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Stay Away from the Platform Edge

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 15, 2019

Is the rise in new platforms aimed at helping businesses buy in services  like web design, translation, interpreting and writing actually doing real harm to both buyers and sellers?

Wherever you look, you will find a new platform aiming to bring together freelancers and their clients. You can search for graphic designers, web designers, translators, proofreaders, interpreters, just about any service that can be offered by freelancers from the comfort of the home office.

It seems like a marriage made in service aggregation heaven. The freelancers can get away with less marketing and the buyers can pick up the services they need for a very competitive price, while comparing different providers against one another. Seems ideal, right?

The Dark Side of the Platforms – The Freelance View

The most basic flaw in the “platform” or “service aggregation” model is that they tend to drive down prices. Despite all the talk of qualifications and verification and despite all the claims to the contrary, the likelihood is that buyers will be attracted to those who seem to be offering the lowest price, especially when it is difficult for an outsider to tell the difference between say, an MITI with DipTrans and 5 years of experience with MemoQ and a translator who learned French on a boozy weekend in Bordeaux but has a five star feedback rating and testimonials from their mates all saying how great they are.

That leads to the mental and economic horror of a blind auction, where freelancers have to guess what will be the lowest price that will get them the work but still pay their bills. As someone who started his career hoping against hope (and mathematical certainty) that platforms would be my business salvation, I can easily recount the effects of sending bid after bid, only for a tiny fraction to even get a response.

Any platform that encourages bidding on projects will eventually drive away the best freelancers to look for better pay and drive many of those who remain into risking their mental health. There are only so many hamster wheels you can run on before you get tired, after all.

The Dark Side of Platforms – The Buyer Side

If all this sounds like a freelancer carping, I get it. Still, I have to admit that I have used certain platforms to buy in services too, with varying results. In my case, I had a distinct advantage, as I was buying services that I knew very well so I knew exactly what to look for. Even then, the response was crazy.

Back seven or eight years ago, when I used what was then the leading platform for the service I was buying, one advert got forty responses when all I needed was three people. Of the forty responses, about twenty were easy to delete as they were irrelevant, fifteen were interesting but not up to the level I needed and five were truly useful. I still ended up pulling in help from beyond the reach of the platform anyway.

Imagine going through that process if you didn’t know a service. Given the growth of work platforms, it is likely that any business buying from them would be faced with four hundred responses, rather than forty. Once the time to filter through responses and find the really good ones is priced up, any potential savings will disappear in a whisp of smoke.

Unless I really know the service I want to buy and unless I really know what results I want, I have come to the conclusion that hiring via a platform is always going to be costly and may be risky too. In an age where customer reviews aren’t always reliable or relevant, how can you really trust that you are getting what you are paying for?

The Potential of Platforms

Platforms, of course, aren’t all bad. As a last try for a service where you have no previous leads, they can be useful. But they certainly aren’t cheaper or quicker than any other method and they come with real risks.

Platforms do have a potential to do a lot of good, especially for those with small networks and little experience. On either side, they can give new freelancers a leg up and give small businesses a chance to get service they really need.

But they can’t be a panacea.

A Better Way to Buy

It may sound strange but in an algorithm-driven, tech-dominated world, the best way to get work done is probably to step away from your screen and talk to people in real-life. The website you are reading was designed and built by the incredible Tom Jones (no, not that one!), whose brother I have known for years. My latest business cards were redesigned and printed by a local printer I met at a business event. I can find many more examples .

As a consultant interpreter, I only work with interpreters I have either worked with before or who are recommended by those interpreters or who a by trusted colleagues I haven’t managed to work with yet. In the unlikely event that I can’t find the right person using those methods, I have other contacts and use the list of members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

When we work on the basis of referral, rather than trusting our business future to algorithms we didn’t right and platforms we don’t fully understand, we reduce the risk of buying services from the wrong people and getting the wrong results. Instead of trusting random reviewers, the best results come from trusting the experience of people we know and can easily contact if their recommendation turns out not to be helpful.

People not Platforms

In short, while the platforms are useful if you don’t have any network at all, they come with big risks. It will always be more beneficial to your business and to the people offering the service for you to take the time and talk to people you know to discover who is already doing a great job. So the next time you are looking for an interpreter, keep back from the platform edge.

For free advice on getting the right interpreter for your next event, drop me an email.