President Obama said it again in his State of the Union Address: the National Export Initiative is still high on the administration's agenda. While this is great news, I wish more would be done to equip new exporters toward best international business practices. In the international arena, everything differs from what they know. Having access to a guiding hand that will point out the invisible traps that are often hidden beneath cultural beliefs and principles would shave years off the lengthy and often costly process new exporters encounter.
One of the mistakes U.S. exporters make is using their domestic structure, including the sales and marketing forces, to go international. Going international requires a deep understanding of the region the company wishes to penetrate. Sales people must be hired in function of the client's needs rather than the ones of the company that employs them. This means the HR director and C-level executives must be knowledgeable of that region's cultural preferences, language and mores. Asking your best sales person to take his Midwestern sales techniques to Abu Dhabi is bound to fail.
To put to good use the government's monetary assistance, please take into consideration the following steps when considering expanding to a new region:
- Do some soul-searching within your company. Is everybody on board with regard to international business? Is everybody committed to and excited about the idea of pursuing an international strategy for the next 10 years (or more) in a certain region?
- Draft an export strategy. Hire an expert and listen to what she has to say. Whatever your company did to be successful domestically will have to be entirely rethought to fit the international curriculum.
- Identify if there is a need for your product throughout the world. While market research may seem expensive, it will save you in folds if you know exactly why your product/service might be embraced (or not) by a different culture.
- Be proactive. If you're lucky enough to have foreign customers knocking on your door, assist them by organizing the shipping of your products and analyzing if they should become your distributor/agent in that region. Don't sell EXW!
- Hire sales representatives for that region. Look for people in your area who are from the culture you're trying to penetrate. They may not have the technical skills you need, but those can be taught-while the cultural subtleties required to succeed in that region and the language may escape your company forever.
- If it's truly impossible to train that sales representative on the technical side of the product, team up that person with a technical person and have them travel together.
- If it is ABSOLUTELY impossible to find a person who comes from the region in which you're interested, hire and groom someone who is multicultural and multilingual for the job. Give that person access to language classes and cross-cultural training so she can say at least 20 sentences in the local language and is well aware of the cultural mores.
- Consult with an international intellectual property attorney. Put protection in place to disincentive counterfeiting operations or intellectual property theft.
- Put procedures in place. Train your entire company, including third-party distributors, on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
- Try to not replace people often, and don't move people around. International business is all about relationships and established trust. Each move forces your potential client to start from scratch with the new comer.
My last piece of advice is not to get discouraged. Realize that it may take up to five years of intense travel and relationship building for the business to take off in the host country. Once you have the right people in place and your product/service has been tweaked to fit the needs and wants of the culture, it's all about commitment, perseverance and patience.
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