Exporting for Small Business is a team effort

by: Christelle Damiens

A year ago, I was frustrated with one of my clients, a small business in the electronics sector, I am helping this company export to several European markets. I was developing a nice amount of leads for them in the French market. The momentum was building up slowly year after year. But I always had a very slow response time from my clients’ team. When I had to provide information to a European customer, they were very slow to get back to me promptly. The typical response was: “ I have this and this I have been asked to do, so I won’t have time before the end of the week.” Basically, all my enquiries were the last priority for everyone in the team, even though the CEO in this business had very ambitious export development objective. As I usually do when I don’t get the outcome that my clients should be getting, I call the CEO to share my frustration. I tell him we are clearly losing momentum with European clients. When we discussed about it, we realised that his team was not engaged enough in the export project. They always put the priority to their home market, and they were clearly doing their job. There was nothing wrong with that. They were just not aligned with the strategic objective of the company. From that conversation, we got his management committee together in a room and presented the roadblocks to them. They clearly identified the problems and realised they had not integrated export in their everyday work and their processes. The mindset of the whole team changed after this meeting.

What’s in export for your team?

You may consider how to show your team, what the benefits for them are in exporting? Firstly, let’s put it this way as a business owner you know that exporting for a small business means creating jobs and sustaining jobs in the long term. For your team, what it means is that they will have more opportunities to grow in their job, to move to a different job, and to add an international dimension to their role. It is also a good opportunity for you as business owners to create staff loyalty. You will also notice that working for a business that exports around the world also creates a sense of pride for a team.

I remember clearly in my first export manager role for a small French business, my main role was to develop the retailers’ network in Europe. The German market was my first priority. I used to be on Mondays at the office and the rest of the week on the road. When the orders started to arrive from Germany, the ladies at the factory were delighted. They would come to me and ask who these clients were. This small business had gone through tough economic times and had recently been bought by a larger group. This period of merger and acquisition was quite destabilising for the people at the factory. So seeing orders coming from Germany was giving them confidence that things were going the right way.

As a small business owner, you will be fully committed to the export project. However, you will need the support of your entire team to make it happen.

Examples of things you will need support with

There will be technical questions from overseas clients that will need a fast response. And you don’t want to have your team saying: “Who’s in charge with this? I am not incharge!” You need a fast response and your team should be on-board.

There will be user manuals that will need to be updated in different languages. Your production team will need to be aware that they have to send a French manual to a French client or a Europeanised version of your product, if you have one. Your marketing team will need to integrate into our website the multilingual capability. The update of the German, French, Spanish websites for example should not be overlooked.

The list of examples is never ending. Basically in every project you run, you need toask your self : could that project be relevant for any of our international client? How could we adapt it to them?

How to actively engage your team?

To make it a reality, job positions may have to be changed to take on this new international dimension. Ideally, incentives should be given to employees to motivate them to contribute to the international expansion.

Usually, when I conduct a business trip to Europe on behalf of one of our clients, whenever possible I take one of my clients’ team members with me. Depending on the objective of the trip, I offer to take with me a different profile of staff member. If the discussion in Europe is going to be very product oriented I always find useful to take an engineer with me. He can then see how the client is currently using products from the competition. He or she can spot possible technical imporved that their product could add. And most importantly he or she can see what the engineering team should take onboard for their next generation of product and is able to share back with the rest of the team at the office.

Visiting overseas clients is a good way to involve your team. It also makes the need to take into account the needs of international clients more real. It is also a nice reward for your top performers.

As a small business owner, you may have to conduct the initial trips to Europe. It will then be very important to feedback all the information gathered back to your team. Nor just through a trip report but also through a debrief meeting. These ways when you will need some help to conduct the follow-ups after your trip, everybody in your team will know what to do and what is the context.