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Is your SME ready to export?

Author: Tim Horton-Mastin, General Sales Manager at FedEx Express France

Are you looking to expand your business through exports? Good idea. There are several potential markets outside of Britain, and billions of clients on the global market who may be interested in your products and services. What’s more, growing your business on an international scale offers you protection from potential exposure to unfavourable conditions on the local market. In other words, exports are a real asset. Here is some advice to help you take those first steps, drawn from my own past experience of working with SMEs.

Assess export potential
On its own, the fact that you have a product or service with international export potential does not necessarily mean that your business is ready to take the leap. Some preliminary work must be done in order to increase your chances of success.

Of the first issues to be considered, the question of training for staff involved in the export process is one of the most significant. It is clearly important to provide your team with the necessary skills. It is also generally a good idea to reflect on the service to be provided to future foreign clients, as a total alignment of services involves potential linguistic, cultural and regulatory barriers. A company’s financial capacity to export is also a vital point to consider. Do not hesitate to seek the opinion of organisations such as local chambers of commerce, or institutions which contribute to the financing and growth of SMEs.

Explore opportunities
Once the business has assessed its capacity to export, it is often very useful to explore export opportunities on a global level, and evaluate their chances of success.

Two important steps are gaining a clear view of the strengths and weaknesses of the product or service to be exported, and determining the unique selling points of the business in relation to its competitors. The idea of a product “made in Britain” may well have strong commercial value in certain markets, or certain geographical areas, giving you a considerable advantage over your competitors. It may also be useful to research any potential cultural differences which would require changes to be made to the manufacture or marketing of your product.

It is essential to bear in mind that certain markets may favour, or even demand, specific business models or a different business plan. In order to maximise your success, you must be flexible, and choose the market which is best matched to your business from a commercial point of view.

Working language also plays a key role. Targeting a market where English is either a lingua franca, or the preferred business language can simplify your task considerably. If this is not possible, consider taking language classes, or giving your staff the opportunity to do so. This often helps you to feel more comfortable with new clients and business partners.

Finally, it is wise to begin exporting in a country which has a Free Trade Agreement with Britain. Such agreements can help companies to save time, money and energy, by simplifying regulations and lowering the costs associated with exporting.

Develop your network
When you are the head of a business, relationships are everything. Often, they make all the difference, especially for a small business. This principle also applies when exporting. The network created and nurtured by the company leader will be the key to success. It will help to overcome three of the main obstacles which the heads of businesses often face when they begin to export: cultural differences, the language barrier and lack of understanding of a country’s regulations. As a starting point, the best course of action is to get in touch with cultural centres and organisations working to develop links with Britain. You could also organise a trip to the target country in order to better familiarise yourself with the local culture and customs. Once this network has been established or reinforced, your chances of breaking into a new market are greatly increased.