Failure to Innovate: A Deathblow for Sign Language Interpreting Agencies

Agency/owner considering innovationIs it still an advantage for sign language interpreters to trade a higher hourly rate in exchange for the “benefits” of being represented by an agency? Particularly, given the world is chock-full of affordable DIY (do it yourself) business and connection tools.

While the answer to this question will differ from interpreter to interpreter, the value of this exchange of rate for representation is measured by the currency of convenience. Simply, does working with an agency make it easier for a sign language interpreter to do their work? If yes, good trade. If no, zippy.

Let’s get to the point.

If convenience is the primary factor for a sign language interpreter in determining whether a relationship with an agency is valuable or not, why aren’t agency owners and operators consumed with innovating convenience into their practices and business models? It would make good sense, no? Is it that they don’t care?

The truth? Implementing innovation is yeoman’s work.

There is a Difference

There is an important distinction between the acts of assembling practical, even clever, solutions to a problem and the act of implementing that solution. Assembling—easier. Implementing—harder.

Why is implementing harder? Humans.

3 Inhibitors of Agency Innovation

Unfortunately, it is people that make implementing new solutions to existing challenges difficult. Agency owners and operators—yes, they are people too—unintentionally get in their own way, and the forward progress of their agencies as a result of being trapped by three primary innovation inhibitors. 

Inhibitor One: Perfection is Attainable

All too often agency owners/operators fall victim to perfectionism. They become obsessed with a process or protocol being followed exactly right. In order for convenience innovation to occur and be implemented effectively, it is essential for agency owners and operators to acknowledge innovation is an iterative process.

Unfortunately, perfectionist tendencies frustrate innovation by suggesting that any iterative process of improvement falls short of the ideal and is therefore unworthy of the effort. This results in agency owners and operators stalling in their attempt to innovate.

It is essential that agency leadership get comfortable with the idea that it’s always a little messy in the middle.

Inhibitor Two: Denial of Marketplace Realities

Because the work to implement innovation is difficult, agency owners and operators sometimes deny the existence of changing marketplace realities. Conscious, or not, they do this in order to protect the status quo. A few of the marketplace realities that are currently being denied are:

1)    It is easier and cheaper than ever before to start and operate a small business. The Internet and subscription tools make it easy for sign language interpreters to establish a large virtual presence and compete for customers.

2)    Social networks empower sign language interpreters with access to vast amounts of instructional information and serve as gathering places to exchange knowledge, practices, and ideas—all of which make them formidable competitors.

3)    The weak economy is causing under-employment within the sign language interpreting industry, which makes starting a small, privateer business a strong employment option for sign language interpreters.

The denial of marketplace realities, regardless of what they are, challenges any need to depart from the status quo. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates the poo-pooing of any need to rethink how business is getting done. This is particularly true as it relates to creating additional value for the sign language interpreter.

Owners/operators with their heads in the sand are unable to lead (i.e. implement) from the front. Maybe a lesson from a sidewalk-executive is in order? 

Inhibitor Three: A Biased Perspective

Inhibitor three is the most difficult to overcome. Often it is the inaccurate perception of their own work that prevents agency owners/operators from implementing innovation. This biased perspective preoccupies managers with their historical intent of implementing systems and practices and prevents them from critically evaluating if that system truly delivers value for a sign language interpreter.

To overcome this bias, and implement successfully, agency owners and operators have to find the courage necessary to seek answers to hard questions. Questions like, what do interpreters really care about? Is what we are doing effective? What would it take for us to do [insert practice or process] better?

It takes a secure manager to check their bias and critically evaluate their practices. It takes a leader to do that and then successfully implement. 

Tips for Innovating Value

The good news is implementing innovative solutions successfully can be learned. To that end, agency owners/operators need to remember, there will be no proof that the iterative adjustments made will succeed. Innovating is a strategic choice to deliver a better experience. The following may prove helpful when choosing to innovate and working to implement those innovations.

1)    Create with the sign language interpreter in mind. Owners/operators need to take time to observe the behaviors of the interpreters engaging with their agency. Understanding social, professional, cultural and emotional drivers is key to improving their experience. Recognize that both the sign language interpreter and the business can win.

2)    Recognize limitations. When identifying process improvement opportunities, Owner/operators need to work within their agency’s ability to support the change. There is little worse than when an “innovation” makes a challenging process more cumbersome.

3)    Stop asking sign language interpreters what they want. Owners/operators need ask what concerns or bothers them about the business or its practices. Then watch where the interpreter experience suffers and fix it.

4)    Remember, there are no best practices. Because the competition conducts business in a certain way, doesn’t mean a “me too!” approach is in order. Think outside the box!

A Word of Advice

A suggestion to agency owners and operators, when pitching the rate trade for agency representation to a sign language interpreter, don’t position standards as value adds.

I believe sign language interpreters would agree that, online systems, training for CEUs, direct deposit, and reimbursement for professional dues/fees are operating standards, not differentiators.

In my mind, these are not reasons interpreters ultimately choose to align themselves with an agency.

In the End

Agencies who overcome the tangles of implementing innovations will successfully survive—even thrive. Others will find the blow of failing to innovate to be too much and will wither on the vine. At the end of the day, sign language interpreters vote with their feet. Limited number of interpreters, limited success. Yes, it is that simple.

Sign language interpreters are looking for industry entrepreneurs to introduce the next wave of innovation, even social disruption, within the sign language interpreting industry. Who’s going to be?

Sign language interpreters, what innovations would you like to see most within the agencies you work alongside?


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About the Author

Brandon is a nationally certified sign language interpreter and passionate industry entrepreneur. He has worked on both the practicing and business sides of the industry for the past 15 years. His father is deaf and his mother is a sign language interpreter. He is a devoted father and husband and enjoys the sport of triathlon.

20 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Berchele McManimon says:

    Well said!

  2. Sarah Schiffeler says:

    Hi Brandon,
    You said….”I believe sign language interpreters would agree that, online systems, training for CEUs, direct deposit, and reimbursement for professional dues/fees are operating standards, not differentiators.”

    My question is this…why would an independent contractor choose to engage in behaviors with a referral agency that has employer/employee relationship written all over it? Those are benefits I might expect if I was a staff interpreter, not as someone who is a self-employed independent contractor who contracts work through the agency.

    Am I missing a key element in your essay? I’d like to understand your view a bit clearer. Thank you!

    • Hi~
      I had same thought…to maintain the independent contractor relationship, an interpreter typically does not have any of the benefits you would enjoy as an employee. The most basic is the opportunity to negotiate and work on contracting concerns as a group. Contract issues can be brought up to non-profit boards and agency staff individually by independent contractors, but approaching as an pool of dedicated interpreter working towards professionalism is rejected.
      Independently contracting interpreters are not provided any professional development support/funds, certification maintenance support for annual fees, “staff” meetings or networking supports, in-house trainings, bonuses, insurance coverage, retirement benefits or any other interactions that would be construed as employee-employer relationships.

      The on-line scheduling and direct deposit are administrative features an agency can offer.

      I STRONGLY encourage interpreters to diversify. Set up a website (for example see with local interpreters, set up a VRI station at home, have contracts with multiple agencies, have independent contracts with entities such as your local school districts and community colleges. Do NOT put all your eggs in one basket out of convenience or habit. When agency staffing, board, contractual or other issues come up, you will have more options than relocating to maintain a livelihood and use your skills in the community you love.

      • Shelly,

        Thanks for participating.

        In your comment, you describe the most basic benefit lost by working with an agency as,

        “the opportunity to negotiate and work on contracting concerns as a group.”

        While I understand you comment in the context of interpreters choosing to accept or reject outright a contract offered by a state (when that exists) for all state government entities, I am not sure that I completely understand them in the context of working with an agency.

        In my experience, reputable agencies typically have an agreement and interpreters can negotiate aspects of that agreement and ultimately choose whether to engage or not engage. That is, and should be in my mind, done individually. Each interpreter differs in what they need and what is important to them. Both agencies and interpreters have absolutes as well. Again, it occurs to me that negotiating aspects of an agreement would benefit the interpreter more by being able to do it individually.

        Related to your comment about setting up your own website, VRI station, and diversifying your client base, this is exactly the point I am suggesting in my piece. The cost vs. benefit of doing what you are suggestion was unreasonable even 5 years ago for an individual. It is now very affordable as I am sure you can attest.

        To me, this is an important reason for agency owners/operators to consider the level of innovation around their businesses and the value they create for the interpreters they engage with.

        Again, thanks for your comment.


    • Sarah,

      Thanks for your question.

      Humor me a moment as I frame up my answer.

      As you likely gathered from my piece, I am suggesting that the benefits historically, and currently in many cases, offered by agencies (i.e. the handling of advertising/marketing, contracting, payroll, collections, logistical management, etc. functions) no longer possess the same value as they have in days past. In my mind this is due to two primary reasons,

      1) The widespread availability of affordable infrastructure solutions and tools for small businesses.

      2) Supply beginning to outpace demand for sign language interpreters in many markets around the country.

      It is important to note, and as a nod to agency owners (I used to be one so I understand the pressure), there has been intense pressure over the last 8 or so years to keep pace with the rapidly increasing rate paid to interpreters (largely due to the expansion of VRS). This pressure has required the agency owner/operators to funnel large amounts of resources to wage investments instead of innovation investments.

      As a result of the pressure to keep pace with skyrocketing rates, agencies have tied the majority of the “benefits” of their representation to the rate of pay offered to interpreters, regardless of whether they are staff or independent contractors.

      With that said, as interpreter rates are beginning to fall, as supply now begins to outpace demand, and now that the business infrastructure tools are more affordable, it is critical that agencies find ways to create a different type of value for interpreters choosing to invest in their model of delivery.

      Now to finally answer the question you asked,

      “Why would an independent contractor choose to engage in behaviors with a referral agency that has employer/employee relationship written all over it?”

      In my experience, most of the benefits, with the exception of medical, paid time, and professional fees/dues reimbursements offered to staff interpreters are also offered to independent contractors (i.e. use of their online systems for assignment engagement and invoicing, and participation in trainings etc).

      While there is typically a higher rate paid to independent contractors and an offset in benefits afforded them, I don’t believe the independent contractor pay model is any less worthy of an equal investment of innovation to their rate of pay invested.

      All in all, I think it is important that as both the sign language interpreting industry and profession continues to change and that innovation is front and center in the business models interpreters choose to align themselves with.

      Thanks again for your comment.


  3. Bill Moody says:

    Where savvy interpreters voting with their feet is not a quick fix: when certain big spoken language agencies, that are encroaching on community agencies with more contact with the signing community, have EXCLUSIVE government contracts with big consumers like hospitals and courts…
    When a city or state hospital system, for example, suddenly awards their exclusive contract to a new agency that underbid, and interpreters will be paid much less, we interpreters can give up those assignments, but the hospital will certainly find less qualified interpreters to fill them. And the new exclusive contract may be for several years.
    Even if our small community agencies can get the more qualified interpreters, the big government contracts go to the under-bidders.
    Can our caring community agencies, even with the technological tools at their disposal, compete with agencies whose only aim is profit? Can we innovate to the point where we fight the big exclusive contracts?

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your comment here.

      The landscape of players attempting to meet the demand for sign language interpreters certainly is diverse, and spoken language agencies do have a foothold in filling this need.

      As a profession, we should be asking ourselves an important question, why is it that with companies dedicated to the provision of sign language interpreting services in most markets across America do hospitals and large entities engage spoken language agencies to fill their sign language interpreting need?

      I would suggest there are a couple of primary reasons. First, it’s about convenience. The Spoken language agencies are able to offer their clients a more comprehensive solution to their interpretation and translation needs. Meaning their multi-language offering is more convenient for the hospital. Wrap this in a one contract, one provider, and one call model and you have a compelling reason to buy.

      Second, sign language is a “add value” service for most of these companies. Meaning, they offer it because it is important to their customers to have access when they needed it. Clearly, it is not their core business (their money maker). As a result of sign language interpreting not being their core business, they are not as concerned with the margins (profitability) of this service, which means they typically offer it cheaper and will pay sign language interpreters in the range the small community shops pay. They blend it in with their core business and it isn’t difficult for them to survive on lower prices.

      How do small sign language agencies compete with these larger spoken language agencies?

      It begins with the right know-how. In many cases, sign language is combined on these large contracts, sourced, competed, and awarded with very little knowledge to Community shops. Local sign language interpreting agencies only find out about it after the ink is dry.

      Agency owners/operators need dedicated people focusing on client retention and business development functions. After all, if the hospital is thrilled with the attention and service they are receiving from their local sign language interpreting agency, the less likely they are to roll it into a larger contract for multiple languages.

      In addition to know-how and dedicated people, I do believe that sign language interpreting agencies need innovative business models to compete for these large contracts. Personally, I don’t believe that agencies are taking full advantage of the infrastructure, connection and operation tools available to them. After all, it’s difficult to compete with larger companies if the intake, follow-up, invoicing and after hours services are clunky, manual and inefficient.

      The benefit of innovating convenience for interpreters is that it requires a more innovative sense of delivery of value to customers as well. Innovation = more competitive.

      Great question, Bill.


      • Aaron Brace says:

        Hi Brandon,

        Regarding: “Clearly, it is not their core business (their money maker)”

        At least one foreign language agency I’m aware of in the San Francisco Bay Area has reported that 60% of its income now comes from the coordination of ASL interpreting. They have no knowledge of our field or the Deaf community, and have gotten as much business as they have by underbidding on multiple contracts and filling the jobs with interpreters who are not much in demand by the traditional sign language agencies.

        Of course, they may be an outlier, but I doubt they’re the only foreign language agency that has found something of a cash cow in ASL interpreting contracts.


        • Aaron,

          Thanks for your follow-up comment here.

          Honestly, my thoughts are immediately drawn to my response to Bill’s question. The question interpreters and agency owners/operators in the Bay area should be asking themselves is, how is it that with companies dedicated to the provision of sign language interpreting services that spoken language agencies are being called to the point that it represents the majority of their work?

          It raises an interesting question for me personally, which is, are we as sign language interpreters and agencies so out of touch with the purchasers of our service that we are failing to understand what is most important to them?

          While we recognize price is, and will always be, important to those purchasing our services, have we failed to innovate our model of doing business in a way that makes sense to a more sophisticated world?

          While I am unsure that any agency owner/operator would consider sign language interpreting services a “cash cow,” I think the point is that there is much fruit on the ground that spoken language agencies don’t have a problem picking up. The question is, given the underemployment of many sign language interpreters, are we willing to consider that unspoiled fruit picked up off the ground isn’t beneath us?


  4. Jon Barad says:

    Money is usually the deciding factor in where interpreters choose to work, even when they insist that it isn’t. The problem is when terps don’t diversify their work portfolio and end up with all of their eggs in one basket, or when they compromise their ethics for a few bucks.

    This is a great blog. Nice food for thought!

    • Jon,

      Thanks for joining the discussion.

      I would agree that historically money has been the primary measurement used by interpreters in deciding where they work.

      With that said, as rates plateau, and even fall, nation-wide, I believe the matter of convenience will be increasingly more important to sign language interpreters.

      Agencies with the most convenient model of doing business will gain a greater percentage of their local interpreting community’s attention, which in the end better positions them to fill their work.


      • Meg Klein says:

        Agencies who take the time to appreciate and familiarize themselves with my certification/skill set, education level, and ethical standards and can then proceed to make a seemless, convenient way of doing business get my attention first. An agency who send repeated requests through email but then requires a call back to haggle over rates-apologetically saying they need to get their supervisors approval becuase they have to give first preference to uncertified, inexperienced interpreters at half my rate won’t get my business again. I’m one of those interpreters who do diversfy and am juggling many agencies, employers, and requests so if the requestor is a bungling time consuming mess or is otherwise an enemy to innovation I’ll pass, thank you very much!

  5. Aaron Brace says:

    Thanks, Brandon! Can always count on you to stir the, uh… “pot”.

    I had the same query as Sarah about the kinds of perqs you listed sounding an awful lot like an employer/employee relationship.

    What I am longing for and have yet to experience is an agency that treats each incoming job with the mind of an interpreter. I want their intake people to ask the kinds of questions I would, or even to delight me with info I didn’t realize I wanted. Most intake staff aren’t interpreters, so I know that that’s a lot to ask, but I’ve yet to even experience my helpful hints being considered for implementation. These include things like:
    - *always* inquiring about the plans/service needs for a meal time when the start time/end time span a canonical mealtime;
    - *always* inquiring about the requester’s preference for interpreters working or remaining available when no specific Deaf person is expected at an event (and always advocating for a sensible approach that considers all options);
    - (corollary) *always* discussing with the requester for a public event if they’d like assistance in getting word out to the Deaf community about the provision of services. Has the potential to greatly reduce both our frustration of interpreting to no one, and requesters’ frustration at “building it” but no one “coming”;
    - *always* inquiring as to whether the stated start time is the actual start time, or if it already includes extra time to allow for interpreter orientation (don’t get me started on customers feeling they have to shell out for an extra half-hour of service because they can’t otherwise count on interpreters to show up appropriately early).
    - *always* providing team contact info with each teamed assignment
    - and the list goes on…

    I make an effort to delight my customers, broadly defined as anyone I work for or with. If an agency were to do the same thing for me, I’d be much more inclined to support them even to the point of accepting lower rates in order to help them get work back from a disreputable agency.

    • Grin ;o) Ahhh…graduation season…standing on the platform in heels for a couple of hours interpreting for? an audience of hundreds (some wishing you would please move out of their photo taking zone) with speeches that are full of cultural insider references that aren’t particularly Deaf friendly to interpret.

    • Sarah Schiffeler says:

      Aaron et al,

      Can we consider the the agency realizing their limitations, taking a smaller cut of their substantial overhead and paying us more to do our due diligence as independent contractors? Give the independent contractors the job contact info and let us take it from there. After all, we are the ones who really know what info is necessary to get to the job and be as prepared as possible for it. There is far too much dependence on agencies. It is to the agency’s advantage to foster a relationship that has an employer/employee slant to it. And for the sake of convenience, independent contractors allow that to happen. My guiding light is….if I get audited, what are the features of my business model that support me as a legitimate independent contractor? No agency is going to come to my house when I get audited to help me explain why I used their billing system and let them deposit my check for me.

      The real issue is that, in general, we are not educated on how to run businesses and maintain appropriate boundaries with agencies. The agency model is deeply embedded in our psyche and field. But to what expense? Because contracts are won solely on who can outbid who, (economics does run the world), the agency choice is to give the work to the interpreters who charge the lowest rate so they can reap the highest profit. It is not about working where I can make the most money. It is about wanting the people who are on the receiving end of our services knowing that they have truly been in an dynamically equivalent interaction and that it was not the finances that prevented that.

      It is not about the consumers (Deaf & hearing) who need effective and robust service anymore. It is about profits. I may be qualified, but if I charge “too much” (according to what agencies can afford out of their low bid) then I guarantee you I will not be the interpreter getting the work. And I can guarantee you that “too much” is not an out of the box number. Sometimes it is a mere few dollars.

      I am not against working through and representing agencies. But when I know that my rate is getting whittled away, but the fee the paying consumers fork over has not decreased then I begin to consider what my other options are to sustain a fair and living interpreting wage.

    • Aaron,

      Thanks for participating. My apologies for the delay in responding to your comment.

      Regarding the perks, please see my response to Sarah above.

      I appreciate, as I am sure many readers do, your comment relative to having scheduling personnel “treat each incoming job with the mind of an interpreter.”

      Having owned an agency, I can tell you this might be the greatest challenge an agency owners/operators faces. When we would have attrition in our scheduling group, I would be anxious for months and months. They are the heartbeat of any agency.

      With that said, I don’t believe it impossible to achieve what you are suggesting. While it is not practical to pay a sign language interpreter to schedule assignments, it is practical to automate the intake process in a way that more closely aligns the information gathering process with the perspective and thinking of a sign language interpreter. After all, interpreters are the ones navigating on the ground and know what they need to do so effectively.

      As suggested in my piece, this requires agency owners/operators to innovate around the intake process. Historically, the innovation has been to hire the right person, and attempt to endow them with the thinking of an interpreter. While this was, in many respects, the only way it could be done 15 years ago, it is certainly not the only way today.

      Again, the DIY tools, most of the customizable, that are available today can more easily and affordably allow agency owner/operators to make these types of innovations in their businesses. And as you have said, you would be willing to make a greater investment of rate with agencies willing to do so. I believe you sentiment would apply to many practicing interpreters.

      Honestly, what you have suggested in your hints are, to me, more policy matters than innovations. The ones outlined below can QUICKLY an EASILY be addressed by an agency with some simple adjustments to customer and interpreter policy/protocol.

      - Plans/service needs around meal time
      - Working or remaining available when no specific Deaf person is expected
      - Whether the stated start time is the actual start time
      - Providing team contact info with each teamed assignment

      At the end of the day, agencies who consider innovating in order to deliver more value to the practicing interpreter, will enjoy greater longevity in the market (assuming they manage their businesses appropriately).

      Thanks for your comment, Aaron.


  6. Dwight Godwin says:

    Very interesting article/blog Brandon.

    I always like the comments section of these pieces just as much as the subject itself.

    I believe that Sarah has some very valid points (HI Sarah), and have long been an advocate that most Agencies truly do have an Employer/Employee relationship set up that flies in the face of IRS regulations and Federal law.

    But on to another point – You say,
    “4)Remember, there are no best practices. Because the competition conducts business in a certain way, doesn’t mean a “me too!” approach is in order. Think outside the box!”

    I will agree that thinking outside the box is critical. However, Thinking outside the box “intelligently” is more important.

    Along those lines, I would challenge Agency owners, managers, AND Freelance Interpreters to consider learning about Lean Management principals. Most people consider “Lean” to be an Engineering principal. Not so, it is a very powerful management practice for any business. can give you some of the basic ideas of how to look at Lean. One simply has to remember THE most important part – It really is a continuous circle and not a “do once” process.

    One must constantly strive to improve. In today’s world, I believe that the Interpreting profession has become so mired in the “same old – same old” that we do not look at process improvement as something we need.

    We are, sadly, very wrong.

    Thank you for the contributions that Street Leverage has made to my professional life.

    • Dwight,

      I agree with you 100%, thinking outside the box “intelligently” is important. As stated in my piece, ‘there is little worse than when an “innovation” makes a challenging process more cumbersome.’

      Your challenge to the sign language interpreting profession and industry to learn about Lean Management principals is a good one. I believe if agency owners/operators replaced the words “end customer” with “interpreter” and “product family” with “service type” they could gather some insight into innovating around their businesses.

      Of the four primary principles,

      1. Specify value from the standpoint of the end customer by product family.

      2. Identify all the steps in the value stream for each product family, eliminating whenever possible those steps that do not create value.

      3. Make the value-creating steps occur in tight sequence so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer.

      4. As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.

      I am particularly fond of number 2. I think this is where most agencies within the sign language interpreting industry experience challenges. We often don’t consider the removal of antiquated protocol/practices as a viable way to innovate. When considering innovation, what is not present is just as important as what is present.

      Lastly, I agree with your comment that each of us must, “constantly strive to improve.” Clearly, as you are suggesting, process improvement needs to be front and center in the work agencies owners/operators do to deliver an appropriate level of value for the investment sign language interpreters make in their businesses.

      Great comment, Dwight.


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