If you ask companies that export whether they regret it, you will rarely hear any negativity. There is a very good reason for that; exporting helps the bottom line as well as the top line, often more easily than with home sales. This would be obvious if you had a very limited market opportunity because of highly specialised products or services, but it also applies to far more competitive market places. British products have a justifiable reputation for quality, design and innovation and can hold their place across the world.
So why don’t more companies export?
One of the objections I often hear when proposing that someone should try exporting, is ‘I don’t know any foreign languages’. It is certainly true that we Brits are terrible at speaking foreign languages, but we are also blessed with having one of the most widely spoken languages as a national natural resource. The value of this to exporters cannot be overstated and should never be ignored. It is quite possible to export around the world and never need another language. There are more than 80 countries that have English as an official language including India, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many countries in Africa. There are many, many more where it is commonly spoken. So, speaking another language is not essential to exporting.
However, one aspect of working around the world is to understand local social customs and expectations, which can vary significantly even within a country. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States of America, but it also applies to European countries, for instance Germany. It is important because, just as in the UK, the way of doing business should be respected if you want to succeed. In the USA, business can be very direct, and decisions taken quickly. In Japan, the expectation is to build relationships and confidence slowly and carefully, before entering into a business relationship. Missing important signals can make all the difference between success and failure of a relationship and your entry into a market. Learning about how people greet each other and pass business cards, what to wear, how meetings are run, body language and what is expected from a presentation are all necessary, but also easy to research.
The Department for International Trade can be of great assistance, as a starting point see the website guides www.gov.uk/government/collections/exporting-country-guides or look at commercial sites like www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources-types/guides.
These are straightforward to understand, and it is just a matter of courtesy to respect and act in a way expected by your hosts. I have always found that the effort is very much appreciated. Whilst the advantage we have in a spoken context from the English Language is tremendous, care has to be taken at the next level of presenting goods to consumers. Whilst those consumers may speak excellent English, the local legislation will normally not allow shortcuts and consumer packaging may have to comply with local regulations. Quite often this can be as simple as an over-label.
How should you as a new or inexperienced exporter cope with all these requirements?
There are many ways, depending on how you decide to do business in each of the countries. One simple but comprehensive solution is to use an experienced local distributor. They can act as the necessary interface between you, the regulations, customers and consumers. My practice was to look for distributors that had already had success working with UK companies, but this is not essential. A good distributor will be able to take you through the local regulatory requirements, help you with translations, arrange introductions, participate at local trade shows and provide you with direct feedback. All this is of course in addition to the main role of the distributor which would involve the transportation, storage and distribution to local customers.
By ensuring that all the terms of the distributorship are agreed up front, and by allowing the distributor sufficient margin to work with they can take much of the administration work off your hands. This works brilliantly as a model, as by doing so, you can both have more confidence in your own sales margin, without having additional overheads. You will then be able to use your time more effectively to enter into more such arrangements and continue the export journey. This virtuous circle of engagement does require nurturing and it is important to set aside time and some budget to support the distributor and their team and ensure that they become an extension of your business that can replay your messaging with the same enthusiasm as you do. It is never to early or too late in a business to start to export, you just need to take the first step.
Tony is currently Marketing Advisor at Forest and Co who specialise in offering guidance on branding, exporting and sales: www.forestandco.com