How do I choose a good human transcription service?

If you’re reading this, you probably have already made your mind to go fully manual.

Maybe you’ve heard a lot of good things about human-transcribed dictations. Perhaps, you have all sorts of expectations regarding quality and ease of publication.

But before you jump in with both feet looking for this type of service, I want you to take a step back.

First, be clear about why you’re picking a manual transcription service in the first place.

If you don’t have a solid idea, chances are your expectations might be unrealistic.

You probably don’t need me to remind you how damaging unrealistic expectations could be.

What should you expect from manual transcription?

What follows is the typical list of benefits human transcription services bring to the table. But just because most people get these benefits, doesn’t automatically mean you will.

I want you to be clear about these so you can line them up with your own expectations.

Logical sentence construction

Software transcription is lousy when it comes to logical sentence breaks. This is why you have to “train them”—which can take forever.

Human beings, on the other hand, are able to detect where sentences begin and where they end. Just as important, they have a preference for better sentence construction. The resulting transcript reads better because of logical sentence construction.

You don’t have to dictate punctuation

I don’t know about you, but one of the most annoying things about dictating to software involves punctuation!

You have to direct the software how to end or format your sentence. Sure, a lot of authors say that this becomes second nature. But, does it really? What kind of price do you pay to reach that stage?

In many cases, when you dictate punctuation, you lose your train of thought. If you’re reading this, you would know how important thought clarity is when dictating content.

You can dictate at full speed

Since you don’t have to worry about sentence construction and punctuation dictation, you can dictate at full speed. This is crucial, because when you’re dictablogging or doing dictaphone writing, ideas flash through your mind at the speed of thousands of miles per hour.
You want to “freeze” as many of those ideas as you can and put them into a logical structure before you speak it. This requires your full attention, so you can dictate them properly. It would be a shame to master this process, only to be forced to slow down because you’re dictating to software.

When you’re dealing with a human transcription service, you don’t have to worry about this.

You can edit yourself

Personally, this is the biggest selling point of human transcription services.

You can say a sentence and, in a split second, say that sentence again (or a fragment of it) with key changes. A human transcriber would easily understand what happened and your transcript will reflect “the final version” of your sentence.

Good luck doing this with software!

What you would see is the same sentence repeated over and over with slight variations at the end. This makes editing a nightmare!

You are not dictating to software

Since you don’t have to worry about punctuation, sentence construction, and other software-based issues, you can focus your attention on your audience.

You can also emote, explore side topics, and otherwise, enrich the text that you are producing with your voice.

This doesn’t happen with software—you’re trapped in a box. Because, if you dare go out of the technical parameters of that box, the transcript’s going to suffer.

You want fuller control over the creative process

Since you have such a wider leeway when you’re dictating to a human being, you have fuller control.

You can slow down. You can speed up in certain parts. You also have the time to think about other parts of the transcription and change your dictation accordingly.

The confidence that you get can also enable you to skip through different parts of your outline—and not have to worry that you are going to break something or dictate in such a way that would harm the quality of the transcript.

You can’t do that with software because, at the back of your head, you’re afraid that if you do something or you’re too aggressive, the transcript would be lousy.

You are assured of a minimum quality standard

Assuming that you hire the right transcriber, you can at least trust that the transcript will meet certain minimum quality standards.

This is a big deal—because when dealing with software, sometimes, the quality is hit-or-miss.

When you’re dictating to software, you’re very fearful. So, you feel you’re very limited when it comes to your dictation style.

Not so with human transcribers. You can experiment with your dictation styles in a bid to improve your output.

Maybe you’re trying to produce more content, or you are writing a different type of content.

Please understand that when you’re dictating an article or blog post, you are going to be speaking at a different speed and form than when you are dictating a novel or chapters in a fairly long story.

You want this flexibility. Unfortunately, that can’t be found with software.

You can give special instructions

Transcribers can also be instructed to format your content a certain way.

Maybe you need specialized spacing; or you would like pictures embedded in the text. You are given wider leeway when it comes to additional instructions. Of course, the more specialized and labor-intensive the instructions become (for example: adding pictures), the more you should pay the transcriber.

Still, you have this capability that you don’t have with software.

You enjoy greater flexibility with manual transcription

Let’s face it: when you are dictating your content, on some days, you feel really productive and you could speak at a rate of 300 words per minute.

The ideas seem to hit you from all places. On the other hand, there are certain days when you’re dictating at a snail’s pace.

When you’re working with a human transcription service, you have a lot more flexibility because you can change the pace of your voice. You can also give special instructions on how to format or process certain parts of your dictation.

This flexibility translates to greater creative opportunities, and—ultimately—a higher-quality end product. I wish I could say the same about software.

Make no mistake, there are certain situations where software transcription makes sense.

For example, if you’re just filling up a website and you need low-quality fillers, go with software. You save a tremendous amount of money and you fill up your website in no time.

But, if you expect your output to be engaging and to communicate with your target audience on many different levels, I highly suggest you go with a human transcription service.

How to choose a good human transcription service

In the following sections, I’m going to step you through key strategies that have enabled successful dictation bloggers and dictaphone writers to pick high-quality, cost-effective human transcription services.

Stick to these guidelines—because the further you get away from them, the more likely you’re going to run into problems.

Don’t obsess about price

I get it! You’re a struggling writer or you’re just starting out. You don’t have much capital. This is all understandable.

But, please also understand that if you try to cut costs too much, you’re going to be creating more problems than you’re solving.

It’s very tempting, at this point in time, to hire an offshore transcription firm—these are companies that seem legit on the surface.

They also offer a seemingly irresistible price.

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of a 2 cents-per-minute transcription?

Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, not so fast.

You have to understand that many offshore firms actually use software. When you go to their website, they show rows upon rows of people typing away. But, that’s just the image that they’re trying to create.

In reality, the company involves 3 guys running audio through software. If that’s the kind of service you want, you could’ve done it yourself!

There are all sorts of transcription software available online—a lot of them are free! Why should you pay an offshore firm to do something that you could be doing yourself?

Another downside with low-cost firms is that they’re staffed with people with very rough English skills.

This is not a slam against offshore firms, but let’s be perfectly clear: a lot of them are based in countries with large populations of people who speak English as a second language. This might sound awesome on the surface, but there’s a wide disparity among that population when it comes to English skills.

Another common problem with low-cost transcription services is that they often use software for the quality assurance process.

Just because Grammarly says that a piece of text has a 99 quality score, doesn’t mean you automatically get to sleep better at night. I’ve seen Grammarly-passed content that will churn your stomach.

The bottom line about pricing:

You shouldn’t obsess about price; price should not be your main selection criterion when picking a human transcription service.

Hire individuals, not agencies

From the looks of things, agencies seem to have so many advantages.

First, they have professional communication channels—if you have a question, you can expect it to be answered very quickly. They also tend to operate very fast. From the time you send your payment to the point you get your transcript, expect a few hours, not days.

Agencies also have standardized processes. They have a process for taking your order, processing it, getting it to you, and dealing with any kind of revisions you may have in mind.

One of their biggest selling points is redundancy.

When you go to a typical transcription agency website, they will always tell you that they have several people available should the person assigned to your project fall behind. What’s not to love, right? All told, agencies are more likely to meet deadlines.

You may be asking yourself, “given all these advantages, what could possibly be the downside?”

Well, it turns out that agency disadvantages are quite considerable.

First of all, they tend to be more expensive. Somebody’s got to pay for all that redundancy and quick processing. That person is you!

Also, behind the scenes, it’s too tempting for these firms to use software. They may not automate the whole transcription process, but it’s too tempting to use software for at least parts of the transcription or quality assurance process.

Another downside to hiring an agency is that they might assign your project to somebody less experienced.

Their testimonials and sales materials may play up the skill set of their most brilliant employee. But when it comes to your project, it’s assigned to the newbie—this doesn’t exactly give people confidence.

I prefer individual transcribers. Why?

They’re more likely to just focus on your project. They’re not likely to have several projects in the air.

This means that they can give your project the attention it deserves. This translates to individual transcribers delivering a more uniform quality.

You have to understand that if you want to run a successful business, you need predictability. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where your output is awesome one day, and a complete pile of garbage the next. You’re going to quickly run out of business that way.

Hire individuals, not agencies.

Filter for basic qualifications

When you’re hiring individual transcribers, stick to the basics. What kind of skills are you exactly looking for?

Too many small business people from the United States are blind to this. They automatically assume that if somebody advertises themselves as a transcriber, this means that they know what they’re doing.

Not so! You have to test people. Don’t just take their word for it.

What should you look for?

Well, at the most basic, you should shoot for somebody who could tell similar sounding English words apart.

There’s a big difference between the words “seem” and “seam.” The same goes with “scene” and “seen.”

As you probably already know, the English language is weird.

We have many silent letters. We also have pretty funky transforming tenses. Hire somebody who could at least make sense of all of this and produce a solid transcript.

Another basic qualification involves grammar skills. The person you hire must have solid grammar skills and great English writing skills.

Let me put it this way: if they don’t know how to write English sufficiently well, they have no business transcribing your text.

Sure, they’re listening to audio and typing what they hear. But, there’s a lot more going on—they’re making sense of what they hear.

Somebody with lousy English writing skills is just going to automatically write what they hear.

They’re not going to check for self-editing, nor are they going to care if the final sentence truly matches your intent.

Another basic qualification you should be on the lookout for involves accuracy.

The right candidate must be on the lookout for self-editing.

In a typical dictation, you’re going to say the same sentence several times with small changes in the end. The idea is that the final mention of that sentence is the correct one.

Alternatively, you could say a sentence in one form and, then, quickly say another sentence with the same meaning. This is also a form of self-editing. You’re obviously replacing the previous sentence with the latest once. Why? They have the same meaning! You just came up with a better way to say it—maybe it’s shorter, maybe it gets to the point better. Whatever the case may be, superiority is obvious.

You need to hire somebody that can tell.

You don’t want somebody who just blindly types out one sentence after another without actually thinking the structure through.

Which leads me to the final basic qualification which is competent sentence construction.

Since you’re not dictating punctuation, your transcriber must be able to spot sentence transitions and forms from a mile away. Otherwise, you’re going to get a lot of run-on sentences or badly chopped up sentences.

Neither of these situations are good because they make you look like a bad writer!

Ask for a multi-stage trial

If you’ve ever applied for a job, you know that during the interview, you’re going to have to look like Superman—most applicants are able to pull this off.

But, once they start working, it’s an entirely different story.

The same goes with online hiring. When you try people out with just one test assignment, don’t be surprised if almost everybody looks like the second coming of Dostoyevsky—really well constructed sentences, clear passages, and amazing flow.

But, once you hire them, it’s as if you took on a 3rd grader! What happened?

Well, I don’t want you to find yourself in a situation where you’re asking yourself ‘what happened!’ This is why I recommend that you insist on a multi-stage trial.

The first stage should filter people based on whether they can understand and write basic English.

Nothing too dramatic or overly complicated. But, this is the stage where you have to be very strict.

If the test comes in with even a minor error, fail that person. The stakes are too high!

Because if you think that they will be able to fix their errors later on, you are only fooling yourself. Errors get magnified. They don’t decrease from this point on.

The next step is to test their ability to transcribe materials in different styles.

Stage 1 would have a straightforward style. Stage 2 would have a more varied or confusing speaking style.

They should clear both stages with flying colors.

The final stage of your screening process should also involve different additional steps.

Maybe you could ask them to format the transcript. Maybe you could ask them to change its order.

This not only tells you that this person is ready, willing, and eager to take instructions; but, this person is also willing to learn from you.

Be on the lookout for this red flag

If you come across somebody who doesn’t want to test and just tells you that they have many years of experience, skip that person.

Either they don’t have any confidence in their skills, or they’re using some sort of automated system. Either way, you have no business doing business with them.

Build quality assurance into your process

The system that I use involves emails. When I send a work to a transcriber, I would list instructions for that person. They only need to read the instructions so they can produce the quality that I’m looking for.

When I hired that person, I gave them a standard checklist. I instructed them to read it very carefully and include it in every transcript delivery.

The idea is, every time they read those instructions coming in, and the packing slip going out, they’re reminded of the quality standards that their work has to live up to.

This goes a long way in avoiding any nasty surprises.

It also reminds the contractor of my quality expectations. I’m happy to report that this has worked quite well.

Here’s the secret, though: you can’t just use a blanket statement along the lines of, “I expect quality.” That’s not going to cut it!

You have to break it down into steps.

When you do, you end up defining what quality is—and this puts the contractor on notice. They have a clear idea of how you define quality and they will, then, work accordingly. This way, you don’t have any outsized expectations and, on the other hand, it’s also fair to them because they’re on notice.

Prepare for revisions

I wish I could tell you that once you build quality assurance into your process, you don’t have to worry about production hiccups and quality issues in the future. Sadly, that’s not realistic—we are human beings and stuff does happen from time to time.

What’s important is that you’re prepared for these production hiccups.

When you include a packing sheet that you’ll require per delivery, be clear on certain error patterns.

Try to update your packing sheet so the transcriber will be up to date as to what kind of problems other contractors are facing.

Finally, when you contact your transcriber regarding issues that you found with his or her work, specify how they can fix it.

You’re not resolving the issue when you just call people out. You have to take the extra step and tell them, “this is how I’d like it fixed.”

Don’t automatically assume that they know how to fix the problem. In many cases, they might not even think there’s a problem.

Manage both of your expectations carefully to produce a positive outcome.

Where to find the right transcriber

Now that you have a clear idea of the processes that you’re going to have to use so you can maximize transcription quality, the next step is to find the right contractors.

You have many options available to you: you can go with standard freelancing platforms, gig-based freelancing exchanges, online classified ads, and Facebook groups.

As awesome as these options may seem on the surface, they also come with quite a number of disadvantages that you should know of.

Blindly jumping into one or several platforms, without a clear idea about possible issues, might end up wasting a lot of your time.

Since time is money, you have to be very careful.

Standard freelancing platforms

These are platforms where the client posts the specifications of the project they need done.

A lot of these platforms don’t have transcription-specific categories, but it doesn’t matter. Most of the categories are broadly defined anyway. So, most traditional freelancing websites can accommodate transcription projects.

The advantages of standard freelancing platforms

These websites are more open-ended, so you end up with a better selection of talent. Since they are less likely to have a specific transcription section (or even a breakdown of different types of transcriptions), your ad is more likely to reach a wider range of eyeballs.

You can also specify whether you’d like to pay on an hourly basis or on a project basis.

This is important! Because if you’re paying by time, the transcriber is incentivized to work more slowly. How come? The slower their work, the more money they make.

You’re putting yourself at a serious disadvantage.

Pay only based on task or quota. This way, you pay for results.

Also, keep in mind that standard freelancing platforms have a unified review system.

If you are not happy with the work done by your contractor, you can let every potential future customer of that provider know.

This system goes a long way in filtering out bad transcribers.

These systems also have a centralized payment process.

When they deliver work to you, they don’t automatically get the money. It gets put on escrow until you have enough time to review the output. Once you review, they are then notified that after so many days, they will get their payment.

Depending on the platform, the delay can range from several days to several weeks.

The most common disadvantages of standard freelancing platforms

The most common downsides to standard freelancing exchanges and platforms involve price.

Sure, you are going to get a wide range of bids on your project. You might end up with a project that is priced by contractors anywhere from close to USA rates to cents on the dollar.

You may be thinking to yourself, “well, this is awesome because I can just zero in on the low-price offers!”

But, please pay close attention to what I said earlier in this article: do not obsess about price. You are more likely to get burned that way.

Another drawback to this type of platform is that these people are not specialists.

They might be transcribers, but they’re focused more on a specific type of transcription or a specific industry.

You’re going to have to put in the time to train these individuals to produce the output you’re looking for.

Gig-based freelancing platforms

Gig-based or project-based freelancing platforms shift the focus to the service provider.

For example, if you are a data entry person, you put an ad saying that “I do data entry, and this is how much I charge.” For contractors, they get peace of mind because they can charge a flat rate and they can focus on a specific type of service.

From a customer’s perspective, this is good news because everything is task-specific and pricing is definite. It doesn’t change based on the project details you post on the platform.

Not surprisingly, prices tend to be cheaper because there’s a tremendous amount of competition among service sellers.

For example, somebody can post that they do data entry and charge $10 for 500 records. Another person, who lives in a country that has a lower cost of living, can post a rival ad saying, “I can do it for $5!”

I hope you see how this works. It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to the contractors, but it’s good news for you.

But, as I’ve mentioned earlier, focusing only on price can be a trap. Still, the price competition is definitely welcome.

These systems also have the centralized format of typical freelancing platforms. They have a centralized review system, as well as a unified payment process.

These gig-based freelancing platforms actually have more of a downside for the service provider.

Not only do they take longer to pay, but their review system is tied to the visibility of the service provider’s listing.

If they get too many bad reviews, you don’t see them on the platform as much. They basically disappear.

This is good news for you as the customer, but this might freeze out otherwise high-quality and very competent service providers.

The disadvantages of gig-based freelancing platforms

As I’ve mentioned earlier, these platforms involve a “race to the bottom” among service providers. Their services are essentially reduced to the form of commodities.

Given this reality, a lot of sellers are more likely to cut corners.

Since they know that the only way they can compete is to lower their price, they are tempted to use software or other shortcuts to sustain their low price.

Also, they’re more likely to take on more jobs because each job pays very little. This increases the chances that they would cut corners by delivering partially completed work.

They’re hoping that you would bounce back the work—and this revision time buys them time to actually complete your project.

Finally (and this is the worst disadvantage that I’ve saved for last), you might have to waste your time filtering through dozens—if not hundreds—of supposedly “tried and proven” sellers just to find somebody good.

Classified ads websites and Facebook groups

These are specialized sites, as well as Facebook groups, that focus on job ads. These can be very specific—like groups and classified sections specializing in writers, data entry people, or virtual assistants.

There are many classified sites all over the internet. Some are regional; others cover the whole planet.

Advantages of classified sites and Facebook groups

These tend to feature quite inexpensive freelancers. A lot of them are just typical Facebook users who decided to do a little side hustle from time to time. This means that you have a lot more people bidding on your project; more people are likely to apply.

Since it’s more free form, you can ask for more extensive add-on services like research, very deep formatting, or even picture work that they have to embed into the final transcript.

Disadvantages of classified ad sites and Facebook groups

Since you’re basically working with a free-form type of format, all the work is shifted to you.

You’re going to have to filter a tremendous amount of people. For every 250 people that apply, maybe 1 is qualified.

Also, since it’s time-intensive, you need to automate your back-end. Otherwise, you’re just going to be so tired and confused at the end of the day.

Worse yet, nobody might quality after you go through all that filtering.

Play the numbers game

To hire an excellent transcriber, you have to filter a lot of people. There are no two ways about this.

As the old saying goes, “if you want to marry a prince, you have to kiss many frogs.”

Depending on the platform you advertise your transcription project on, be ready to process hundreds of people.

Many of these could barely understand English; others don’t.

In fact, I’ve received a tremendous amount of emails that are written in a wide range of scripts—from Thai, to Hindu, to Arabic text.

Also, be ready for the challenges posed by the testing system. As I’ve mentioned above, you have to employ a multi-stage tryout system that filters people.

The best way to do this is to just be very strict with each stage.

If somebody badly transcribes a word—maybe they used the word “seen” instead of “scene”—drop them!

No need to ask for explanations; no second chances.

You simply don’t have the time to screw around because you have hundreds upon hundreds of applicants.

The tighter your filters, the better your life will be.

Finally—and this is my most important piece of advice to you when it comes to the numbers game—do not settle for “good enough.”

You’ve gone through this process and filtered this many people, so go all the way and shoot for EXCELLENCE.

This is no time to settle for “good enough.” Why?

That person is probably going to screw up even worse in the future. If you think their minor errors will remain minor, think again.

Whatever they’re messing up now will probably get worse over the long-term.

Don’t settle for good enough. Find the best.

The final word on choosing a good human transcription service

Make no mistake, picking the right service provider for your dictations is not going to be as easy as you would have hoped. But, it is definitely a journey worth taking.

If you are serious about the quality of your work, you need to find the right team.

The good news is, the right transcribers for your project exist. They definitely are out there.

You only need to set up the right system, and you will be able find them.

Just in case you’re wondering, this is the service I use for my dictaphone writing.

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