EU flag (3)

You’d have to be ignoring TV and newspapers not to recognise that one of the biggest topics for businesses across the UK this year is the upcoming EU referendum. Until June, the nation will be fiercely debating the pros and cons, and rightly so. This is one of the most significant decisions for the UK in many years, not least because of its impact on business.

However, whichever way the referendum goes, companies need to be ready and make their business as strong as possible for trading with EU countries. We believe that technology plays a critical role in this and in the event that the UK does decide to leave the EU, companies need to be able to withstand the likely uncertainty of the following months, while the new status quo is determined. Here are our top tips for how UK companies can make themselves digital-ready for a potentially new world.

Prepare a strategy

The first step in any new venture is to make a plan. And at the beginning of any plan comes research. Small companies should look closely both at the markets they want to break into, and the robustness of their own businesses. Which countries are likely to show the strongest demand for the product? Are there places you already have networks, or other advantages? Equally, the company’s processes are critical to making this work. Will the supply chain stand up if there is a sudden increase in demand? Will the delivery model still work? All of this will help a company prioritise markets, as well as identify its own strengths and weaknesses.

Develop your networks and presence online

There are useful government services such as the UKTI’s Overseas Market Introduction Service that can help small businesses get to know a new market. In some countries, having a local business partner at the beginning can be a real boost. Businesses should look online for local similar and complementary companies and use them to find out more, as well as to give you a foot in the door.

Build an overseas customer base

Successful direct selling overseas needs a strong and dynamic digital presence. Unless a business physically wants to set up shop, the website will be the main sales platform. This means that a sales function on the website is essential. However, different markets have varying expectations of websites and this is something to look into. Look around at competitors’ and see if yours needs tweaking for that market. Depending on how digitally-savvy the consumer base is, ensuring it works on a mobile device can be critical. In many countries, the smartphone is the primary device for browsing and not having a website that works smoothly on mobile could put you at a significant disadvantage.

Make sure your new customer base doesn’t think it’s an afterthought. They want to feel valued just as much as your UK customers. Even if the company isn’t physically located in that country, dedicated digital marketing activities, social media engagement and customer service channels will help increase their loyalty. Many consumers nowadays interact with companies both through global social channels such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter, as well as country-specific networks such as Xing in Germany or Viadeo in France. Boosting your presence on these will help raise visibility, particularly when the company doesn’t have a bricks and mortar store.

Make sure the back end works

A concern for small businesses when expanding can be making sure the inventory, delivery and payment processes work smoothly. With one set of stock, but multiple markets, a digitised inventory system can go a long way to ensuring this. Wherever the order comes from, and at whatever time, a digital solution can manage the inventory so that the order is fulfilled. The system will also update the website or whichever sales channel the customer is using to show current inventory so that they are aware of stock levels. This takes the worry out of the back end and leaves you to focus on what really matters – the customers.

Work virtually

The same principles that you apply to an overseas customer base apply to virtual working – operating as if you were there, online. Once you’ve established your partner network, make sure you’re working with them online, sharing information about the business and using online collaboration tools to share ideas. Make sure that accounting and legal processes are robust and safeguarded within a closed system; you don’t want contracts or balance sheets on Excel going astray.

Never give up

The last tip is that perseverance pays off. It isn’t easy to break into a new market and often it is a case of trial and error as things that work well in one market, might not in another. But others have done it, and maintaining networks and partnerships once established; being willing to try new things; and a strong digital business model will stand you in excellent stead for making a successful move to a new market.

Following these tips should give any business a strong starting point when it comes to European expansion, whatever is decided in June. Technology is critical to helping our businesses be more robust, particularly during a time of uncertainty, as could come if the UK leaves the EU. Either way, like the rest of the country we will be watching closely.

By Toby Davidson, VP, SAP Anywhere