5 things that freelancers should know about agencies (from someone who’s worked in both)


It’s the ultimate dream to be your own boss, but with it comes great responsibility: not only are you managing and motivating yourself, but you have to seek your own income, do your own taxes, not forgetting to put money aside for retirement….and on top of that, any sick leave or holiday that you take all adds up to time where you’re not earning.

It should come to no surprise, then, that if a freelancer in any profession feels like their time is being wasted, they may get a little….shirty.

However, I have been on the receiving end of a freelancer’s wrath many a time, back when I worked as a service coordinator in one of my previous workplaces. And trust me, things look very different when you’re working in a busy office for just-above minimum wage, when your suppliers are sending invoices for 10 times what you’re earning in a day!

I should clarify at this point that I have nothing against any of my previous employers, and the people I worked with (both colleagues and freelancers) were brilliant – some of the friendliest people I know. The reason I’m writing this post is just to share some of my personal experience from both sides of the camp. I recently read a blog post with advice to project managers from freelancers – however, this post is kind of the opposite. I believe that relationships are much more cohesive when you understand both sides of the story, and with that in mind…

  1. Diva behaviour is never appreciated.

“Diva?” you may be thinking. “I may be outstanding in my field, but I would hardly compare myself to Mariah Carey.” Well, imaginary heckler, I must admit that I’ve only encountered a few “diva” freelancers, and I remain optimistic that most of the human race are kind, polite and understanding people. However, that didn’t stop one supplier from flipping out when I politely told them that I was unable to print and ship multiple book-loads of material from the UK to Asia, due to the end client’s sustainability policy, and (as per the contract she had already agreed to) she would need to either use the electronic version I had sent her or print the material herself. Upon hearing this, the supplier then flat-out refused to deliver a two-day event (which would have meant a hefty loss for her, of roughly two months’ worth of an average UK salary).

I was so shocked by her reaction that I never wanted to contact her again, and I vowed that if I ever became a freelancer, I would never be so mean! Even if you disagree with the company’s policies, it’s best to do your angry ranting in an e-mail that you never intend on sending – and then try and stay polite and work towards solving the problem in the e-mail that you do send. Remember, these administrators are often only the messengers!

  1. If you’re too much trouble, agencies might look for someone else.

In the situation with the above supplier, it managed to get resolved and the event went ahead after all. Meanwhile, however, my managers instantly asked the Vendor Management team to start sourcing more suppliers in that area, so that we wouldn’t have to rely so much on the availability (and whims) of one person. Sadly, our “allegiance” (for want of a better word) was to the end client who paid our company, not to the suppliers who delivered the events, and there was always a need to expand the pool of suppliers to keep up with the clients’ demands. This meant that we had some vendors who would constantly badger us for more work, and complain when they didn’t get enough. Not only was the number of events that a client wanted completely out of our hands, but the coordinators became reluctant to assign work to the people who were bothering them all the time, when there were plenty more easy-going, more understanding suppliers – who charged the same amount. It’s kind of a balancing act though, because on the other hand…

  1. Some agencies don’t mind paying more if you’re awesome.

Since our clients ended up meeting our suppliers face to face (unlike the translation industry), they ended up having favourites and knew which ones would deliver great events while keeping it relevant to the client’s industry. From a pure business point of view, this created a dilemma for the agency – the client might request a preferred supplier, the supplier wins more work and increases their rates, and suddenly the agency’s margin is smaller. Yet, the end client would sometimes pay a bit more for a guaranteed quality service, than risk trying a new (albeit slightly cheaper) supplier. This actually varied across countries and cultures – but if you were new, and you got the chance to prove yourself, then there would be no qualms about giving you repeated work. I guess the hardest part is getting your foot in the door.

  1. Invoicing can be a drag.

When I first encountered the Proz Blue Boards (where translators can rate their experiences with agencies and companies), I was surprised at how many agencies were given a 1/5 score for paying an invoice a little late. Wow, these people have high standards, I thought – and rightly so, I now realise. I’m sorry to say that signing off supplier invoices in my previous job was the bane of my life. It was such a large company and there was a never ending (electronic) pile – and as a result, invoices always moved lower and lower down everyone’s priority list. It didn’t help that some supplier invoices were almost cryptic in their information – no PO, different costs to what was in the PO, no invoice number or job reference…sometimes it would take half an hour just to approve one invoice. Freelancers: if a client gives you a PO, put it on the invoice! It could potentially save hours of an administrator’s time – and you would get paid faster. If we couldn’t work out what job an invoice was related to, it just got left for another time. I know, it’s not cool. And I realise now, as a freelancer, that if a company’s payment terms are 75 days and they still haven’t gotten round to processing it, that is indeed unacceptable. Agencies know this too, which is why they’re so evasive when answering (or probably ignoring) your emails and calls asking where your money is.

  1. There are good days and bad days in both jobs.

So, which side would you prefer to be on: freelancer or employee?! Both have their perks, I think: independence and self-management versus financial security and the “safety net” of a team or manager. They also have different versions of flexibility (would you rather work any hours you want, or have paid holiday?) and different everyday pressures. I’m kind of glad that I’ve worked alongside freelancers before becoming one, as it gave me an idea of how to build and maintain my own client relationships, based on the suppliers that I always enjoyed hearing from in my previous job.

One thing is certain: by understanding more about how “the other side” works, or even being more considerate of a person’s individual situation, we can all work together much more effectively – and hopefully, some real, long-lasting professional relationships can be forged. At the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do their job.

Are you a self-employed, or an employee who liaises with freelancers? Have you encountered any of these situations (from either end)? Would you rather be one or the other? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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11 thoughts on “5 things that freelancers should know about agencies (from someone who’s worked in both)

  1. Thanks for a very informative article, Natalie. Being able to see both sides of the scenario- the agency side and the freelancer’s side- can be vital especially when we encounter issues re. payment, communications, P.Os, etc. You are right when you say that everyone is just trying to do their job – if we can make the ride smoother with a bit courtesy and efficiency, then why not? Hope to read you again soon. 🙂

    • Thankyou Christina, that’s exactly the message that I hoped to bring across! I know that sometimes a good rant and moan is hard to resist, but it’s rarely as constructive and can sometimes be more of a hindrance if it’s directed towards someone you repeatedly work with. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Natalie! It was interesting to read your article and get sight of the translation industry from another point of view. I’ve been working as a freelancer for more than 8 years, however, I never worked as a full-time agency employee. As for the agencies who don’t mind paying more… it strongly depends on the country. At the dawn of my translation career, I worked for several translation companies from Russia and Ukraine, and all of them would rather break their neck than pay more, even if you’re doing your best, not to speak of the low standard rates… That’s why I prefer to work with direct clients (or European/American agencies).

    • Thanks for reading, Simon! I guess it depends on the end client’s industry as well as the culture – I found that our end clients in India and China would rather pay more to have a trusted supplier that they already knew than try someone unknown, whereas in the UK they would be happy to save the money. Still, it’s nice to know that money isn’t always the most important thing!

  3. Very interesting article Natalie. It is very refreshing to be given such a balanced view. All too often it seems to be an “us” and “them” war as though we do not have a common goal in delivering an excellent service to the customer. The point you make about invoicing is particularly illuminating. My own invoices are always correctly referenced with PO and job so it had never crossed my mind that some translators may be omitting this, resulting in delayed payments and the knock-on effect of an agency possibly receiving a bad reputation for something that was ultimately the fault of the translator. Thank you for highlighting this.

    • Thanks for reading, Andrea! I agree, it does sometimes feel like an “us vs. them” war. You would not believe some of the invoices I’ve seen – sometimes it just says “job” and the cost – no other identifying information to help me sift through the hundreds of projects happening! Having a clear invoice is such a simple change that helps the process so much.

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  6. There are a few unwarranted generalizations here.
    Most – though not all – translation agencies actually prefer paying less than having hassle-free royal customer service from freelancers. I’m always on the lookout for more agencies who don’t, and these are not so many.
    Many agencies invest in a complex and overly kafkian recruitment/onboarding system for new translators what they should be investing in an efficient order-job-collection-payment processing system, tasks which they have staff performing almost manually.
    While my relentlessly helpful and colaborative attitude may gain the PM’s friendship, in too many cases the lower price gets – albeit unfriendily – the order.
    Variables are countless.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jose. Yes, translation agencies do vary a huge amount in terms of their practices and values (also, my experience was at a training agency, not in translation, so, slightly different again).
      Still, I personally have found a few agencies who are more interested in actually forging a relationship than bumping me off for a cheaper deal, who I’m guessing like my quality of work. I know of agency owners, too, who sometimes stop working with people who are overly difficult, unprofessional and impolite.
      So most of the time, manners never hurt, especially when, as I mentioned, the PMs are often just following orders from higher up (even if they are bad ones).

      • It’s often a two-way street. Yesterday, or maybe the day before, I received FIVE different job offers from one agency within a 90-minute time span. Having worked for them a couple of times in the distant past, I learned that they pay low rates (yes, still low, I saw the offers), long-term, and yet late, in spite of both their web site and blog stating and recommending otherwise. Though I had the time to do these, I chose to remain available on short notice for my valued, good and frequent clients.

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