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Winning export contracts with LinkedIn

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Last year, business was so tricky in the UK that many firms decided to look at new markets. From a standing start in January when we first discussed the idea of business, to receiving our first payment for work was less than four months. As ever, some of this was fortuitous timing, but the critical factor was LinkedIn.

Find out which markets might suit your business best. I lived in Saudi Arabia when young, so have a familiarity with and respect for the Arab culture, as well as speaking rusty Arabic, so it seemed logical to start research in the Middle East. 

Our first step was to understand the economy post-crash, so we posted on our LinkedIn accounts: ‘Anyone knowledgeable about current economy in Dubai/Oman?’ Within the hour, a director from Yorkshire Water gave us the name of, and introduction to, a consultant they use who travels to Dubai regularly. We arranged to meet, the consultant gave us three hours of time for free – and it gave us confidence to get on a plane.

But who should we meet? All our team used Advanced Search on LinkedIn to see whom we knew with contacts in Dubai. The trumpcard was the best man of a colleague – although she hadn’t seen the old friend for 20 years and he now lives in Italy. He was connected to three former Cemex colleagues who are now chief executives of different businesses in Dubai. 

We asked him for introductions and meetings were set up with all three, along with another 17 senior people whom we found through contacts of contacts on LinkedIn. My very first meeting in this new market turned into a year’s contract with a prestigious company operating in six GCC countries and with 450 employees.  

We did look at UKTI support, but their service would have cost £1,200 to research the market for our business and then set up meetings with six companies. This could have great value for companies with limited networks, but our view is that an introduction from a credible business peer will generally have more impact than from a government agency.

To make LinkedIn work effectively, you need 100 per cent complete profiles and a strong, quality network. What it tends to do is cut through hours of research (did you know your best man has mates heading up businesses in the Middle East?) and formalities. Generally, people on LinkedIn recognise they are there to be ‘social’ and helpful. Requests for advice and introductions receive much greater responses than through traditional methods – and everyone can do it far more quickly, increasing the effectiveness.

Of course, social media is not a magic wand. You still have to meet people, have something they need – and convert the sale. But used strategically, LinkedIn is a powerful tool that could save you thousands of pounds – and hours of legwork.

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive of Northern Lights PR and BBC ‘expert woman’ on social media and business

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