Freelancer Beware: Read This Before You Hire a Transcription Service By Bill Shirley

A few weeks back I was especially busy in my communications consulting business. One late evening, as I pondered how I’d get everything done in the brief time available to me, I made a note to visit the Yellow Pages the next day to find a transcription service. I write a lot of feature articles for the employee newsletter of an insurance company, and most assignments involve interviews with executives whom I quote for the stories.

In combing through the phone book listings, I came across two services that I called. One was a woman working alone. Her rate was $30/hour, and she promised a two-day turnaround. The second service was the local office of ABC Business Parks (not their real name), where the woman I spoke with said the rate was $35/hour, and turnaround was normally within 24 hours.

I chose ABC because they had a back-up typist in case the primary person got too busy. For this peace of mind – and for the 24-hour turnaround – I was willing to pay an extra $5/hour.

The interview on one of my tapes lasted about 50 minutes, and the second approximately 15 to 20. So, at the most, we’re looking at 1 hour and 10 minutes of air time. I dropped the tapes off at the end of the day on a Tuesday, and my nightmare scenario began to unfold.

Instead of 24 hours, it took ABC close to 48 hours to e-mail the transcript to me. When they did, they wanted to charge me $282.13 for converting 70 minutes of audio to a Word file riddled with inaccuracies and misplaced or non-existent punctuation. In fact, the quality of the transcript was so poor that I needed to drive to ABC and retrieve the tapes, listen to them from start to finish, and make a multitude of corrections.

The typist keyed in “unquestably,” instead of “unquestionably.” She typed, “Reinsurance of splice” instead of “reinsurance is placed.” “Penitential” instead of “potential.” “Mythology” instead of “methodology.” “Contastrfy” instead of “catastrophe.” This was just the tip of the errors iceberg. When I was finished with the longer transcript, I counted 284 mistakes over 14.5 pages – an average of 18+ errors per page. The document was neither proofread nor spellchecked before it was sent to me.

I told ABC that the bill for $282.13 was unacceptable. I said that when I transcribe a tape, it generally takes me about four hours for each hour of interview time. And, unlike them, transcribing tapes is not my advertised profession. Therefore, wasn’t it reasonable to expect that a professional could transcribe one hour and 10 minutes of tape in four hours time? Plus, there was the issue of quality. I told them I was willing to pay $140 (4 hrs. x $35/hr.) and let that be the end of it.

Like many writers, I imagine, assertiveness is not my strong suit. The next day, after cooling down a bit, I extended an olive branch to the ABC manager, saying I was willing to pay for five hours work, amounting to $175. The young lady said she’d have to check with the powers that be and get back to me.

The next morning, she left a voice mail informing me that ABC would bill me for 5.5 hours, or $192.50. In her message, she said, “That’s the lowest we could go, and that’s really an excellent deal.” She went on to say, “…you’re just thinking all the charges you incurred are for listening and typing the dictation. However, we also charge for speaking with you. So your initial phone call, when you asked what our hourly rate was, all that is additional things you’re charged for, and included in your original bill.”

Unhappy, I called the manager and got her voice mail. In my message, I reluctantly agreed to 5.5 hours of charges, and asked her to provide me with the name and address of the president or CEO of ABC – whoever is in charge of the whole organization. I said I was planning to send a letter.

Instead of the president’s information, the manager gave me the name and address of the vice president of operations. This sent me to ABC’s Web site, where I learned the president’s identity and was treated to a message from him. On a page outlining their commitment, the head honcho wrote about their prestigious locations, office environments and teams and promised he wanted to help his customers succeed, at a price they could afford.

My next VISA bill listed charges from ABC totaling $282.13. There was also a credit for $73.63, bringing the total amount I paid to the company to $208.50. Upon seeing this, I understood the manager’s comment, “…you’re just thinking all the charges you incurred are for listening and typing the dictation.” Evidently, I had paid $192.50 for 5.5 hours of inferior transcription work – and an additional $16 to ABC “for speaking with (me).”

Here’s my advice to any writer who’s considering hiring a transcription service, absent a glowing referral. Instead of just asking for the hourly rate, request a detailed estimate based on the length of the tape you’re providing and the number of speakers on the tape. Also, to be sure you’re dealing with someone with a strong command of the English language, ask for a sample of the transcriber’s work.

This freelancer learned his lesson the hard way. I hope you can benefit from my less than pleasant experience.

Bill Shirley is a freelance writer who provides business-to-business communications solutions to a variety of clients. A former vice president of corporate communications for a leading insurance company, Bill is located in Downingtown, Pennsylvania and can be reached at (at)