10 practical tips for exporters to survive and prosper after COVID-19

by: Christelle Damiens

As Exportia is providing an outsourced European sales & marketing team to Australian innovative SMEs, we have had to adapt our approaches to make sure our customers continue to thrive in Europe in such a bumpy climate. Our goal remains unchanged! We still to take them to their first million Euros in Sales and we are not planning to be stopped by COVID-19. We want our customers to push through and succeed. 

In a way we are lucky to work with companies that have quite a unique positioning. They provide unique technologies which are quite IP intensive. For some of our customers, COVID-19 has resulted in a massive demand, that we now have to leverage and maximise without being able to provide face to face support. And for some of them, times are a bit tougher and we need to maintain the relationships with their European customers alive. We have had to continue sales conversations with European that were still interested to buy, but at this stage are unable to! So we had to come up with ways to keep the momentum, while at the same time not being pushy and showing support.

This has enabled me to start thinking about what I need my customers to put in place for us to go through these crazy times together and build more resilient businesses. Here are my ten tips.

 

Tip № 1: Show you are open for business

It’s key to be able to show European customers that you are still open for business. And tell them how you can be reached. Our European sales team is usually on the road, on planes and trains throughout Europe. Today, we cannot visit the European customers on behalf of Australian companies anymore. 

We have had to schedule web conferences to replace meetings. This has largely been embraced by European customers, as most of them are now in a lockdown situation. In Europe, things are slightly starting to ease. 

In France, the confinement will come to an end on May 11th. Schools will remain closed so parents will still need to work from home for a while. 

Germans have not been confined but German companies have stopped meetings pretty early on and have encouraged working from home options. Distributors sales representatives have been at home. In Italy, we anticipate a few first healthcare non-frontline services to slowly reopen such as dentists.

Show you are open for business is a very important one, so as we have international customers, they might think if you go silent, because you’re reorganizing your business for COVID, they might think that you’ve gone out of business. So you have to make sure you communicate with them. So avoid the spamming, emailing with COVID, a very anxious COVID headline on the title.

Just do a personal and practical communication to your key contacts and just say, “I’m just checking in with you, here is how we are getting organized for COVID. This is the business hours, we’re working from home. You can reach me on my mobile…” and you just explain simply things. Don’t bombard people with emails and it’s not really well received.

It’s time to be active online. On your website, on social media, and making sure you’ve got the right search engines and Google words on your website.

 

Tip № 2: Take the pulse of key relationships

As everybody is undergoing a rough time and everyone is now organised in their new lockdown professional environment, it is time to show support to your key customers. Some of your customers may now have somebody in their close circle that has been affected by COVID-1. 

It’s time to check-in with your key customers and see how personally they are living the situation. I am not only talking about how their business is going, but how they are feeling personally.

Then you need to have a sense of how these businesses are managing. How are they going with their daily business ? When do they contemplate being back in business? Do you see any sign that you should be worried about for your business?  What impact does COVID-19 have on your business with them, and on your forecasts.

 

Tip № 3: Nurture customer relationships 

Now is not the time to push for a contract signature, your customers may have been affected and their decisions would have been put on hold. Now is the time to think about how you are going to maintain the relationship going without being too pushy. There are plenty of ways to keep a soft approach with key prospects and customers. At Exportia we have shot videos in different languages in order to present a technology, introduce our customers company or just explain a product. We have also conducted a number of webinars and online demos for groups of overseas customers. We have also proposed to conduct trainings via web conferences. We have produced a lot of content for our customers for them to continue the dialogue with their European customers. I strongly believe it is a great time to nurture your relationships with key international customers via education pieces, videos andtrainings. This is a perfect soft approach to keep their interest in your product or technology alive.

 

Tip № 4 : Rethink your sales process with a sales team and customers at home

International travel is probably going to be the last barrier that will be lifted until the situation. If you have a European sales team, like us at Exportia. You can assume they will be able to travel with some very strict level of constraints for a while. A lot of safety precautions should be observed. In-European traffic is limited. And European customers are highly unlikely to grant appointments right at this moment anyways. Travel inside Europe has been drastically reduced and is not recommended.

In this context, it is time to rethink your sales process, as face to face meetings may not happen for a while. What happens in your step by step sales process in a B2B world? For example, you would normally start by a lead generation campaign. As we have just discussed, as everyone is online at the moment, it is really time to get your marketing team on mastering the art of Facebook campaigns, rather than pushing a cold calling traditional campaign. How will you then demonstrate your product or solution to an interested lead? Are you ready for an online demo? 

Once you demonstrated your product, what if they want to test? Usually you may ship a free product for a trial maybe? In the current climate, I would strongly recommend you don’t. It’s fair to say, everyone is watching their finances and asking for a small purchase instead of a free product is fair. It will also enable you to test their interest.

When you then are able to close the sale after the trial, be extra careful with your payment terms and don’t neglect credit checking. If the signature of your deal is postponed, just keep educating your market and be patient. You will be able to reap the benefits of your work. European think long-term. They will appreciate you being here for the long haul. For your induction of a new customer, again in our high-tech world we will need to think about training and set-up without a technician there ! How will you plan for this?

Tip № 5: Think how COVID-19 will reshape your working relationship with your overseas distributors 

I think for international distributors and channel partners, if you’re in the Information Technology sector, this is the moment of truth. Only the strong ones will survive. The ones that have a solid business, a solid value add and you need to detect these in your distribution network.  A lot of you have distributors around the world, which ones are still focusing on your product right now? And which ones are your really high performers?

You will see who is continuing to work and watch how they behave, what measures do they take? Do they put their staff on reduced hours or are still healthy financially enough to be able to continue selling your product? Also check that they’re fine to deliver to the end users and can fulfill your end-users orders or are there any impediments there? So that’s something that is really important to know. Do you need to reorganize yourself for shipping to end users directly ? Are you better off drop shipping to end users instead of them handling that.

Depending on the country it might be a good idea, if you think about Italy. At the moment it’s a bit hard to go through a distributor that will then ship in Italy, why not just drop very large quantities directly to the end user.

It’s time to retain your very good distributors and the ones that are still active during that hard period and to empower them more, to sell more on your behalf. Basically if you don’t have staff present in a specific country and you have a very good distributor, really help them. Also check with them, can they assist you with any customs issue? Customs are a bit delicate at the moment, can they help you out? It should be one of their value adds.

A few more thoughts for you as well: Should you go direct in some instances instead of through distributors and should you change your payment terms?  Are your distributors still paying normally or do they have any payment delays? Really watch these payment terms very closely at the moment, as mI have seen a number of distributors struggling financially. Don’t get caught

In parallel, to counterbalance a slow activity with one distributor, pick the stronger and best distributors, super train their sales champions. So in the sales team of a distributor you will always have one or two sales champion and so we tend to want to right now focus on them and super train them. Because if they love your product they’re going to continue doing the best to sell it and so train them so that they’re a real extension of your sales team, put some emphasis and support to them. Provide them with a specific enhanced technical support to support them more than before because they are the ones who are going to get the sales for you and it’s very important to support them. It will help you get more sales in this difficult period.

If you can, favor them over the underperforming one, give them special deals. I’m not talking about better payment terms, I’m talking about specific deals. Maybe some goodies, some specific support you could provide to them you would not provide to another distributor. Sell with them, be involved in the sales process, show your support to them in front of they’re customers. So it’s really time to demonstrate that you support the really good ones. They are going to help you get some sales overseas and so you really need to empower them to do so.

 

Tip № 6: Keep your international Sales team busy on meaningful tasks 

At the moment, like in my team, my team is usually on the road all the time and now they’re locked at home. So how are they going to keep the sales opportunities going and continue to close the sales as much as they can. So there’s a few things to watch with the sales team and sales people. I know them really well, because I’m a sales person.

First of all, watch their mental health. And I’m serious here. Salespeople are used to being out and about a lot of the customers and not used to staying at home. So watch that they’re well and make sure that you keep them busy. So what I’ve done with some of my sales team is I’m just given them specific projects to help with the current sales opportunities. I am getting them projects to shoot specific content and you want to also focus on the current sale opportunities but also prepare after COVID.

Have them also have to prepare after COVID. Coach them as well on identifying the clients and the distributors that are at risk. Has this distributor not been responsive? When have you been in touch with them? How are they going? Have they reduced their hours? Is everybody still working there? So couch them through the signals that they need to detect so that you know, “okay. That distributor or that client is at risk for us.”

Get them to focus on key relationships. So key relationships, people that keep buying need to be supported and nurtured. Providing more training is always a smart way to keep them busy. As we went through the sales process delivery and how you can adapt it to COVID and having your customers and your sales team online. Well, train them on how to implement that on that new sales process delivery. Give them Do’s and Don’ts and guidelines one a webconference. 

Let them be part of the online sales delivery process. Can they shoot videos? Can they train end users online? And how can they deliver pieces of product training? Sales people are usually used to demonstrate a product, explaining how it works and so on and so on. Can they maybe shoot those mini videos to show, what are the top things to check when you’re using the product?

Can they train a super user at the client? What would be the steps? Can they create training content? Can they create a checklist? Even just a checklist, then you formalize it and you can check it with your end users. Or maybe you can give them a research project. What are in the target market, key target customers we haven’t approached yet, and we should and we never have time to do it and now we do, let’s do it.

Should they change their focus and focus on clients in essential industries? Should they do a market push on essential industries that are still running at the moment? So those are some of the things to think through about your sales team. 

 

Tip № 7: Be flexible, but professional

We’re doing crazy things at the moment we would never do in normal circumstances, so be flexible. I was talking to an Italian doctor recently, because I had to train him and he said to me, “Look, our WiFi at the hospital is really bad.” And I said to him, “Okay then, I’m going to have to train you on FaceTime.”

Would I have had trained him on FaceTime in a normal time? probably not. So we need to be flexible but we need to stay professional as well. So check the quality of the internet of your customer before you do the web conferences and the web meetings, it’s very important.

Technology fails, have your backup plan and announce it prior to a web conference “Look, the internet is not great. If anything happens stay online I’ll be back.” 

It’s also time to look the part, so Australian companies often have nice corporate shirts with their logo, so it’s time to tell your sales team, wear your corporate shirt on the web demo. Give them some banners.

Tidy SlideDecks are important as well when you do web demos. 

It’s also maybe it’s time to think about changing your working hours to suit your market. Because nobody’s traveling, as an Australian company, do you need to work different hours to suit your American market or your European market? So that’s something to consider. Something to share with your team, video meetings etiquette. First of all before you do the web meeting, prior to that, especially with large corporates and government check with the IT department are they okay with the platform you’re using?

Is that fine? Can we do a test? You need to have a white background or a banner behind you of your company and also ask for consent if you record. I’ve told you before, we’re recording this webinar and people need to be aware. Don’t record if you don’t have their consent. 

Prepare the agenda and share it prior and preferably corporate shirts, SlideDeck ready, have links open prior to the meeting and have your gear ready prior to your meeting. So let me accelerate a bit. 

 

 Tip № 8: Stay alert, and vigilant

There are several points that exporters need to closely watch. The first one are payment terms. Have a close look at your payment times and check who is starting to be late. It’s a good time to ask for payment upfront before you ship any goods. Look at your payment terms, check how you are insured (COFACE…) and change your payment terms.

Continue to watch your international freight as well. As you would have realised, COVID has disrupted the freight industry. Some cargo routes for DHL have been badly affected by the decrease of passenger freights. Some routes have been stopped. Make sure you work closely with your current freight forwarder to track the best routes and options to make sure you can ship to your customers. With some of our customers we have decided to move to a direct shipping model in some instances, rather than go through our usual distributor for the time being. With some of my clients European distributors we would agree to ship direct to their customer, to make sure we don’t add too many stops. 

With  everyone working from home, the widespread use of web conferences such as Zoom, it has created some cybersecurity issues. I am aware a large number of large European companies have been victims of hackers. As small businesses are easy targets, it’s time for us to increase our security levels. Remember we may have to stay without international travel for a while so let’s get our businesses ready.

Tip № 9: Get Support 

The Australian government has put together several packages to support international supply chains. There are a number of packages to keep the industry running. There are a number of programmes that you can access. I suggest exporters contact their accountant.

Here are a few key contacts for exporters:

  • Austrade has a COVID-19 webpage for Australian businesses, updated daily with the latest information, advice and support for Australian exporters: https://bit.ly/_COVID_19  Note: this page contains info on today’s announcement re: EMDG changes
  • Freight & Trade Alliance (FTA) : COVID-19 AIR CARGO BULLETIN (on Linked-In) 
  • For details on the full range of programs the Australian Government has launched in COVID-19 support for Australian businesses go to Business.gov.au
  • The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) has developed a portal for manufacturing, component suppliers, skilled design, engineering and manufacturing experts. Register your interest and core competencies
  • The AMGC’s Manufacturer’s Portal is a free sign-up portal for manufacturers with a product to combat COVID-19. The AMGC and Austrade are actively promoting opportunities to registered members of this portal as they arise.  https://www.amgc.org.au/covid-19-manufacturer-response/
  • Australia’s Industry Capability Network (ICN) is providing businesses with links and work packages. Click here for more.
  • The Global Innovation Exchange (A project funded by USAID, Australia, S. Korea and others) serves as a 15,000+ innovation strong site, pointed to ‘development’-based innovation. The Exchange has released the site  www.covid19innovations.org, for businesses to upload solutions to COVID-19 across all stages, with a view to access funding and other support globally.
  • EFIC has also recently launched a new programme: https://www.exportfinance.gov.au/

 

№ 10: Keep calm, keep exporting

I was just reflecting on that because I had one of those days the other day where I had a lot of aggressive emails, a lot of nervous people with crazy demands, with unbelievable quantities and I was like, “What is going on in this world.”

A lot of companies are under financial stress, it’s creating a lot of aggressive reactions so be ready for that. Be aware that also some of your customers have been in confinement for a while so everybody is getting a bit nervous so take a step back and relax and it will be fine so just don’t respond the same way. Keep calm. We all realize this is a difficult time and we just need to be kind and process those inquiries with care.

Panic creates crazy demands so it’s more important than ever to do due diligence. We get, for some of my customers that are currently in high demand. You can also use a filter:, “what we’re doing right now at this extraordinary time is it in the long term interest of our business, of you business or not?” Use that as a filter. I do remember a French producer of masks that was very active during the last pandemic and because he had been so opportunistic he had about product, he’s been inactive for years, he had to downsize after the pandemic and with very bad financial debt.

And more importantly stay safe!

 

Want to Learn more?

Download our Full Whitepaper on The 10 TIPS FOR FOR EXPORTERS TO SURVIVE AND PROSPER AFTER COVID-19

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About Christelle:

Christelle turned her back to a successful career as a sales representative in the corporate world in Europe. When she moved to Australia in 2006, she started Exportia to share the wealth of her Europe-wide sales experiences for a small business as an export manager and as a sales representative at IBM in Paris.

“Having taken dozens of Australian businesses to Europe, I personally know the difficulty for a small business to significantly grow their sales in the European market. It is a very diverse market and small businesses often don’t know where to start. Small business owners are often caught up with running their business and with their domestic market to be able to allocate enough time to the European market. Lowering the risk for small businesses and guiding them to maximise the export sales results are what drives us at Exportia.”

Christelle has also encapsulated her learning into a book called “Ready Tech Go! – A definitive guide to exporting Australian technology to Europe”. French native speaker, fluent in German and English, with Basic Italian and Hindi.

 

Get in touch

Want to learn more about how you can succeed with your European Strategy despite the challenges of COVID 19? Download our complete Whitepaper here or Schedule a call with Christelle by sending us an email at: [email protected]

2020-05-02T13:24:47+10:00