Travelling to abroad is an unavoidable part if you are in international business. It is possible that one can do international business without visiting foreign clients after establishing rapport with them over a period of time. However, to nurture client relationships as well as to keep oneself abreast with the emerging market trends, a marketer in international business needs to visit his/her markets. Nothing other than market visits give first-hand information on competition, consumer preferences, wholesale dynamics, new trends and other factors that influence sales. The keen observer in a marketer can gain immense insights into country-specific characteristics and global macroeconomic factors which affect the business during such a visit. First-hand experience brings home lasting lessons and learning, housing them inside you with or without your cognitive reckoning. Such in-housing creates the base for insightful solutions that come out of you when you face problems in your business arena.
I am into international sales for the last twenty years and had traveled extensively across the globe, selling products like furniture, beauty soaps, personal hygiene products, with the current portfolio being perfumes and cosmetics. The first part of a 3-edition series on international sales, this blog details preparations — both business and personal — that one is recommended to undertake before embarking on a maiden business trip to a country, with the aim of hunting and locating a business partner.
The first job in business preparation is to determine whether a country has the potential in terms of market size — population — and purchasing power in order to be considered as a market worth exploring or not. I consider minimum-a-million population as the population-yardstick to explore a market for perfumes — a luxury as well as a semi-luxury product. Fast Moving Consumer Goods, or FMCGs, like beauty soaps need a bigger population of a few millions to explore as a market. There are exceptions to this reasoning. For example, the Maldives has only 500,000 population, but I am able to do business there, thanks to the inflow of large number of tourists to the island-nation.
Another couple of exceptions. I did good sales of soaps to The Gambia, a West African country abutting Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania though its population was only 1.5 million in 2006. The reason was that it had very low import duties, besides, having free trade agreements with other countries, including the neighbors, in West Africa through the Economic Community for West African States, or ECOWAS, a free trade agreement among the West African states. Hence, traders from neighboring countries come in to The Gambia to buy in bulk. The Colon Free Zone in Panama, the second largest free zone in the world after the Hong Kong Free Zone, serves countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Another example is Singapore being a gray market for the ASEAN countries. An international marketer should look at such exceptions while doing prospecting.
Once a country is zeroed in for exploration with the aim of getting your products marketed in that country through a local distributor, then the hunt for that prospective distributor begins right away, much before you set foot in that country. Online prospecting by filtering through import directories, trade and business directories, yellow pages, etc. by using multiple variables like trading companies, wholesalers, importers, distributors, etc. of the product or of similar products can get you list of prospects whom you can contact through emails given in those directories. You can approach, for example, a cosmetic importer-distributor if you are a marketer of perfumes; similarly, importer of electronic goods for white goods also; same client for different categories of essential commodities, etc.
There are paid directories that do not give contact details, but you can break such hurdles and get the details by intelligent-browsing. For example, a directory may give only name and address of a company, with no contact details like email and phone numbers. But you can scoop out such details of that company by trying different permutations and combinations of online searches that use company name as the constant against the search-variables: website email, phone number, contact details, etc.of that company from internet.
Every import to a country is cleared from port through shipping and forwarding companies. Hence, these companies will have the details of importers of the product you want to sell in a particular country. Suppose you sell building materials and want to start its sales to Ghana through a local importer-distributor. You can do online search for shipping and forwarding companies in Ghana. Then, approach them with a request for the details of the importers, along with a business proposition that you will use their shipping services if business opens up in Ghana — a win-win relation. If you write to, say, thirty companies, it is highly likely that you will get at least one reply. I experienced such cooperative hands from shipping companies even when a win-win relationship was not possible.
One can explore other pre-visit prospecting options like using online platforms viz: LinkedIn, facebook and other social media outlets, besides, through symbiotic sharing of customer details with friends who sell non-competing products.Through these online pre-visit prospecting, you may succeed to firm up a few business meetings even before your travel. It is also possible that you would receive few responses, making you to do all the heavy lifting of prospecting after reaching a country.
Physical energy adds to mental energy and vice versa. Maintaining good physical and mental energy levels during a business trip is very important to endure the trip. Irrespective of whether one is making an international trip as a tourist or a business person, one needs to make physical and mental preparations to carry on with the trip and complete it as per the schedule. The most important part of this is deciding where you will stay in the country of destination. It is better to stay at city center which usually have easier access to transport networks. Most wholesale markets, which you need to visit as a business traveler, are located in downtown areas. At the same time, offices are located at city centers. City centers, in addition to offering better transport facilities and locational access points, usually have more restaurants and other facilities offering evenings of non-business environs. Such an ambiance is needed for one to take a short break from business mindset and a quick refresh before winding down for the day.
Good sleeps and maintaining physical and mental well being in the immediate run up to the commencement of business trip have contributory benefits. Deliberately abstain from activities that will put unnecessary strain on health. When you head to the airport to board flight, you should feel physically and mentally strong as a soldier charged up and going to the battle ground. Suppose that your trip is of one month period and have four countries to cover, then, before embarking, visualize that you are completing the tasks in each country successfully, conducting yourself energetically as you pass through the countries and that you are sitting happily at the boarding gate for the return flight. Such visualizations just before the commencement of a business trip, indeed, will create a positive framework for your trip.
Day before you travel, visualize a smooth flight, clear sky and reaching the destination country trouble-free as it will help you to brush aside any fears of the unknown even if it is your maiden visit to an unfamiliar country. Many a time, I undertook long overhaul flights lasting 20+ hours from Dubai to the countries in the Americas. I always visualized reaching the hotel in the destination country enthusiastically and energetically. Barring very few occasions, I always ended up as I visualized.
If you have the habit of reading, do carry books as you will get enough time, especially at airports and inside flights, to read. As the adage goes, “Well begun is half done,” a well prepared international business travel opens up the road for the task at hand achievable.