Yet very few ever consider exporting their expertise. Why? Largely, its’s the “Why export when we are doing so well in our domestic market?” attitude. But many service companies could be missing a very rewarding trick, according to Nigel Dudley in 2010.
Yes, exporting services can be tricky, but the benefits can be huge. And it’s much easier than exporting goods. You don’t have to deal with the usual tedious bureaucracy – documentation, loading bills and insurance – so you can start exporting from day one.
But where do you start?
Research. It’s vital. Make a senior board member responsible for the export drive and ensure that a number of executive spend time travelling and making contacts in your target markets. You could also start by contacting Trade Partners, the export side of British Trade International, which can provide you with information on some of the opportunities available. But remember, the best research is always done through personal contacts and in the overseas market itself.
Reputation counts when selling services overseas. So you’ll need the right people with the right track record. It’s the only way to impress your new customers. You’ll also need people familiar with local business practices. “You have to be particularly sensitive to the local cultures and that means a presence on the ground,” says Brian Dormand, managing director at Winning Pitch. “Choose people who can steep themselves in the local ways of doing business. You must understand each other’s way of doing business.”
This can be hard if you have neither the resources nor the time to check that your international executives are absolutely right. But it is important. Tony Goodwin, founder of Antal, discovered this the hard way. “Most of our mistakes in the early days were people-related,” he says. “We had to take a risk on people, and that was partly because we couldn’t afford to pay them top whack.”
You must have a clearly identifiable brand to succeed abroad. And you’ll have to maintain that identity in every country you’re doing business in. “The brand is everything,” says Goodwin. “Every detail has to be right. International companies want to deal with companies that have a clear brand. We mould our people so they conform to the way we do business. And we will refuse to do jobs – even from our main customers – if it is outside or core business.”
This will give you some protections against the biggest threat to a service industry: damage to reputation. Adverse stories can easily spread in new markets. Rumours are easy enough to pick up and challenge in a small national market. But they are much harder to monitor and counter in far-flung parts of he world. “You have absolutely no control over what people say about you. That can be a big problem. But if you have strong international branding, it will give you some protection,” says Goodwin.
Always keep your promises. “If the 20th century was about sales, this one will be about delivery,” says Goodwin. “It means doing what you say you are going to do. Never confuse your clients about what you are going to do or oversell what you’re able to do for them.”
Stay informed. Sometimes the quirkiest details can help you win business. Take Antal. It was commissioned to find high-tech specialists for Poland. After a little digging, it discovered a large Polish community in Ealing. Among them were many English and Polish-speaking IT experts who were ideally suited to the posts. Be careful when drawing up contracts. “Put down precise definitions,” says Dormand. “For example, many design companies will offer project management. The definition of what this entails is very different in the UK from many other countries. Find out exactly what is offered.”
And, the really important part. Getting paid. Late payment isn’t as much of a problem for the service sector as in others – most of the overseas work you do is likely to be for large, international firms. Developing markets are rather riskier than Western markets. But don’t assume that Western companies are easier to deal with. One businessman warns: “Firms look at the letter of every contract. If they can find a way out of paying you they will. If you only have a verbal agreement – even if it is with the most respected Western firm – you don’t stand a chance of getting your money.”
Don’t get caught out.
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