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Tips to Choose the Best Transcription Service

Search for 'transcription services', or variations thereof, on Google and it throws up thousands of results. Even if you narrow it down by searching for specialist services such as 'interview transcription' or 'conference transcription', it still results in a large number of websites. So how should clients choose?

There are a number of factors which should be taken into account when assessing whether a company is suitable. Price alone should not govern your choice. A transcription company's answers to a number of questions should reveal the ones with a professional approach. Each subject is dealt with in more detail below but briefly, these questions can be summed up as:

  • Do they have enough transcribers?

  • Who does the transcribing?

  • Is the audio listened to a second time?

  • How much time will the transcriber spend on research?

  • Is the transcript proofread?

  • Do they offer project management for large projects?

All the above should automatically form part of the service provided by transcription companies and be included in their price.

Do they have enough transcribers?

Or put another way, do they take on more than they can chew? Transcription companies should be aware of the limitations posed by the number of experienced transcribers they have available. Too often companies can take on large projects with short turnaround times and fail to ensure that an adequate number of suitable transcribers are available. This results in clients receiving rushed transcripts completed by innumerable outsourced transcribers. Very little time will have been taken to minimize queries and proofreading may well be non-existent. Sometimes, the sheer volume of material that the transcription company takes on means that not everything in that project will have been checked by any supervising hand. No transcriber should compromise on quality by taking on more transcription than they have the capacity to deal with.

Who does the transcribing?

Only highly experienced transcribers should be used. Transcribing is not a suitable task for an audio typist with a few years' experience in an office. Each transcriber should have excellent grammar and language skills, exceptional accuracy and proofreading ability, and most important of all, be able to 'think' and recognize inconsistencies in the spoken word, spot contextual errors, be confident with different accents, dialects and be able to interpret voice inflections; all without altering the original meaning and style of the speaker.

A supplementary question should be: is the transcription outsourced and if so, where to? Is the standard of the outsourced transcriber of a high enough quality to provide the service you need? This may be a controversial area but if a recording is in English, we firmly believe the transcriber's mother tongue should also be English. If the recording is in Chinese, the transcriber's mother tongue should be Chinese, etc. For example, clients in the UK should think carefully whether the standard of transcript provided by overseas agencies can ever match the same high quality provided by English speakers. There could be a problem with accuracy when transcribing difficult accents, dialects and slang terms which can differ enormously from country to country. We've been asked by clients to correct transcripts completed abroad and some of the mistakes could have been catastrophic, for example, providing wrong medical details.

Is the audio listened to a second time?

We believe all recordings should be listened to a second time once the transcript has been completed. We're not just talking about listening again while it's being transcribed in order to clarify any inaudible bits, but listening to the whole recording from beginning to end against the transcript once it's initially completed. This is an excellent way of clarifying any queries and also ensuring that the sense and context of the transcript as a whole is captured accurately. Incorrect punctuation or the wrong stress on words can change the meaning entirely, and it's often not until you listen to the sentences in full that you can pick up a speaker's meaning, and be absolutely sure that the sentences are broken up correctly.

Listening to snatches of a few words here and there, which is inevitably what transcribers do when they're typing, often misses some of these intonations and the wrong interpretation can be put on a phrase. Even with clear recordings where transcribers can be fairly confident that they've captured everything accurately the first time, we believe it's important to listen again. Words which were supposedly clear on the first listen through may suddenly be heard differently, particularly in the context of the whole paragraph. It's a trap many inexperienced transcribers fall into regularly. A professional service will be aware of this and should automatically include this extra check for clients, and without charging extra for it.

How much time will the transcriber spend on research?

In most recordings, there will be names, places or terminology which won't be automatically familiar to a transcriber. Transcription for students should be prepared to spend additional time checking that these names and terms are correct, thus ensuring a minimum of queries. If a client provides a list of names or keywords, it can be helpful to minimize the time spent checking, but transcribers should be offering this research as part of the service provided, again without charge. It's fairly easy to check names, places, keywords or even terminology on Google. However, transcribers should obviously be aware of the pitfalls of only checking one or two Internet sources; as we all know, accuracy varies tremendously across different websites. Each website consulted should be from a reliable source and be supplemented by any reference books which should be in a transcriber's office anyway. A client should receive a transcript and be confident that all the names and terminology have already been checked.

Is the transcript proofread?

All transcripts should be thoroughly proofread after they've been completed. This is the only way to pick up any typos or inconsistencies or spot where something doesn't make sense in the overall context. A supplementary question would then be: proofread by whom? Each transcript should be read by a pair of eyes other than the original transcriber. Some transcription companies claim to proofread transcripts but when you look at their small print, the proofreading is only done by the outsourced transcriber. No project manager or overseeing eye has even looked at their transcripts. When this happens, not only are mistakes not picked up but any missing or unclear words aren't clarified. These 'in-audibles' may only have been the result of one transcriber not hearing a name properly on a recording, whereas another transcriber on another recording might have picked it up more clearly. Without one supervising mind both re-listening and proofreading, these corrections and gaps are never filled in - resulting in an incomplete and inaccurate transcript.

Do they offer project management for large projects?

All transcription companies should provide project management of large assignments at no extra cost. This enables clients to concentrate on their project, confident in the knowledge that the audio transcription side will be taken care of. Instead of dealing with a range of different transcribers for a large project, transcription companies should coordinate everything, leaving the client with one point of contact throughout. Where necessary, Business Meeting Transcription Services should convert audio files to a compatible transcription format, distribute digital audio files to their team of transcribers, and ensure that all transcripts are completed to meet deadlines. Too many transcribers accept large assignments without the project management skills to handle them. This results in transcripts not being proofread and recordings are not listened to again to resolve any queries. In short, there is no single guiding hand overseeing all the transcripts and this results in a very uneven service.

So, what else should clients expect from a professional transcriber?

Transcription companies should be aware of all the factors influencing the length of time it will take to transcribe any recording, and should build this into their price range, turnaround times and staffing levels for any project. They should be prepared to brief a client accordingly so that they have realistic expectations. It may be helpful for clients to realize that one hour of recording does not take one hour to transcribe. We speak much faster than we can write or type - otherwise there'd be no need for shorthand or stenographers! It takes a minimum of four hours to transcribe a one hour recording and can take longer if the recording is of poor quality or there are many participants. Timings can also be influenced by the type of transcript needed, whether that be Complete Verbatim, Intelligent Verbatim or an Edited Transcript.

If you approach a transcription company, it should soon become clear whether they know what they're talking about, and that they are offering you the correct level of service and that their promises are realistic. The schedule for professional transcribers tends to fill up fairly quickly, but this in itself should be an indication of the quality of their service (in the same way that a company which has lots of space at short notice should raise questions in a client's mind about the quality of their service). Clients should, if possible, think about booking a transcription service as early as they can, and preferably well in advance of a large project. Waiting until the project is completed and then trying to find an experienced transcriber at short notice could prove difficult. Most professional transcription companies have a long list of regular customers and suddenly finding a large block of free space at short notice may not be possible. So book your transcription company in advance, in the same way as you would the interviewees and venues. If you contact a transcription service in advance, they can offer advice on facilitating and recording your project. Transcribers have years of experience and know what works and what doesn't work to achieve a good recording - use that knowledge to make your job easier.

Clients obviously want a cost-effective transcription service, but we hope that professionalism, reliability and meticulous, accurate transcripts are equally important. If someone offers transcription services at a ridiculously cheap rate, it's unlikely they have much experience. We've heard numerous horror stories from clients who've used transcriptionists who charged a very low rate. Clients have received what amounts to nothing more than a draft transcript, with inappropriate punctuation or incorrect words, or they've had to wait several weeks for their transcripts. The client has then wasted time checking and correcting the transcripts themselves; so the cheap price ended up being a false economy.

To help you choose a transcriber, it may be worth examining other aspects of their business to help you make your choice. Look at the number of years they've been in business, not just the years they've worked in an office. Judge them on amount of time they've been running their own independent, self employed business. Check their confidentiality statement and their willingness to sign non-disclosure agreements. Ask them if they operate only during normal office hours or will they go that extra mile to cover your urgent evening or weekend transcripts? Transcription companies should offer a flexible service to meet the needs of their clients, not their own convenience.

And finally, look at their testimonial page on the website. If it isn't there, ask yourself why and perhaps request past client contact information. If there are testimonials, reflect on the quality of them, the range of clients served and the content. The glowing ones will soon stand out and in today's busy world, if a client has taken the time to compose more than a standard sentence, then that should give you confidence in the quality of the service on offer. In short, you get what you pay for and cheapest doesn't necessarily mean best. If you approach a professional business, you will receive a professional service.

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