02/07/2014

By Craig Busst, Managing Director, City Numbers

With the economic recovery now well underway many UK businesses are looking beyond these shores to expand into new markets that will enable them to broaden their revenue stream. In a globalised economy, the same considerations you make for a local customer often apply in a number of markets; Ireland or the Netherlands for example, often have similar requirements to UK customers. As such there is an immediate opportunity for businesses of all sizes to tap into any number of lucrative markets.

However, it is not as simple as setting up an international website and waiting for the orders to flood in. What happens when a potential contact in California wants to make an enquiry? Do you have someone staffing the phone line at 9am Pacific Standard Time (5pm London time), or will the customer have to wait in an international call queue, thereby racking up a hefty phone bill, for the privilege of talking to your Customer Service agent?

Expanding into new markets is a big challenge but with the potentially huge rewards on offer, make sure you source expert advice on getting your business ready for the next stage of its evolution. Here are my top tips for expanding overseas:

1) Know your onions – We all know there are differences between doing business in China and Japan compared to the US and UK, but how many would-be global firms know what date Russia celebrates Christmas (7th January) and that ten European countries don’t work at all on Ascension Day (40th day after Easter)? Local customs, significant holidays and other dates of note are as vital as knowing how to do business in each region. Small points, such as how to exchange business cards in Japan can make the difference; between a company looking like a professional outfit, capable of transitioning an already successful business to other markets, and looking like just another fledgling company, trying to make a big splash abroad, without bothering to do its homework first.

2) Home is where the heart is – Unless your business has the resources to employ expert international staff to fill offices in every major capital city, don’t open offices there. With the birth of the Internet, the need to be physically present in all markets you operate in ceases to be business critical. Phone calls can now be routed all over the world using freephone and local phone numbers giving the illusion of a completely international even if large office facilities are only available in a limited number of regions. If your business also needs a postal address in a particular locality, there are plenty of service providers that offer a post-office box and then direct any post onto a forwarding address. Although it is important to remember customers’ postal correspondence will be delayed and may not arrive for some time.

3) Watch the clock – Although you don’t need to be physically present in each market it is important to offer support during working hours in every region you want to be significantly present in. With high-levels of international competition, customers simply aren’t willing to wait a day for query responses and may take their business elsewhere. If you want to look like a big player in Sydney someone needs to be available during the night in London or during working hours in a time zone closer to East Australia Time Zone in order to maximise the business opportunity in this market.

4) Pick up the tab – Establish freephone contact numbers so customers don’t have to pay to call you. According to statistics from business cloud service provider j2 Global, in the UK alone businesses have seen on average call volume increase of 167% when they switched to a freephone number. Imagine the difference this can make to international businesses where the overseas call costs could be prohibitive to building a lasting business relationship. Freephone numbers allow personal contact with customers not available using email or IM and establish stronger relationships than other methods of communication. But the relationship can quickly deteriorate if a huge bill arrives at the end of the month.

5) Lost in translation? – Even if your customer speaks fluent English, if that isn’t their first language they shouldn’t have to. If at all possible have a fluent speaker in their own language. This will enable smoother communication, put the customer at ease and illustrate your commitment to that market.

6) Be smart with your marketing – When it comes to marketing, appearance is everything. Ensure any stock imagery is locally sourced and messages are specifically designed for the audience. Nobody in Johannesburg is concerned by how satisfied customers in France are with your services. Money spent on individual, targeted, marketing campaigns is usually money well spent. And when it is backed up by commitment to each region through local phone numbers and native speakers in call centres, companies can look truly local even if facilities are actually in another country entirely.

7) Don’t neglect the home front – One of the biggest mistakes would-be global firms make is trying to stretch too far and losing their existing market share in primary markets for small gains elsewhere. Taking your eye off the ball on the home front when looking to increase a company’s global footprint, is counter intuitive and counterproductive. Keep the home fires burning to maintain steady cashflow while building relationships across the world.

8) Cut the red tape – Each country has completely different rules and regulations for companies setting up a local office or doing business within its borders, and that’s before you start dealing with local employment law. These can be difficult to navigate and without employing a fleet of local experts it is easy to fall foul of legislation you weren’t even aware of. One way to stay the right side of the law and avoiding any hidden business charges is by going virtual. Setting up local phone numbers, websites and postal facilities can enable you to appear local without getting caught up in red tape.

9) Ask the expert – There is a wealth of information available online and in person from government agencies, finance providers, business analysts and consultants specialising in helping companies of all sizes increase their presence in the global marketplace. Many of these people have direct experience themselves or sought advice from companies who have been there and done it all – so use it, learn from it and then emulate their successes!

10) One step at a time – Rome wasn’t built in a day; the same will be true of your global expansion. Each market needs careful consideration and trying a spectacular launch across multiple geographies simultaneously significantly lessens the chances of success. Take one step at a time and when you’re moving freely then it is time to take the next one. Dream big, but start small; nobody becomes a millionaire overnight!

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