Who’s your ideal customer? Perhaps your business is most definitely local, and all you are after is the money your neighbours can spend on your product or service. But if your offering can in any way be shipped overseas or delivered remotely, think again.

The decision to expand a business globally is often the result of careful planning, but if you’ve got a website, you’ve already addressing a global audience. Anybody can find you on Google, which means that, depending on your product or service, anybody can potentially buy from you.

There are many success stories of kitchen table entrepreneurs who have become widely successful by selling overseas. Ditto for ambitious B2B organisations, regardless of their size.

It’s increasingly important to be prepared for international enquiries that could grow into big partnerships or accounts. But how can you global-proof your business from day one so you’re prepared for what the future has in store? How can you prepare your business for international growth and expansion from the start?

1) Mind your language

English is widely spoken, but it may not be the first or even second language of your customers, and you should always take this into account, especially if your site is shown in English only.

You can find plenty of resources online on writing English for an international audience, including Arpita Bawal’s excellent article on LinkedIn. The bottom line? Be careful with the language you use so that it can be easily understood by non-native speakers. Keep sentences reasonably short and neutral and be careful with words that can have several meanings, because they could create serious misunderstandings if automatic translation tools are involved.

The potential pitfalls are not always obvious and can happen when dealing with other English-speaking countries: a few years ago, when working for a UK company expanding in the US, I had to change all marketing collateral references from “bespoke”, which to American ears sounds straight out of Dickens, to “custom made”. You may well be able to check the language yourself but, if in doubt, check with an experienced localisation specialist.

2) Brand for the world

Branding and sub-branding exercises are always multilayered and complex, with many variables to be taken into account – brand name availability, connotations, colours, memorability and so many others. If you are seriously considering the possibility of going global at some point, you should most definitely also look at whether the brand has any unsavoury meanings in other languages and whether there are any cultural sensitivities it could be stepping on. It will be difficult to cover all languages and cultures on earth, but you should at least check if there are any glaring issues with any of the most widely spoken languages or those spoken in your target markets. The internet is awash with examples of big brands that got it wrong; check them out and learn from their mistakes. (My personal favourite if you ask? The Mitsubishi Pajero).

3) Plan ahead

Perhaps you plan to launch your website in English to begin with, but if there’s even a remote possibility of it going multi-language or multi-country in the near future, make sure your web designer is aware of your plans from the start. Adding new website versions to your site can be a relatively painless (if time-consuming) process or a total nightmare that requires you to go back to square one and start from scratch, depending on the underlying structure of the site. And launching a new site is an expensive mistake to make. Having a vision of where you want to be in a couple of years’ time and sharing it with your suppliers and team, will save you time and money in the long run.

4) Be approachable

Make it easy for potential clients to communicate with you and offer them a range of options to get in touch. Channel preferences vary from country to country but email is generally very popular, partly because picking up the phone and addressing a stranger in a foreign language requires some courage. When responding to enquiries put yourself on the shoes of the person asking for information: you may not speak their language but you can make their life easier by writing in short paragraphs and favouring bullet points.

Be courteous: you don’t want to lose a potential customer because of poor email manners. And when answering international phone calls, be patient and speak as clearly as you can, but avoid sounding patronising. One last thing: in some markets and industries you may well be expected to also have a fax number (I’m not suggesting you should rush out and buy one, just making you aware).

5) Be time-aware

Know your time zones: there are dozens of online tools that can show you what time it is where. Use them when organising meetings involving people in different countries and remember to always specify the time zone you’re talking about. Also be aware of national holidays: you’d be surprised at how different they are from country to country. It’s not so bad if it’s just a day, but it can get complicated if you’re trying to get hold of a Chinese client during Chinese New Year.

A good idea is to add the national holidays of the countries you work with to your calendar, although you should remember that some regional and local holidays may not be included. Another good shout is to bear in mind culturally important dates that are not strictly holidays: it will save you the pain of having a meeting declined because it’s the cup semi-final.

6) Watch that sense of humour

As any competent linguist will tell you, humour is notoriously challenging to get right in a different language because such a large part of it relies on a common cultural background. This means that it often doesn’t translates well, especially in writing, so keep your written materials free from subtle ironies and references that you may find hilarious but could come across as obscure to foreign readers (plus, in some cultures using humour in business can be seen as showing lack of focus and business acumen). Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, depending on your industry and particularly on the individuals you’re dealing with, so feel free to disregard this point if your circumstances make it irrelevant.

It’s never been easier to sell your products or services abroad, so don’t be afraid to open your business to foreign customers: it’s a steep learning curve, but the rewards can be potentially phenomenal, and not just in a monetary sense. So be ambitious and don’t limit yourself to the local or regional markets, if your offering allows.

One last thing: the minute you decide to open your shopfront to international visitors and start building relationships with international clients and partners you may find yourself opening up to their visions of the world. It could change your views on many things.

It certainly has changed mine.

Image credit: Mr Hicks46 / CC


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