Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. You’re a business owner with a great brand, an excellent product and lots of happy users, but you’re struggling to expand to other countries besides the US. You know there are potential customers abroad excited for your brand and your company—you’ve seen them on your social media accounts.
But how do you do it? How do you make your business international? How do you grow your customer base abroad with as few headaches as possible?
Well, you’ve come to the right place! Here are our tips to help grow your customer base in international markets.
Start small to get big international sales
When expanding abroad you don’t want to get in over your head and have your plan collapse before it’s even begun. You want to create a solid foundation for your company and spend time and energy planning, especially if this is your first time expanding a business internationally.
Start with just expanding to one foreign country. Once you have some time and experience under your belt, you can begin to expand faster and to more countries. Expanding to countries that are geographically close or culturally similar to your company’s home country is a good place to start.
Expanding to countries similar to your own will mean less time trying to understand the local culture and fewer translation needs. Canada and the United Kingdom are good candidates for US-based small and medium businesses looking to expand to an international market. Canada, in particular, is an ideal international location because of the ease of cross-border travel and an existing customer base of Canadians who already make purchases in the US.
Do not miss the chance to create a business plan for a particular region, be it North America, Latin America, South Africa or another region. You will gain valuable insights into how to make international sales, and also into good investment strategies, the best firms and larger companies in the region, technologies used by the local competition and overall financial information.
Do lots of research
The very first thing you should do is research the country or region you are trying to expand to. It’s important to know the obstacles you might face ahead of time so that you can plan around them. Some examples of logistical concerns include:
Britain adds a VAT on domestic and international payments, so you will have to consider how the added cost affects customers' buying habits in that country.
- Germany has a new packaging law that involves licensing for your business before you can legally ship physical products there, so you’ll have to get licensed before packing any orders.
- Canada has two official languages, so you will need a strategy for both demographics. For example, surveys have found that Quebecois consumers demonstrate more brand loyalty than the rest of Canada and are more resistant foreign marketing. Consider the province of Quebec as its own entity that will require a separate strategy altogether.
Make sure you comply with local and national laws in your international market. Some products or services might need clearance from government agencies, or you might need a permit issued by the local government. Abiding by the laws of your new location is vital as failure to comply could torpedo your chances of international sales. Start by checking government websites as most of them have the information you’ll need.
Consider time zones
If you’re expanding to a market that is overseas, there are significant time zone differences to contend with. Since communication is easy and accessible in our globalized world, your international customers will expect to be able to communicate issues in a timely manner when they are awake—after all, great customer service only works if your customers are awake to experience it. Not only will it make you look unprofessional to not be available, it will cause frustration among your customers. And customers are all too willing to switch brands or companies for better customer service. If your users are frustrated because they can’t get ahold of you to solve their customer service issues in a timely manner, they might move their business elsewhere.
One way to provide excellent customer service across time zones is through email. It’s asynchronous, and up to 50% of customers are willing to wait 24 hours for a response (although that statistic is rapidly shrinking). However, not all customers will want to use email. Some customers want an immediate answer to their query or issue, and it’s good customer service to provide options.
One solution to the customer demand for immediate answers is to include phone lines staffed by local hires. Another solution is to offer live chat services. Live chat allows you to hire individuals from anywhere in the world to help—so long as they have their own computer. It’s a great solution to the time zone dilemma!
When expanding to a country that is culturally different from the US and has a non-English first language, hiring local for your marketing team is a must. This should be considered an essential part of your marketing strategy, along with other things like SEO and social media (more on those later!) Make sure to hire at least one person who speaks the primary language of the country you are trying to establish a presence in. Typos and poor translations in your products and advertisements will make you look unprofessional. The best choice is someone who is fluently bilingual in English and the most spoken language of the country you are trying to expand to.
Another important local hire is someone who has lived in the country for several years and is involved in the same industry you want to expand your business into. A local hire who can tell you the customs and values of the country, major cultural differences and what the competition is doing will help avoid any cultural faux pas and give you a leg up in your foreign business venture. They'll also be able to tell you if you're expanding into a saturated market, and what types of products will fill the niches in that market. Many small and medium businesses tend to overlook this part when expanding abroad, but it's key to getting valuable international sales.
Talk to your accountant about taxes
This part of international sales and international market expansion is incredibly important. It can be easy to forget about taxes during the exciting growth stage. You’re planning, and brainstorming and all the pieces are falling into place—but if you forget to sort out your taxes on international payments, your whole international expansion could fall apart. Additionally, this kind of controversy could make prospective customers wary—even in your domestic market.
You’ll especially need to understand (or hire someone who understands) the taxes involved in accepting money in foreign currencies. It’s fine to ask your customers to pay in USollars when you’re starting out—many of them will likely have USD accounts—but, to capture most of a foreign market, you’ll want to be able to accept international payments. This is another reason you'll want a dedicated accountant, especially to make sure the currency conversions are all being done properly. They can also advise on filling out customs forms. After all, your new customers will get pretty frustrated if something happens to their package or product because you missed a line on the customs form.
The US has many tax treaties with other countries that make import and export easier. Make sure you have an expert on taxes for this venture. You don’t want to lose out on valuable profits because you misunderstood how cross-border taxes work!
Work out logistics of international shipping, packaging and processing
Truly making your business international means having a production base in the country you plan to ship to. While it makes a lot of sense to ship directly from the US when you’re just starting to export to other countries, if you plan to ship a lot of products over the long term, you should develop a better strategy.
For example, having a warehouse in your target country benefits your customers. Having the bulk of your products on hand to more easily send out will help you lower your prices and keep customers happy.
Some questions to consider when starting to plan your business model for overseas shipping:
-How often are you going to ship overseas?
-Are you going to use air mail, truck or boat, or a combination of all three?
-How much product do you need to ship at once for the cost to be worth it?
-Who is going to run the international side of the shipping and processing parts of your business?
-Where will your warehouse be located?
-What will your return policy be like? (Returns could end up costing a lot of money in shipping and storage fees if you pay them.)
Grow your social media presence
Social media is global, and it’s likely you already have an interested international audience. Using your social media platforms you can gauge what your international customers would be most interested in, which parts of your business you should focus on in each country, and announce your move into a new country!
One option for expanding your social media presence internationally is creating mirror social media accounts in the primary language of the country you’re expanding to. This will reach a greater share of the target market since you will be able to engage with overseas customers in their native language.
These mirror social media accounts would simply post exactly the same messages and posts as your English account but in the target language. This is a good job for those local marketing team members that we mentioned earlier.
Work on SEO
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In simple terms, SEO means making sure that search engines can efficiently find your web pages, advertisements and all other parts of your online presence. Essentially, the better search engines can find you, the better your business will do.
This is different from just making sure your ads and product pages are spelled correctly and look professional. For SEO you want an understanding of your international audience. You'll want to think about what people search for, but you’ll also want to know how they search for it.
SEO is an important strategy for gaining footing in a new market. What search engines do your customers in other countries use? How does SEO work with those search engines? And most importantly, what are the local phrases that people will actually search with?
For example, do you know what “wellies” are? Wellies are what people in the US and Canada call “rubber boots.” If you’re selling rain boots in the UK you’ll want to know that the term most of your potential customers will be searching for is "wellies." This knowledge of local slang and customary phrases will significantly improve your SEO.
And those were our tips and tricks for beginning your adventure into international sales! Expanding small and medium businesses can take a lot of planning and effort, but it can be worth it in the end.