Selling in international markets can seem daunting to mid-size companies, but there are abundant opportunities to reach foreign customers, while trade agreements and other available resources are lowering the hurdles to success. The international commerce environment right now represents one of the best opportunities out there for mid-size U.S. companies to grow their businesses.
“U.S. businesses have seen the benefits of NAFTA, which has given them much better access to Canada and Mexico over the past 20 years,” said Mike Jakeman, global analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. Going forward, the new Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) creates mechanisms that hold all 164 WTO member countries to a higher standard for cross-border transit. “It’s a game-changer for the way goods cross borders and move around the world,” according to Laura Lane, President of Global Public Affairs at UPS.
“The pact reduces burdensome paperwork requirements, decreases holds and inspections of goods at the border and mitigates other costly and redundant barriers — allowing trade to happen as quickly as the e-commerce economy demands,” Lane says. “This is without changing a single U.S. law, basically leveling the playing field so that everyone else follows many of the same customs rules we do.”
Trade agreements like these make it easier for American firms to start selling their products and services abroad. To make that happen, however, businesses have to figure out how to reach those potential customers. Having a user-friendly—and culturally savvy—website is essential, but it’s also important to develop efficient digital and e-commerce platforms that make purchasing from anywhere in the world a seamless experience.
Get to know what international customers want
When thinking about expanding globally, companies need to be prepared to differentiate their customers. The marketing, strategies and other processes that worked for domestic sales might not readily transfer to selling abroad.
“Don’t take for granted that the customers overseas or in other markets are the same as they are here,” said Dave Speck, director of international administration and operations for Bunn-O-Matic. “Obviously there are similarities, but they’re different in different markets.”
What works for an individual customer in one part of the world may not produce similar results elsewhere. Adapting products and processes—in particular payment platforms, supply chain management and delivery expectations—to match the customer expectations in different locations can go a long way toward setting a company apart in the international business environment.
Finally, cultural differences between the company and its foreign customer can be one of trickiest aspects of doing business abroad.
Use strategic partnerships to gain footholds in global markets
“Every country has their own challenges, and every country has their own tax codes, and every product has their own tax codes within those countries,” said Christopher Veck, chief information officer at Miansai, a Miami-based jewelry company.
Ensuring compliance with all applicable regulations in each market is a crucial part of doing business internationally. This is one of the things mid-size businesses are likely to find easier to achieve through partnerships, rather than going it alone. Partnering with companies that have international reach and expertise can make everything more efficient and cost-effective, from learning about customer habits to marketing and managing the supply chain.
“The most important piece of advice to people who have little or no business outside the U.S. would be…you need to find somebody to work with to help you get to those places,” Veck said.
It’s always good to be working with someone who knows the lay of the land and may have extensive experience to offer. If a partnership in one market proves fruitful, moving into other markets where that partner has a presence is a logical next step.
“If you haven’t started exporting, take one country at a time,” said Romaine Seguin, president of the Americas Region at UPS. “When you get that one right in terms of compliance, documentation and having a good partner in that country, then you can build on that and go to the second.”
With proper marketing, an understanding of local customers and vibrant partnerships, a mid-size U.S. business can quickly become a successful exporter.