This is the result of my calculations of the average number of newly acquired customers per year for the last 28 years, since I started translating as an independent freelance translator in 1987.
This figure is based on the number of files representing customers, listed in a subdirectory which I called “Customer History” and which includes further subdirectories containing scanned files of invoices and other documents and correspondence between my customers and me, be they direct customers or translation agencies.
Most of them will probably no longer be sending me work, mostly for reasons unknown, although in some cases the reason is clear. For example, several of these people are no longer alive. As I scan the files, I Google the names of the people and companies, and if I find an obituary, I print it out and scan it in at the beginning of the file, although I’m not quite sure why I do that. Some sort of digital closure, I guess.
A few of those who are still among the living might still come back, in which case I will create a new active file for them as if they were brand new customers. In fact, one tiny agency that hasn’t contacted me since 1992 sent me a minimum fee job last month. I see in my digital files that in 1992 they paid me $2,581.60.
I have a separate filing cabinet with files of customers that I consider “active”, which means they have sent me work recently. I’ll be scanning those files into my records only if and when I decide to move my office, at which point I will need to get rid of a whole mountain of paper.
The two big filing cabinets in my home office for old customers contain paper files arranged alphabetically in manila folders with printed invoices, purchase orders and other correspondence, such as 1099 tax statements that were sent by these now old, non-active customers to me and the Internal Revenue Service in accordance with tax regulations.
The numbers of course only tell part of the story. Some of these customers who no longer seem to be needing my services were keeping me busy for more than a decade, a few of them since 1987 when I was still only working for agencies, a few more since 1991 when I started looking for and finding direct customers.
Some of these customers sent me only one job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the one-job wonders are not worth creating a file for them. For example, I see in one of these files a customer who sent me only one job in 2004 and after that only one request for a cost estimate, which wasn’t followed by a work order. But I see that for that single patent job in 2004, a long patent that including figures and flowcharts was well over 100 pages, I was paid 11,200 dollars, which was my winning bid sent to a potential new customer who found my website.
Although it isn’t in my files, I remember that I read in the newspaper that the same customer, a medium size patent law firm, declared dissolution a year or two ago. Good thing I caught that one job from them 11 years ago, before they decided to call it quits.
Several of the patent law firms no longer exist, at least half a dozen of those that are scanned into my subdirectory for law firms. But even when they decide to close shop, the same lawyers sometimes contact me and send me work from another firm, or as sole practitioners.
But I have not dissolved myself yet, despite the hot and humid weather here in the South. I’m still here, easily findable on the Internet, riding merrily along, yippee, yeah, yey!
My current record of new customers from this year also seems to confirm the number 12 as the average number of new customers who normally replace other customers who are lost through natural attrition and/or other, largely unexplainable black magic tricks.
I see that so far 11 new customers found me this year, all of them thanks to my website.
For some reason, there was not a single new customer this year up until May 25, when I finally scored a new one, a patent agent in California who sent me five Japanese patents, if I remember correctly. He mailed me a check within a few days for all of the translations, which was greatly appreciated because I was low on funds at that point, partly because I hadn’t been able to land any new customers for five months in a row. He is a single practitioner, just like me, and unlike corporations, single practitioners usually don’t sit on the money that they get from their customers in advance for translation for as long as possible to improve their cash flow.
The last new customer, a corporate patent lawyer, contacted me about two months ago. I gave him a cost estimate, and waited and waited … to no avail, I thought. But a month later he did eventually sent me twice as big a job than the one I gave him an estimate for, with two long Japanese patents that I finished only a week ago.
So since there have been 11 of them so far this year, if I find one more new customer this year, the average number of newly found customers will be 12 again for this year, which would correspond to the average number during the last twenty eight years.
I think that 12 is probably a magic number, that’s why time is counted in units of 12, although everything else is counted in decimal units. There are 12 months in a year, 12 hours in a day (up until high noon), and then another 12 hours to midnight. If you think of what happened in your life in years of your age that are divisible by twelve, I’ll bet that you will find for some reason events of momentous significance that happened in those years and eventually defined who you are and what you are doing now.
That is why so many languages have the word “dozen”, although this word is much more used in some languages, such as English, than for example in Japanese, where a native equivalent does not exist, or in Slavic languages which have the word, but don’t use it much.
The number 12 is at least as magical as the number seven as far as I’m concerned, probably more so. Otherwise the average number of new customers per year for the last 28 years would have to be about seven. Number seven is a good number too, but clearly, 12 is 70% better than seven. I see from my records that last year I had only six new customers, which is one reason why it was not a very good year for my business.
If I counted the agency that has not contacted me since 1992 (which makes it 23 years!), it would be 12 new customers this year already. But agencies don’t count for the purposes of my equation for replacement of old customers lost through attrition. For one thing, this one is an old customer, regardless of how much time has passed since I worked for them last time. Plus I don’t really count agencies, only direct customers. I can’t count agencies because the moment somebody offers to translate the same thing for half a cent per word less, they are gone.
The worst thing that a translator can do is to rely on only one or only a few clients who seem to have a lot of work all the time. I keep saying that this kind of arrangement is the kiss of death, because it’s true.
Nothing lasts forever, and once the all-important client is gone, you will need about 12 new clients to replace the formerly all-important client who for one reason or another suddenly completely disappeared.