Posted: Fri 22nd Sep 2023
For a small business, moving into exporting can be a very daunting prospect. Indeed, you might ask whether it's worth the trouble altogether.
The world's a big place, there are lots of countries, and without any connections to nations or markets in which to sell your products, it's tough to know where to start.
In this blog, with the help of procurement and supply chain expert Simon Frost, we look at the best ways to find international customers, and some of the main things you need to consider before committing to exporting your goods.
We cover the process involved in finding, meeting and selling to a buyer, and answer some common questions about exporting as a small business.
How to find overseas buyers for your product
Your first decision will be whether you find your clients yourself or outsource the task to someone else, such as a marketing agency, a distributor or an agent. It's important to get this decision right, as finding clients and developing them can be quite labour-intensive.
The key benefit of doing it yourself is that you can forge fantastic relationships with your clients and learn a lot about their needs. Outsourcing will be less effort, but it'll also be less profitable. Plus, you'll lack that valuable insight into what your clients are looking for.
Three questions to ask
In the early days of your overseas trading, you'll probably need to use some sort of distributor or agent, as expanding into a new country can be costly, labour-intensive and a big drain on resources.
The trick is to consider the following three questions:
How likely is it that I'll meet the buyer?
How much effort would it be to go and meet them?
What is the cost to serve (i.e. how profitable will it ultimately be)?
You might see Europe as a big export market, but at the same time have fantastic opportunities in the UK too. With those domestic opportunities:
it's very likely you'll meet the buyer
the effort to get there is pretty low
getting there won't cost very much
And so wouldn't it make sense to focus on those great opportunities first? Which brings us to a key point: You should only be exporting when you've really nailed your home market first. Because exporting is a big jump and it'll really stretch you.
Depending on what your product is, limit yourself to one or two countries (or one or two areas within a chosen country) to export to first. So for example, if you decide you're going to sell to Germany, just pick one or two cities in Germany and test your concept.
And then once you've tested it, you can start rolling out to other areas. It will suck up your resources if you try to do too much too quickly.
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How to meet a buyer
When you're ready to export, there are a number of things you can do to meet your buyer.
These are a really good way to meet people. But if you go as an exhibitor, it can be fairly expensive and you might have to put in quite a lot of effort getting it all set up.
Attend trade shows as a visitor, however, and you'll have the same chance to meet buyers, but with less effort and at less cost. Just by talking to the attendees, making connections and being introduced to people, suddenly you find that you start generating leads.
Depending on the speciality of your product, if you have a trade association or trade body, join it! It's a very effective way to meet people in the area that you're trying to sell to.
As long as you get your approach right and you're polite, LinkedIn can be a great and really cheap way to meet buyers.
The amount of business you can generate from attending conferences either as a delegate or even better a speaker is superb. Again, it's pretty cheap and a great way to meet people.
As we talk about below, trust is a huge consideration when looking to work with overseas buyers. So wherever you have a chance to get a referral through a third party, take it.
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Meeting the buyer to delivering your first order: The process
The link between buying and selling
Buying and selling are intrinsically linked. You might be anxious and even terrified about selling overseas. But if you think about how you feel, and what you value, when you're buying something yourself, selling shouldn't seem as hard.
The trick is to get inside the head of who you're selling to and understand what their process is. If they're a serious business, they might have a process written down. If it's a smaller entity you're dealing with, they may not have formalised their buying process to the same extent. But at least try and elicit from them what matters to them.
Typical buying process
Kick-off: When the buyer starts their process
The buyer's needs: Its "shopping list"
Sourcing plan: How the buyer will fulfil those needs
Buy and contract: Is the buyer going to run some sort of formal tender or buying process?
Implementation: When they agree to buy from you
Typical sales process
Your sales process needs to mimic this buying process. If you haven't already laid out your sales process, it's something you can easily research online. But a typical one might be as follows:
Approaching the buyer
Understanding their needs
Building the vision
Summarising the discussion
Moving towards an agreement
Implementation – selling to them
Why should a buyer buy from you?
Arguably, the biggest reason a buyer will buy from you is because they like and trust you. Yes, they're more likely to buy if your product is great, but in real life people still purchase lesser products or services because they've put their faith in the seller.
Don't forget this point when exporting: People buy from you because they trust you. It can be harder to trust someone who's overseas because you've never met them, they speak a different language and they're cut from a slightly different cloth. And so you have to work even harder to build that trust up. But it's absolutely worthwhile.
Also consider that people buy why you do it, not what you do or how you do it. They want to hear your story and what gets you up in the morning. When talking to a buyer, it's so easy to go straight into the product's benefits or features. But what the buyer truly wants to hear is why you decided to make it in the first place.
Types of buyers you might encounter
You'll likely come across a range of different buyers. So think of a graph, with "Buyer skill and competence" on the y axis, and a scale of unpleasant to pleasant on the x axis. Here are some of the buyers you might encounter:
Unfortunately, sometimes, you might meet some buyers who are neither pleasant nor necessarily very skilled. You may have to deal with them, and it's about putting on a thick skin. You might find it is very difficult to build trust with them. Are they going to be good clients? Potentially not, given the style in which they operate.
King of the castle
A buyer who's very skilled but also unpleasant to deal with. You need to ask yourself whether you want to sell to them, as you might find it becomes unprofitable and unenjoyable business for you. And in your early days of exporting, ultimately, you want supporters (see below).
You may meet someone who's incompetent but pleasant, or who's very nice but not very competent. With these buyers, you need to really help them along. And that can mean putting in lots of effort without getting much in return. So, be very clear with them on what you want.
Someone who's both pleasant and very competent, but also tricky. Watch out for these buyers, as they have the ability to get a lot out of you without giving much in return.
On occasion, you'll get supporters. When you talk to them, you'll hopefully get the sense that they want you to do well. They'll be positive and have plenty of experience with placing products like yours on to the export market.
Use this guide to tailor your approach to the buyers you encounter, as naturally you'll meet people from all walks of life.
Understanding your buyer and their needs
As a salesperson, your aim is to get inside the buyer's head. Rather than just saying "Here's my product, isn't it great?", try to understand where the buyer is coming from. You'll find it's much easier to pitch your product or service to what they need.
Never presuppose anything, and ask lots of open-ended questions:
What do you need?
When do you need it?
Why do you need this particular product?
What matters to you?
The fourth question can be particularly impactful when you ask the buyer what matters to them personally. Maybe they're looking for a promotion, or perhaps they're soon to set up their own business. It could be anything, but it's worth knowing what it is.
In terms of creating and building the need, think of going from A to B.
Understand the buyer's current position and the implications of that current position (A). Why does that company need a product? Maybe it's because all their other products are failing. Or it's because they want different specifications that potentially you could supply.
Then paint the picture of what a better place looks like (B). For example:
"I can offer you this product to help limit your risk"
"You're about to launch a new product and you need a different ingredient. Our product can help with that."
The need will vary from client to client, so try and understand what their perfect solution is. In creating the need, without being too devious, you have to make it clear that their current position is not so comfortable. Because you want there to be a good gap between their current less-good position and their future better position.
Giving a buyer your proposal
At some point, you're going to put your proposal in front of the buyer. Here's how to structure it:
Summary of the situation
Commercials (only add once the buyer is at a conceptual 'yes')
Implementation – when you're ready to sell
If you've been successful in persuading the buyer to take a chance on your business, here's a rough guide to how implementation should go:
Agree what you/the buyer are going to do
Do your part really well
If you have an issue, be on the front foot – investigate it swiftly
Share that there's an issue and vow you'll fix it
Make a robust recovery plan
Apologise (if need be)
There's lots of chance for things to go wrong when you export, because your supply chains will get stretched in different ways. Simply focus on doing everything well. When things do go wrong – because at some point they will – investigate and resolve the issue quickly.
Common questions about exporting overseas
How do you reduce your risk when exporting?
Exporting is risky, and the typical risks generally fall into three different categories.
If you're selling a food product, your supply chains will get stretched. So you can limit risk by producing in small batches. At the same time, you should be thinking about all the steps in the production process that could affect overall quality.
This is where you have too much or too little product. You have to work really carefully with your client to make sure you have enough buffer stock to serve them, but not so much that you're carrying an excess.
Make sure you really understand your total cost of ownership. In other words, not just the cost of your product, but what it costs to warehouse the product, file paperwork, pay distributor fees and so on.
What's the best way to communicate prospective clients?
If you can have a video call with a potential client, it's a great way to start building the relationship. You can also understand and gauge their needs much better.
Let's say you want to sell to Europe. Flying there can be expensive. So once you've made initial contact with the potential client, get them on a video call. The technology is good and it's much more personal than an email or phone call.
If you do have to call by phone, try and email first to ask when the best time to contact them would be. Cold-calling out of the blue can catch people off guard.
What's the single most important thing to get right to land your export sale?
The relationship. Once you build the relationship with your buyer and understand where they're coming from, you'll find it so much easier to export and sell your product.
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