their own only to come back with their tail between their legs begging to work with them again on the agencies terms. The company rep defiantly and rudely predicted I would do the same.

Did those words prove true?
No. In the interim, I have been building a working business model that allows my company to provide quality that is not seen nationally. I will not move forward until it is perfected. My goal is to one day create a national company that works unlike anything we see today. Is it possible? I think so. It would be a different model, and if I can work out the kinks, the face of the industry will radically change.

I have decided not sacrifice ethics and quality. Those are the rules by which I must play.  So if we end up remaining a statewide language service provider, you know why.

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