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Provider of translations looks to talk up services

Lori L. Anding drew what she considers the short straw when she and Marlene Gomez were setting up their small business that uses independent linguists to provide translation services.

When it came to dividing up responsibilities, Gomez got accounting and production. Anding ended up with sales -- an area she just doesn’t like.

“I find salespeople very annoying, so I have a huge problem if I am really trying to sell translations,” says Anding, 44, co-owner of Axiom Translations in Torrance. “I have a hard time meeting the mold, becoming that mold of a salesperson I think I should be.”

Sales have flattened at the small business that uses more than 100 independent linguists to translate English manuals into many other languages, create subtitles for videos and interpret legal proceedings, among other services.

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After peaking at $246,000 in 2006, sales slid to $196,000 last year. The recession hammered the business in the first half of this year, but several promising contracts are looming.

The 5-year-old company is keeping busy with small jobs translating academic transcripts for students. The slump has also pushed the owners to work harder toward their longtime goal of becoming certified as a minority- and female-owned business.

“We want to be able to open different doors,” says Gomez, 42, a Costa Rica native and Spanish speaker.

They believe they have already won business from major companies such as Sempra Energy of San Diego, the parent of Southern California Gas Co., because Axiom is female-owned. They won a recent contract from the city of Los Angeles as of one three vendors approved to offer interpretation and translation services for the city’s dozens of neighborhood councils, based in part on their good-faith efforts to get certified.

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Other potential customers, including a major pharmaceutical company, “won’t touch us until we are certified,” says Anding, who has been researching the requirements.

In fact, many minority-owned and female-owned businesses looking for an edge in today’s tough economy are exploring becoming certified, says John W. Murray Jr., president and chief executive of a major certification group, Southern California Minority Business Development Council Inc.

Although public agencies may not be allowed to award contracts based on race or gender, many private corporations strive for supplier diversity. They often rely on databases of certified firms put together by nonprofit business development groups.

Murray’s nonprofit council, one of 38 nationwide overseen by National Minority Business Council Inc., certifies minority-owned firms, offers business development services and maintains a database of certified firms.

To access these corporate clients, Anding shouldn’t worry about her lack of sales and marketing experience, he says.

Certification as a minority-owned and female-owned business can be a part of their strategy to find sales in new markets or with new clients in existing markets.

After talking with Anding and Gomez, Murray offered recommendations.

* Be strategic about sales. Anding should drop her fear of being seen as a pushy salesperson. Remember instead that Axiom Translations is selling a professional service, not snake oil.

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“The kind of suede-shoe salesperson you allude to is not who you are,” Murray says. “So it’s OK if you don’t talk fast and wear white shoes and white belts and funny-colored pants.”

Learn instead to think of sales in a strategic way, he suggests. Determine how to segment the marketplace. Then decide how to prioritize the sectors where translation and interpretation services are most in demand and the potential clients in each area.

Put together a message to attract clients in that sweet spot, he says. The two owners’ passion and knowledge of the business can continue to be an important part of their sales efforts.

At the same time, they could benefit by thinking through the core competencies of their business, Murray says. That information can be the meat of their sales message.

* Consider getting certified as a minority-owned business. To qualify for certification as a minority-owned business, Gomez would have to take a majority stake -- at least 51%, in the company as well as have the majority voice in management and control and the top executive title. The women are 50-50 partners.

“Clearly that is a very personal decision, as well as a financial decision that the partners have to sit down and do a benefit assessment of,” Murray says.

Lauren Knight, a certification specialist at the Southern California council, said Axiom Translations could expect a site visit, requests for certain pages of its income tax returns, corporate structure documents and proof of the owner’s U.S. citizenship.

That last requirement is a temporary hurdle for Gomez, who has a green card but is just starting the process to become a U.S. citizen. She thought the process might take a few months. Murray warned that it could take much longer.

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Once they take the necessary steps, the council’s certification cost is $250 for the first year and $175 to renew in subsequent years. Acceptance takes a few months and gives certified firms free access to council workshops, classes and vendor fairs. The council’s certification is accepted by other entities, including the city of Los Angeles.

Certification is free through other groups, including the city, but there may be lengthy backlogs.

* Get certified as a female-owned business. In the meantime, Axiom can pursue certification as a female-owned business. He suggests they consider Women’s Business Enterprise National Council at www.wbenc.org/ as a source that uses a stringent, respected certification process. Its certification is recognized by major corporations including FedEx Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and Kaiser Permanente, according to its website.

* Don’t wait for business to find you. No matter what group they are certified by, it’s what Axiom does with the certification that matters, Murray says.

“Anyone can sit in a database and hope that someone happens to be looking for your service,” he says.

The better route is to use the certification as part of an active, strategic sales and marketing push.

Adding and promoting their updated value-added sales message into existing marketing materials is the next step. Those materials already project an image of a firm that is larger than the two-person Axiom, but the message has to be honed.

* Be smart about networking. Axiom should network with other minority-owned and female-owned firms and potential major corporate clients, Murray says.

And the owners should be careful not to waste their time.

“To be honest, I sometimes see a business coming to every event, picking up tchotchkes from corporate exhibit booths, and I can’t help thinking that I didn’t care about tchotchkes” as a minority-owned business executive, he says. “I was there to make connections. I was there to pitch my business. I had done my homework in terms of who of those companies were likely customers.”

For Axiom, those customers could include other certified businesses, many of which have international ties or aspirations and could benefit from the company’s translation or interpretation services, he says.

* Be realistic about certification advantages. Certification doesn’t guarantee business, Murray cautioned. It can open new doors, particularly at companies that value supplier diversity. But Axiom will still have to actively sell and market, continue to improve services and ensure its pricing is competitive.

“Certification really becomes an additional value you can bring to your customers and which you have for your business,” he says.

Don’t expect it to pay immediate dividends, he says. “It may not always pay back right away,” Murray says. “You have to put yourself out there, and you have to keep at it.”

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If your company could benefit from a free business makeover, to be published in The Times, send a brief description of your company and its challenges to bizmakeover@latimes.com, with your company name in the subject line, or to Business Makeover, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles CA 90012. Include a daytime phone number.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Axiom Translations

Business: Axiom Translations in Torrance translates marketing materials, websites, manuals, videos and packaging from English into many other languages and vice versa. It also handles interpretation for meetings and legal proceedings. Clients include California Bank & Trust, Torrance telescope maker Celestron and the city of Los Angeles.

Owners: Lori L. Anding and Marlene Gomez

Employees: Uses independent contractors

Revenue: $196,000 in 2008

Founded: October 2004

Start-up funds: $14,000 in personal savings and credit card debt

Website: www.axiomtranslations.com

Challenge: Build sales and marketing efforts

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Meet the expert

John W. Murray Jr. is president and chief executive of Southern California Minority Business Development Council Inc. in Los Angeles (www.scmbdc .org). He was recently named vice chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of several public-sector roles he has held. In the private sector, Murray has been a senior vice president at U.S. Public Technologies Inc., a vice president at construction management company Jenkins, Gales & Martinez Inc. and has held management positions at First Nationwide Bank.


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