Exporting overseas offers huge opportunities for UK businesses and finding, then developing, new markets is a valuable growth route.
While everyone knows that cultural differences exist around the world, many even well-travelled professionals can be surprised at how these affect them doing business.
Established practices, behaviours and etiquettes, particular expectations and literal language translations can all serve to delay, create barriers and sow misunderstanding overseas.
For example, a hard sell is not appropriate in Asian countries, where negotiations are often more protracted and subtler than in the UK. By contrast, in South Africa, people are direct, straight-talking and blunt, to the point that they may be mistaken for being aggressive by those unused to doing business with them.
When exporting to the US, be prepared for the outgoing, informal culture which prevails, very different to the more introverted, reserved, precise one of Nordic countries.
Employing and managing staff
And intercultural sensitivities aren’t confined to dealings with customers and partners. Complications can occur when employing and managing foreign nationals or retaining them as agents too.
When we appointed a Chinese sales manager in Hong Kong, we encouraged her to adopt a much more empowered approach to the one she had been used to, which was more hierarchical. Empowered to be autonomous, she achieved fantastic results.
Still, there are still many societies where it can be very difficult for women to be taken seriously in business. Obviously, this is completely out of step with modern western values, but it underlines how vast differences can be.
Meanwhile, government bureaucracies in overseas territories – customs and regulations, for example – may be slower and more painstaking than you will be used to.
Remember, too, that business practices and sensitivities can also vary across a country’s regions and cities – especially in large export markets.
Cultural differences might have implications that delay progress, impair the export project and damage reputations. These can all be costly, and it may be more difficult to repair damage in a foreign territory the other side of the world than on home ground.
There are a number of ways to prevent problems arising or to reduce the impact of any that do.
Do your research
For a start, do your research. When I first began exporting, search engines were not an option, but now huge banks of online advice can be accessed at a keystroke. As with any other web research, you may be swamped with information and you must always check the reliability of your sources, but there are plenty of reputable independent and official channels that can be quizzed.
Seek advice from colleagues and competitors in your sector or other exporters to the country. You will be amazed at how helpful some people can be – and you may find yourself a ready partner to support market entry, saving much time and money, if both parties identify a useful ally.
Consider hiring British expats
Consider employing residents who are experienced in your sector. While a nation’s citizens are a fantastic resource, another route is to appoint longstanding British expats, who will have an appreciation of both British and local business practices and how to bridge cultural differences.
Use official resources
Acquaint yourself with the many excellent organisations and government departments who can make your export journey as smooth as possible.
The Institute of Export & International Trade is the professional membership body representing and supporting the interests of everyone involved in international trade. It has advised and guided this country’s exporters since 1935 and can provide invaluable, in-depth information on all markets.
Meanwhile, the British Chamber of Commerce is part of a unique worldwide network and has been connecting British businesses with like-minded organisations around the world for 150 years. I often consult the local British Chamber of Commerce adviser in countries I visit to see how they can help best overcome any trade barriers.
The Department for International Trade exists to help businesses export and grow into global markets. It connects buyers abroad with UK business and as it also helps overseas companies locate and grow in the UK, getting to know potential partners and customers on home ground is a possibility. The department has trade advisors nationwide, provides country and sector advice and local market research and can arrange support during visits abroad.
Between them, these organisations arrange hundreds of trade shows and events annually. They give delegates the opportunity to speak to export experts and international traders, join seminars and practical workshops and attract prospective customers.
Apart from the many practical problems avoided by gaining insight into target markets, being able to display sound local knowledge also brings an invaluable PR benefit; people will be flattered by those who have obviously done their homework on their part of the world and its commercial landscape.
Whichever way the Brexit cookie eventually crumbles, export will continue to boost business success and reduce exposure to risk. However, nobody has ever claimed it is easy – there will always be inherent obstacles, logistical consideration and complexities – which is why avoiding needless hitches and glitches is vital.
Sean Ramsden is founder and CEO of Ramsden International
See also: Growth and exporting – Take your business to the next level