In this time exporting has become a key revenue stream with over 35% of sales consistently coming from overseas. So what’s been learnt and how can you start exporting and thus build your business? Here are my top 10 tips…
1. Start exporting with your national export agency
The UKTI provides an invaluable service that starts with the Passport to Export scheme. Over the last 7 years this agency has offered excellent & ongoing advice, training and leads abroad – virtually all for free. We have also benefited from several grants to support trips overseas (up to 50% of costs). Subsidies have made it much easier to justify time and effort spent travelling. If you’re not based in the UK, find out which government department will help you to start exporting and discover what support is available.
2. Pull is much easier than push
Not long after our website went live in 2006 we received inquiries from around the world. People were downloading our software and requesting quotes months before a member of the team set foot on foreign soil. This ‘pull’ from abroad made it much easier to justify plans to start exporting. The level of interest only increased when the first trip was made.
3. Book flights and accommodation direct
There are 2 key websites we use for booking hotels and flights. Not only do we get great rates but the direct booking systems provide a complete overview of the market as well as control over purchases. Skyscanner shows all flights and prices and you can take your pick in terms of airline and airport. Booking.com provides access to accommodation worldwide – all in a clear and easy to understand manner. Critically, if your plans change you have the option to cancel booked accommodation – at very late notice and at no charge.
4. Finding good agents and distributors is crucial
Whilst the ability to book hotels and flights direct is recommended, it’s almost essential that you work through local agents and distributors to build leads and sales. Typically, these people work on commission and the better the % rate the more work you might expect. I could write reams about finding, working with and managing agents but you’ll find this information from international trade director, Paul Noon, very helpful. When you start exporting my one piece of advice is to find people who are genuinely interested in your product and have the skills and background to work with customers in their respective territory. Those seeking a fast buck are almost always only with you for a short time.
5. Use time abroad wisely
Opportunities to start exporting are almost limitless. Working with UKTI and a local advisor you can construct a strategy and find out about conferences and exhibitions for your market sector. These events may act as a trip hub with which to arrange other meetings. Having learnt from mistakes we only exhibit at events where a high proportion of visitors fit our customer profile. With regards to face-to-face meetings I aim to have at least 3 a day and these are all organised in advance by email. Use the advanced settings on LinkedIn to find people who you might want to meet. The InMail service within LinkedIn helped us to to start exporting since it’s a highly effective way of finding people to meet. InMail response rates are also higher than using standard emails.
6. Which airline?
If budgets are tight then use Skyscanner to find the cheapest available airline. But if you’re travelling long haul and like a bit of style then try an Airbus 380. Singapore Airlines (always recommended) and Emirates both have them in their fleet (online booking is straightforward) and the extra seat room, quietness and screen entertainment makes travel easier. Business Class may be an indulgence but no one does it as well as Emirates. If you travel regularly with an airline then collect miles for free flights or upgrades later. Virgin Atlantic is one example of a company allowing you to collect miles through flying (and credit card use) but read the terms and conditions carefully! Finally, I highly recommend Virgin Australia, Air Asia and Virgin America when flying within the respective countries and you must try Kulula if you go to South Africa. All these ‘local’ airlines are easy to use, reliable and typically very good value if you book ahead.
7. Sound relationships take time
Trust is everything in business and it’s a rare thing to strike a deal when you first start exporting. You have to put time and energy into relationships and this means return visits are almost essential. If agents and potential customers can see that you are committed to working together they will put more effort in too. Lead times for us are typically 12 months (industries vary) and more but once the process has started, all time and effort is a worthwhile investment.
8. Dealing with money
For me, a little currency and a healthy credit card go a long way when abroad especially if flights, hotels and airport taxis have been booked in advance. Buying currency at the Post Office rather than the airport gets you a better exchange rate but it will probably take longer to complete. We buy the small amounts of currency we need at airports because time is often at a premium.
When billing clients abroad, all our invoices are in sterling. We also insist that bank charges must be met by the customer and thus add £12-20 to each bill. For international transactions to be completed, ensure your invoices include all the relevant information including: bank account details, Swift number, IBAN number and a BIC number. If you want to avoid or reduce bank charges review the money transfer agencies that will handle your transactions. If you complete a lot of small transactions, consider PayPal.
9. Invaluable gadgets and accessories
Having a laptop and access to the internet is vital when travelling. When booking accommodation always check that free wireless provision is available in the room. Likewise, power is essential and a multi-purpose plug like the ‘Swiss Gear‘ adaptor is an invaluable travelling companion. A bag padlock (for airline baggage) as well as lightweight quality headphones (I’ve since invested in Bose noise cancelling headphones – £250+ but phenomenal especially on flights) which are are always with me so I can escape the world especially in busy places (and don’t have to use crappy headsets supplied by airlines). Finally, take a bottle opener and a spare phone charger cable.
10. Prepare your paperwork
Prior to departure on any trip ensure you have relevant insurance, printed e-tickets for all pre-booked trains, flights and accommodation. A passport (not within 6 months of expiry) is essential and business visa documents may be necessary. Most countries simply require you to fill out a visa card (free) on the flight but places like the US (see ESTA) and Australia require pre-registration and authorisation on-line. If you plan to start exporting to places such as India and Nigeria obtaining a visa can take a few months. As such, plan well ahead and consider using a professional and trustworthy agency to help with your application.
Key learning points: We live in a global market and opportunities to start exporting abound. However, executing a successful export strategy takes time as well as money so plan ahead and consider all details. Business travel is a great way to see the world.