Manage overseas business relationships

Whether you are importing or exporting, building relationships helps you make the most of your opportunities.

Good relationships depend on dealing with practical issues and communicating regularly. You may need to adjust the way you do business to suit people used to different languages and business cultures.

Plan your approach

Research local product requirements

Find out about customer preferences, local standards and product regulations. You might need to change the product’s appearance, or to fundamentally redesign it.

You may need to translate labelling and instructions or to redesign packaging to suit the local market. You may even need to change your product’s name or logo if they have unfortunate connotations locally.

If you are importing, you need to check whether goods sourced overseas will meet UK requirements.

Find out how local commercial practice differs from the UK

Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and problems. For example, in some countries an extensive, written contract is the key part of any agreement; in others, the handshake is more important.

Investigate how products are marketed and sold, including any legal restrictions, for example, rules prohibiting advertising to minors.

Identify the key contacts you need to build relationships with

Key contacts may include customers or suppliers, agents, trade organisations and government departments.

You may need to build relationships with UK organisations overseas (for example, the British diplomatic mission) and with overseas organisations in the UK (for example, the UK representatives of your customers or suppliers).

Decide what use you will make of agents

The way the market operates may mean that it is easier to sell through a local agent (or distributor), rather than directly. In some countries this is a legal requirement.

A local agent can be a valuable source of market information, and can help you find customers and build relationships with them.

Take legal advice before entering into a contractual relationship with an agent or distributor. It can be difficult and expensive to terminate the relationship later on.

Consider taking consultancy advice

The Department for International Trade (DIT) offers a subsidised Export Communications Review to help you overcome language and cultural barriers.

Get organised

Make sure you have a clear agreement

Using the internationally recognised Incoterms 2010 in your contract helps make it clear what your responsibilities are at every stage.

Make effective transport arrangements

Logistical problems and customs clearance can be a major source of delay and frustration. Be prepared to work with customers or suppliers to resolve any problems. Both you and they may find them equally frustrating, regardless of who has contractual responsibility.

Look for opportunities to make their lives easier

Consider how you can improve your systems to suit them. For example, many delivery companies offer order tracking online so that customers can check the progress of their goods.

Provide a contact in case of any problems.

You may be able to offer personal help. For example, if an overseas contact is coming to the UK on holiday.

Communicate regularly

Consider visiting, particularly in the early stages of a relationship

This will help you build trust, develop a lasting relationship and demonstrate how much you value your trading partners. You may need to make several visits if you are hoping to win high value orders from overseas customers

Visiting gives you an opportunity to get to know their business and to find out more about the country.

Think about the most cost-effective way to visit

  • Exhibitions and trade missions can be a good way of meeting several customers in one trip.
  • DIT’s Passport to Export programme can include financial support to visit an overseas market.
  • Your chamber of commerce or trade association may lead a trade mission to the market you are interested in.

Plan a regular communications schedule

Email is cost-effective and convenient, particularly if there is a time difference between you, but lacks the immediacy and personal touch of a phone call.

Indirect contact, such as advertising, can help build your local presence.

You may want to revisit key contacts regularly, or invite them to visit you in the UK.

Make it easy for them to contact you

Give them the name, phone number and email address of the individual responsible for dealing with them.

A contact that speaks their language makes life much easier for them and for you.

Provide key information and answers to frequently asked questions on your website.

Overcome the language barrier

Carry out an audit of your language needs

The skills you require depend on whether your contacts can speak English and are happy to do so. While suppliers may use English, customers might expect you to make more effort.

Different individuals may have different needs. For example, a sales person travelling overseas may need basic language skills to get around, even if the customers all speak English.

Marketing brochures, product labels and legal contracts need expert translation.

You may need to be able to at least get a rough idea what an incoming email is about, so that you can decide whether you need to follow it up.

Where possible try to use expertise

Getting a rough translation into English is usually relatively easy, but be mindful of the consequences of mistranslations. You might be able to use a student who speaks or studies the foreign language or a foreign student who speaks English.

If the translation relates to a legal agreement or important business matter it may be better to use an expert to translate.

Translation into a foreign language is more difficult, especially where specialised wording is involved.

Use professional translators and interpreters where necessary

Errors in translation can be disastrous in, for example, a legal contract. You will need specialists to deal with technical documents and negotiations.

Wordplay and humour do not usually translate well into another language.

You may want to double-check sensitive translations by having them translated back into English, or asking trusted local contacts to read through them.

Use qualified professionals, and check that they have experience of the country you are dealing with. For example, an expert from France may not be the right person to use in a different French-speaking country.

Train employees to speak and understand as much of the language as they need

Learn a little of the language yourself. Even if your contacts speak English, they will appreciate the effort.

Produce business cards in both English and the local language.

It helps if a switchboard operator can recognise and use a few key phrases while putting a caller through to the right contact.

It may be worth recruiting sales people with existing language skills, or investing in language training for them.

Train employees to use plain and clear English when dealing with foreign contacts

Misunderstandings can and do occur when you use slang or speak quickly.

Think carefully about what foreigners might mean when they are using English

Do not assume that they are using words in the same way as you do. For example, during negotiations they might say ‘yes’ to mean that they hear you, not that they agree with you.

Think about longer-term solutions

If you often need translation, it helps if you can build up a relationship with a translator who gets to know your business.

If you are investing in language training, tell the training company what your medium-term objectives are and ask them to suggest appropriate solutions. It is usually unrealistic to expect training to provide a quick fix.

Be culturally aware

Learn how to behave

  • You may need to learn local rituals. For example, in Japan when you are given a business card you should study it carefully – putting it in your pocket without looking at it is considered rude.
  • The way you present yourself may need changing. For example, in some countries sitting cross-legged so that you show the sole of your foot is offensive.
  • While British business contacts are usually on first name terms straight away, other cultures can be much more formal.
  • Watch out for potentially sensitive areas such as religion.
  • Different cultures often have very different senses of humour.

Take an interest

  • Do a little research into their history.
  • Find out what the main pastimes in the country are, and who are the local entertainment and sporting heroes.
  • Be prepared to experience and appreciate their culture. For example, by eating the local food or attending cultural events.

Establishing a personal relationship can be crucial

Taking a contact to a meal is often an expected part of the process of building a business relationship. In some cultures it is considered bad form to discuss business at social occasions. Consider providing appropriate small gifts. Find out what is expected and when, but be aware of bribery regulations.

Be patient

It can be difficult to identify and get access to the decision-maker. You may have to meet a contact several times before winning any business. In some cultures, it is normal to be late for business meetings.

Take advice where necessary

Useful sources of information can include the local British diplomatic mission and DIT. Read a local travel guide, preferably one aimed at business travellers.

Make yourself local

Establish local contact points

Consider creating a local language version of your website, and registering a local domain name. Consider changing your local agent’s role so that the agent is rewarded for building

relationships rather than just taking orders or making one-off sales. Consider setting up a local office if the level of business justifies it.

Expose yourself to local information

Consider subscribing to local newsfeeds or business magazines. Find out if you can join the appropriate trade association in the country. See if there is a membership organisation for companies that trade between that country and the UK. Build your local network, using one contact to get another.

Change the way you think

Instead of thinking about how to adjust your product or the way you do things in the UK to suit local conditions, start with a blank piece of paper. Consider recruiting employees with first-hand experience of the country, its culture and its language. Look at ways to integrate yourself into the local economy, for example by using local suppliers.

Further information

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