Comparison Shopping

Due to the nature and variations of most transcription work, comparison shopping can be very confusing and sometimes even deceptive. Perhaps the motto that a transcription shopper should adopt is that of Syms Clothing Stores - "An educated consumer is our best customer." With that in mind, the following is a list of questions and some commentary, which you should have answers to prior to selecting a transcription service.

You might start by preparing a simple matrix of the data you will collect to be able to compare one service against another.

Additionally, don't just limit your search to local or regional firms. In the digital age, it doesn't make any difference - you have the whole world open to you (even India, the Philippines and Pakistan).

Two critical points to always keep in mind -

  • Asking for rates should be the last question of an inquiry.
  • Judge a service by the questions you are asked.

  1. Does it make any difference what service does my transcribing - besides price?
  2. Does the service have experience transcribing the type of work that you need to have done? And who have they done similar projects for that might be able to give a reference?
  3. What are the questions that transcription prospects never, ever ask?
  4. What are some of the variables in a project that could affect the transcription process and costs and why this information should be identified to the transcription company when trying to get an estimate?
  5. How do transcription services bill for their services?
  6. What technical support is offered for transcription of the wide range of digital and analog formats?
  7. What is the best way to send recorded content for transcription?
  8. What about recording equipment?
  9. WARNING! WARNING! WARNING

1. Does it make any difference what service does my transcribing - besides price?

The best analogy might be if you owned a BMW and had to decide where to bring it to be serviced - a BMW dealer or a neighborhood gas station. The answer is obvious - unless the neighborhood gas station is owned by a 20-year BMW mechanic. Or, if the car is your only mode of transportation and one can get it done in one day versus the other who will take three days. Or if you have a 1978 model that was designed with 1978 technology and most mechanics have never worked on those old models.

Analogy translation? It does make a major difference in who you use. Should you use a neighborhood home typist or a secretarial service? A national company who does corporate work for Fortune 500 companies, or a specialized service who works with academic subject matter, oral history, etc.

Bottom line?

a. The most important factor in selecting a transcription firm is the quality and diversity of its human resources, i.e., its transcribers.

b. The second most important factor is its level of experience and its responsiveness if there are any problems.

c. The third factor? Rates! But remember, low rates will not necessarily translate to low costs.

Mini Biography

Have they done?

  • Interviews
  • Seminars
  • Webcasts
  • Meeting notes
  • Presentations
  • Oral histories
  • Panel discussions
  • Lectures
  • Conference calls
  • Speeches
  • Focus groups
  • Archival material
  • Legal court proceedings, hearings, depositions, interrogations?
What about special requests like:
  • Military oral histories?
  • Accented English with Yiddish terms?
  • Heavy duty Texas drawls?
  • Strong Spanish accents?
  • Brooklynese?
  • Spanish (translication)?

3. What are the questions that transcription prospects never, ever ask?

  • Could you give me some information on your transcription staff?
  • What's their academic background?
  • Where are they from?
  • Do they have any special cultural competencies, etc?, based on the nature of the work you need to have done.

You should be choosing a service based on their ability to provide transcriptionists with the background, education and life experiences that best match your project goals.

Relying on experienced companies with top-notch reputations is your best guarantee of value for your transcription dollar. Aside from selecting a mature service that has a strong history of providing top-notch work in a variety of subjects, what is more important is the quality and depth of the transcription group. While you probably will never have direct contact with most transcriptionists (unless it's a 1-or 2-person operation next door), it is important to get a good idea about the backgrounds of the staff.

Factors listed below are critical to quality transcriptionists:

  • Education
  • Diverse experience
  • General knowledge
  • Diverse cultural backgrounds
  • Keyboard speed
  • Intellectual curiosity

NOTE: While the transcription industry has historically relied on "home typists," it is suggested to select a service that relies on the bulk of their work being done internally under direct professional supervision. The result usually is higher quality work and reliability, as well as guaranteed turnaround deadlines.

Any other tips?

  • If you have a large project under tight deadlines, select a service that doesn't rely on a limited number of transcriptionists. Between sickness, holidays, vacation, personal problems, etc., projects can very easily be delayed.
  • If you're trying a new service, send them a short sample of what you need to have transcribed and evaluate the results, as well as the cost. In the long run, it will save you time, money, and anxiety.
  • A note to the wise - if you are considering outsourcing to Asia or the Philippines, send a 15 minute example to evaluate their ability to transcribe Americanese. Usually they will do a sample at no cost.
  • Don't limit your search for transcription services to local sources alone. With electronic transmission of audio and e-mailed transcripts, you now have access to top-quality nationwide sources and equally quick turnaround.
  • One last point on turnaround. If your transcripts are part of projects that generate direct income, the more rapid the turnaround, the quicker the completion of the project. This not only gives you a competitive advantage, but it also means getting paid more quickly.

4. What are some of the variables in a project that could affect the transcription process and costs and why this information should be identified to the transcription company when trying to get an estimate?

  • Subject matter: general, technical, etc?
  • Accents/dialects, speech patterns?
  • Fast talker vs. slow talker?
  • Quality of recording equipment?
  • Identifying speakers in group setting?
  • Do you want false starts edited out?
  • Umms & ahs? Stutters? Edited out?
  • Number of speakers interacting?
  • Recording environments, e.g. ambient noise?
  • Finished formats - standard or custom?
  • Purpose of the transcript - for notes or heavy editing?

Why are these variations important? Because each of these factors can make a difference in what you will eventually pay for your transcript.

How do these types of variables translate into predictable project costs? With great difficulty! For example, most established services charge an hourly rate for the type of work listed above. They tend to use an average industry production standard of 5 hours of typing for each hour of audio. Depending on any number of the differences listed above, one hour of audio tape can take 3 ½ hours or 6 ½ hours.

The hourly rate charged may be the same, but the cost could vary substantially.

Note: It should be noted that most of your established, professional firms will contact you immediately if they discover anything in the audio that could adversely affect the projected estimate of the total cost.

5. How do transcription services bill for their services?

No matter what method of billing or rate structure is used, there are certain questions that should be delved into.

  • How do they charge?
  • By the word?
  • By the line?
  • By the page?
  • By the hour?
  • By the project

When rates are quoted for any of these billing methods, questions should be raised, such as:

  • How do they define length of words? Average number of words per line? Per page?
  • How many lines on a double-spaced page? (There is a major difference between 24 and 26 lines per page - 8.3% to be precise.)
  • Do they use 10-point, 12-point, or large font size?
  • What margins do they use? 1" all around? 1 ½" left margin, 1 ½" bottom margin, 1" top and right margins?
  • How fast do their transcriptionists type?
  • If the audio is less than stellar quality, do they still charge the same rate?
  • If they charge by the project, will they guarantee their bid?
  • What premium do they charge for rush or emergency jobs?
  • If by the page, do they charge extra for less than stellar audio?
  • If by the page, who eats the extra time for additional audio – the company or the transcriptionist? (Yes, it's a loaded question.)
Caveat Emptor

6. What technical support is offered for transcription of the wide range of digital and analog formats?

See if the transcription company offers high quality conversion of any commonly used digital formats including .wav, MP3, Real, and QuickTime. Additionally, does the company transcribe video from analog sources such as VHS, and digital sources such as MiniDV or DVD? Also, does the transcription service provide complete conversion and transcription of reel-to-reel audio tapes?

There may be occasions when you've made every effort to ensure the best possible recording, but for whatever reason, something went wrong. Does the transcription service clean up poorly recorded sound so that it can be transcribed?

Perhaps you would like to have your recorded content digitized. Does the company provide digital files of your analog/video tapes for use in streaming over the internet, distribution on CD-ROM, or simply for ease of accessibility? Are they capable of creating an archival copy of your audio?

7. What is the best way to send recorded content for transcription?

If you've recorded digitally, make sure you can deliver your content via SSL, encrypted FTP (File Transfer Protocol) using the internet. Make sure the service offers private FTP accounts, so that only you have access to your audio files. Sending files electronically prevents delays, and loss of tapes and disks in transit, which expedites the overall process.

This means as soon as recordings are sent, the service will put your project into its queue and begin transcribing right away - no more expensive shipping costs and loss of sleep due to packages that never made it!

8. What about recording equipment?

There are several sources of good information, however, be so forewarned - for each 10 sources of information you will get 11 opinions. Never-the-less, we would recommend the following sources:

  1. The best? Vermont FolkLife Center - http://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/archive/archive-fieldguides.html
  2. Society of American Archivist list serve (SAA) - http://www.archivists.org/
  3. Oral history Association list serve (OHA) - http://alpha.dickinson.edu/oha/
  4. Association of Personal Historians list serve (APH) - http://www.personalhistorians.org
  5. Atlantic Public Media's Transom.org - Go to their tools page and learn about a lot of tools for recording. http://www.transom.org/tools/

While the transcription industry has traditionally relied on home typists, it is suggested to select a service that insures that all production is monitored under professional supervision. This results in greater confidence that the quality and integrity of the work, as well as the turnaround time, will be insured.

If you have a large project under tight deadlines, select a service that doesn't rely on a limited number of transcriptionists. Between sickness, holidays, vacation, personal problems, equipment etc., projects can very easily be delayed.

If you're trying a new service, send them a short sample of what you need to have transcribed and evaluate the results, as well as the cost. In the long run it will save you time, money, and anxiety.

Don't limit your search for transcription services to local sources alone. With electronic transmission and e-mailed transcripts, you now have access to top-quality nationwide sources and equally quick turnaround.

One last point on turnaround. If your transcripts are part of projects that generate direct income e.g. work for personal historians, the more rapid the turnaround, the quicker the completion of the project. This not only gives you a competitive advantage, but it also means getting paid more quickly.

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING

The most important fact that should be taken into account (even if you do not transcribe your recordings) is the quality of the recording. The computer people got it right many years ago - GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you put any value on your work, you should invest in equipment that will always result in good-quality audio. Since most of the work listed above is done in less than ideal environments, your recording equipment should be of such quality that it will result in the best recording possible. While some poor recordings can be electronically cleaned up or enhanced, every additional action taken by a transcription company will add to your eventual cost - in one way or another.

ALWAYS REMEMBER - Even if you do your own transcribing, always have a back-up copy of your original before you begin transcription.

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