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Doug Barry is a Senior International Trade Specialist within ITA’s Commercial Service. He has helped hundreds of U.S. companies of all sizes find success in overseas markets and produced a number of instructional videos and webinars that help firms navigate the path to successful sales.
Do you have to be a big company to be a successful exporter? No. In fact, the majority of exporters have fewer than 100 employees, and many have fewer than five.
Take Pro Quest, a maker of automated starting gates for bicycle races. The company has 8 employees but is in more than 40 country markets, including some unusual ones like Zimbabwe.
Vellus, Inc. is another successful small exporter, selling hair care products for, well, household pets. Vellus sells to more countries than it has employees. A buyer in Latvia was just added to this mini United Nations. Heck, most of us would have a hard time finding Latvia on the map, let alone selling doggie shampoo or anything else there.
These companies have achieved something special because 58 percent of the 263,000 U.S. exporters sell to only one market, mainly Canada. So how do you go from none or one—to two?
First, respond promptly and thoughtfully to inquiries you receive from non-U.S. buyers. Foreign buyers often complain, quite justifiably, that their emails aren’t responded to. Hard to seize today’s opportunity if you don’t answer the phone. You may be wary at first, especially if the inquiry comes from Prince So and So of Nigeria, who is offering to share his millions with you if you’ll just hand over your bank account number. Screen the request using common sense but don’t automatically reject anyone, even from Nigeria, which despite unfavorable publicity is a good market for all kinds of U.S. goods and service. Remember ProQuest and the bike racers in Zimbabwe? One person’s red flag is another person’s checkered flag.
Second, make sure your Web site is international friendly. Consider adding some welcoming text such as “we ship international” or “we gladly accept international orders and will quote you shipping rates.” Offer them shipping options including via the U.S. Postal Service which has very competitive rates on international shipments weighing less than 70 pounds and that may take a few days longer to reach the buyer. It’s also helpful to inform the international visitor upfront that they will be responsible for applicable duties and taxes applied by their country’s government. These charges can exceed 30 percent of the value of the item purchased. Better yet, help Web buyers estimate these charges by giving them sample charges for a range of countries based on the Harmonized Tariff Code number for your products. To learn how, view this series of short videos. http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/aes/exporttraining/videos/
Once you’ve made a few international sales, gather some testimonials from happy buyers and feature them on your site. Evidence of success begets more success. The next logical step after the onezys and twozys is to look at the pattern of where the sales are coming from and set a goal to find a distributor in one or two countries who will purchase sizable volume from you. How do you find them?
That brings us to our third way of increasing the markets you sell to from one to two to 20: the U.S. Government. Like most of the small exporting clients of the Commerce Department, Vellus and ProQuest have customers in far more countries than average. The reason for this success is that the Commerce Department, with its network of domestic Export Assistance Centers and experts at U.S. embassies, is good at finding buyers for U.S. companies, whether online, at trade shows, via teleconference or face-to-face. Learn more about these services by viewing this video.
It’s appropriately titled “Going Beyond Borders,” and it gives you good reason to cross one today.