How To Spot More Better Marketing

Count out how many times in your life you’ve seen a product in advertising that was similar to something you already do, have, or want. Did the advertiser tell you it would do more stuff? Did the advertiser tell you it was better at doing stuff than its competitors? Did the advertiser try to make you feel good and confident about a purchase in this product? February of last year, I touched on the magic of marketing. Today, we explore marketing that takes aim at us, how to identify it, and how to tell our students not to be swayed by it.

The genesis of this post is actually a marketing blitz by Transcription Outsourcing, LLC. Their ad boldly starts off “Tired of waiting for your court reporter?” They claim their prices are “up to” 50 percent less expensive than a court reporter. Guaranteed accuracy, 3 to 5 day turnaround. Among their many claims are reporters won’t format your documents, send back errors, have overseas teams that are hard to contact, take weeks. For most of us in the business, this is laughable, but we have to take ourselves out of our skin and hop into the skin of a potential client or a stenography student that has zero experience in sitting at a stenotype or desk transcribing legal proceedings. As far as identifying and helping students identify “more better marketing” I’d propose watching out for four red flags:

  1. It’s cheaper than you.
  2. It’s faster than you.
  3. You still have a job.
  4. It promises.

One, if it’s cheaper, why isn’t everybody using it? For this, you can look into your own life experience. Why don’t you buy cheaper food or a less expensive product? Usually doing something cheaper means sacrificing quality or training somewhere in the process. Two, if it’s faster, again, why isn’t everybody on it? Are there problems scaling the product, does the service provider not deliver, or are the costs of being faster too high? Three, you still have a job? Look, Company XYZ says they’re cheaper, faster, better, more better, amazing, and yet the clients are still using stenographic court reporters. This is not to say these types of services could not, through their marketing, supplant reporters. But flag three is all about acknowledging that at least some what they’re selling is hype and hope to customers. Four, it promises. That’s probably the biggest red flag you can get in this type of marketing. We saw it with Theranos, Project Natal, Solar Roadways, Waterseer, Hyperloop. People love to sell things whether they’re possible or not. They promise their solution is the solution. Theranos was going to test extraordinarily small amounts of blood and administer treatments through patches. It had a $9 billion valuation. Didn’t exist. Project Natal and Milo were going to revolutionize gaming. There were videos advertising it! Didn’t exist. Solar Roadways was going to solve America’s energy crisis by throwing out everything we know about efficient solar power generation. It raised millions of dollars. Didn’t work. Waterseer was going to solve the world’s water crisis and forgot to mention that dehumidifiers have the same basic function. The Hyperloop routinely ignores that a single break in the loop or tunnel could implode the entire thing and kill everyone in it. Promises are part of human interaction, but buying into them without reservation is dangerous and expensive. If it promises but doesn’t deliver, take note.

That’s identification in a nutshell. And at this point many are probably saying, “Chris, you’re just picking on these guys because they’re taking a swipe at court reporting. You don’t actually have anything that shows their promises aren’t the real deal!” This is where experience as a court reporter comes in. Take a look, again, at the things they said about court reporters.

  1. They won’t format your documents. Well, in some jurisdictions, we have a prescribed transcript format. Even here in New York City, where there’s virtually no such mandate for freelancers, I know many freelancers who do or have worked for agencies that work with the New York City Law Department or MTA, and both like transcripts formatted a certain way by contract. Bottom line is if you can’t find a court reporter that’ll format your document, it’s either not proper in your jurisdiction or there’s some other stenographic court reporting company that will do it.
  2. They send you back errors. I consider myself an extremely average reporter. I’m so average it took me ten years to finish off my RPR. In that ten years, I can recall exactly once that an error so egregious made its way in that it needed to be corrected and was serious. Humans make errors. News articles make errors every day. I’ve hired a lawyer that made an error. Guess what happens? It gets corrected. The world keeps turning. But, these people guarantee accuracy. I’m sure that means if a client find an error, they get the whole transcription for free, right? Right?! It promises, but there’s nothing really backing that promise. Students, ask your mentor how many mistakes they’ve made in their career. Ask them how many were serious. Mistakes are a non-issue in the context of a larger career if you learn from them.
  3. Their overseas teams are hard to contact. With the majority of court reporting firms I know and have worked with being US-based or having US-based management, I find this an odd claim. Even Israel-based Verbit, to the extent you can consider them court reporters, never came off as particularly hard to contact. Even the smallest firms I’ve ever worked with have a dialing service that makes sure the customer can get in touch with someone or leave questions or comments for the owner.
  4. They aren’t secure. I’ve found the word security to be kind of a red herring in our business. What kind of security are we talking about? SSL Certificates? Haven’t seen a reporting firm without them. Secure repositories? If you spend about sixty seconds Googling reporting firms, you’ll find security. It’s a comfort word at this point.
  5. They take weeks. Six-hour service is available. Interesting. I wonder if Transcription Outsourcing provides six-hour service on eight-hour depositions like many of my colleagues do with their dailies and their immediates. For those not in the business, for a reasonable cost, a properly trained and skilled stenographic reporter can work with their team or scopist to deliver a transcript immediately at the conclusion of a deposition. I am sure that once time travel is developed, court reporters will be the pioneers in producing transcripts before proceedings actually occur, too.

The point is to look at the millions and millions of dollars that have went into ideas that had little chance of succeeding. Look how long it takes to verify that these ideas are scams or false hope. How many people do you think are fact checking transcription and court reporting companies? Even this idea that the service is cheaper is knocked right out of reality by their own rates. Between $1.50 and $5.00 per minute. When I was in the business of freelance court reporting and transcribed audio, I charged somewhere in the realm of $100 an hour, which is about $1.67 a minute. If you take their best rate, by their own advertising, they’re at best 10 percent cheaper. They had no problem making that 10 into a 50 in their advertising. Looking at some of their other rates, you can save yourself 30 percent by switching to steno. If any of this “better, cheaper” stuff was true, why would reporters use scopists? Sorry scopists. We can just send our work into Transcription Outsourcing, LLC, take our 30 percent, and let them do all the work. Doesn’t happen. They don’t care about burning an entire bridge of potential customers because there’s no savings to be had there. They want what our clients are paying today in their pockets, and they’re hoping lawyers fall for it.

The bottom line is we’re going to be seeing more and more puffery and opinion enter our field masquerading as fact. We will be inundated with it. It’s much easier to make up falsehoods or questionable claims than it is to fact check those same claims. So when you see, for example, Protect Your Record Project fighting to raise awareness about our services, it’s a win. When you see state associations fighting to raise awareness about our services, it’s a win. When you see professionals donating their time to help encourage students and mentoring new reporters, it’s a win. When you see Open Steno, NCRA, and Project Steno advertising this field and ways to get in, it’s a win. Our strength is that there are thousands of us in the field practicing today, and so one minute from each of us amounts to a lot more time and effort than companies can spend on making up BS. Keep taking advantage of that and working together to educate. Keep hitting up social media platforms and making sure people aren’t misled about who we are and what we do. The last ten years have built an impressive online community of reporters. The next ten will be a test of getting that community’s knowledge out to clients and potential stenographers.

Stenographers, US Legal Is Not Your Friend

As some quick background, I received an anonymous email that basically said “US Legal is shifting to ECR and having stenos train them, your mileage may vary but your days are numbered.” Hit up two of my favorite friends and mentors about it. One said, “they sent it to you because you blog everything, don’t give them any air time.” The other said, “look into it, verify whether or not it’s true, and there’s not much you can do about it.”

So anyway, I took the second option, and I surveyed some people using Google/Facebook, and like me, people had heard this before. A dear friend sent me a mailer that was received from US Legal CA. They want people to transcribe from home. Then I went looking on the careers page of the website and found their New York listing for Electronic Court Reporter. Probably because we are 1099s, there’s not the slightest mention of stenographic reporter.

But this inspires some critical thought. Why would a company push so hard for transcribers and electronic recorders? My opinion? They believe that the alternative methods are where the almighty dollar is. But they rely on us not speaking about it. They rely on us not sharing this message. They rely on us continuing to work with them using our infrastructure and experience that stenography has built over the last six decades. So I have an honest message to any stenographic reporter: Leave them in the dust. Don’t take the jobs, take the clients. It’s one thing if you want to work with us and pay us well. It’s another thing entirely to position yourself to do away with us. These aren’t your clients, they are our customer base, and we’re taking it back.

Consider too that these companies have shown the willingness and desire to not play by the rules. In a recent decision, Holly Moose v US Legal, US Legal argued that it should not be bound by state rules because it is in the business of connecting customers with independent contractors. The court said that this logic was unpersuasive at best.

Our ability to stay vibrant and the viability of this field rely on being visible and profitable. Nobody is going to educate stenographers if we’re making transcriber money. If a company offered you double your money this year but no more jobs after that ever from anyone, would you take it? That’s what we’re looking at on a grand scale the more we put our heads in the sand. Companies exist out of convenience to their investors. Reduce that margin, watch them pull out, and let the work flow naturally where it needs to: Stenographic court reporters.

To E Court Reporters and Transcribers

I’m writing to you today because chances are high we aren’t that different. Maybe we both like law, or depositions, or working with lawyers. Maybe we both heard this was a great career with lots of potential. Maybe we will both face the same hurdles and challenges. Maybe you’ll cruise around my little blog here and find articles that pertain to you.

For the longest time, the deposition was the space of the stenographic reporter. Depending on where you’re at, we were making a lot of money and still have great careers today. Now what’s happened is the companies that previously used stenographers are trying to move towards transcription. They’re using you all to record and transcribe what we take down and transcribe. And I’m here today to make two points for your benefit:

  1. Try stenography. It’s easy to learn, it’s hard to do fast, and our community is in the process of building free resources for you to try it out.
  2. There’s a constant and unending thing at play called the market.

Stick with me, because I’m going to offer solutions. We all know that there are buyers and sellers of goods and services, and they are always, through one way or another, negotiating. If Law Office A doesn’t like Reporting Company B’s style or service, they can always use Reporting Company C. That’s the market at work. But there’s an unspoken side of the market, the labor force. Stenographers, voice writers, electronic reporters, transcribers, are all players in the market, and our actions can dictate our future.

Succinctly, when I was a deposition stenographer I was making only about $3.50 to $4.00 a page, and 25 cents to 50 cents a copy. That’s on a regular 14-day turnaround. There were also services where we’d rush the transcript for more than 6 bucks a page. To put that in perspective, let’s say that a fast-talking lawyer can do at least 60 pages an hour. 240 an hour. But for every hour at a deposition it would take me about an hour of transcription, 120 an hour. Sounds high, right? But I was an independent contractor and had to factor in the days where I made $0.00.

So now let’s take you, the valuable, amazing person they’re now pitching $20 an hour at, or $40 an hour at. Let’s say that you’re also doing the transcription work, and let’s assume it takes you much longer so you’re getting more hours transcribing. $40 at the 1 hour deposition, then four hours of transcription. $200. It takes you 5 to 10 hours of work to make pretty much the same $200 I was getting in two hours. Don’t forget, you’re doing pretty much the same work, it’s just taking you longer and making your life harder.

So what are the solutions? I’ve got 3:

  1. Try stenography. It’s going to make your life easier. You’re going to command higher rates and pump out work fast. Has someone told you it’s dead? Consider whether they have a financial interest in telling you that.
  2. Negotiate for more. Just like I’ve told stenographers for the last 4 years we are what we ask for. The work you’re doing is hard, and it is valuable. They can afford to pay you more and they know it, and I know it, and now you know it too. They’re not passing the savings of using you off to the lawyer, they’re pocketing it. And as capitalism teaches us, the money is always better off in our wallet.
  3. Unionize. I’m not even kidding. As freelancers we deposition reporters would’ve had an uphill struggle to unionize. Unions are a dirty word now but let’s look at what they’re entitled to by law: Good-faith negotiations. Ultimately the union gets a peek at company finances and the company and union negotiate on what would be a fairer market rate for the services being provided. Where direct pay isn’t available, a union could negotiate for job security, better workplace rules, and medical or other benefits. There are even already legal workers unions in NYC.

If you found this helpful, spread the knowledge. Empower your colleagues. Fight because this is a fight worth winning. If you found this strange, consider that the rules in life are too. The longer you play by the rules dictated to you by others, the more you are set to lose. Take control. Be polite, be professional, be the best, but go forward with the understanding that you are a market force, and your actions dictate the future.