For most companies, successful exporting is very much about building positive relationships with business partners in key markets. Whether a business sells directly to major end users or uses the services of an agent or a distributor, the same rules apply.
Just like in any other aspects of life, it takes hard work and care to build a lasting and effective business relationship. When seeking to establish, for example, a distribution agreement in a new market, the importance of the personal interactions can’t be over-stated. Early negotiations usually take the form of a single representative of the exporting company visiting the potential partner and undertaking the negotiations. Most exporters will agree that these initial discussions are vitally important and tend to set the scene for the future. But to really build a successful and sustainable working relationship, it certainly helps if it is based on a personal knowledge of more than just one person in the exporting company.
You can perhaps liken the prospect of inviting your business partner to visit you as “meeting the parents”. In itself, it shows that you consider the business partner to be important, and want to invest time in making it work. Such a visit is also a good opportunity to strengthen the relationship that other key colleagues will have with the partner, such as those working in finance, logistics and marketing. In my experience, remote working relationships work much better if the individuals involved have at least clapped eyes on each other at some time, and ideally got to know each other over dinner or at some other social function.
Particularly for a business that has little or no experience of welcoming visitors from another country, it pays to plan carefully for the visit to avoid potential pitfalls and make sure the whole experience is an enjoyable one for the visitor. The following rules will help to make that a reality:
Take care to ensure that you choose the right time for the visit. Are there any holidays or special events that might make travelling difficult? Is it a good time of year regarding weather expectations? Will key colleagues be available during the visit? Does the company have other commitments at that time that may distract from the visit?
2. Travel and accommodation
Whether you or the other party takes responsibility for making travel arrangements, involve yourself in the plans and offer to at least book the hotel. Choose a place to stay that makes sense for the visitor. I’d tend to choose somewhere in town rather than near our offices, just because it’s a nicer place to be. In particular, think about the visitor’s first impressions. Offer to meet them at the airport or station, and make sure you get there first! Arriving in a strange country can be disorientating, and there is nothing better than seeing a familiar face, someone who will help with your bags and whisk you to your hotel. And in case things do go wrong, remember to swap mobile phone numbers in advance, if you haven’t already done so. I like to send my visitor a text message as soon as their flight has landed. This means that, even before they brave the crowds at passport control and baggage collection, they know that I’m waiting for them. I think it can be reassuring.
3. Personal requirements
Be sensitive to your visitor’s personal requirements. Think especially about any cultural issues, such as diet. But don’t rely on assumptions, always ask your visitor about their needs. If the visit involves a long journey, give them plenty of time to relax and recover. Don’t whisk them off the plane and put them straight into a series of gruelling meetings. Ensure your guest is not neglected during their visit, but be aware of the fact that they may well want some free time for themselves, either to catch up on e-mails, contact their office and/or family, or just to relax on their own.
4. Involve colleagues
From the earliest stage, make it clear that you want the active involvement of key colleagues. Hold a planning meeting, and ensure that everyone understands their role. Take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the visit is flagged up to everyone. Take particular care that colleagues who may not be involved in the discussions, but ought to know what’s going on, are introduced. This includes the Managing Director and the Receptionist! If there are small ways to ‘roll out the red carpet’ a bit, then use them. For example, a personal welcome message on the notice board in reception can make a good impression. Also, encourage colleagues to take part in the social aspects of the visit such as dinner or sight-seeing. Establishing friendly relations will pay dividends in the future, especially when something goes wrong (and in exporting, something always does go wrong sooner or later, believe me!)
5. Follow up
At the end of formalities, I find it’s good to have a one-to one meeting to go over all the points raised and agree the actions for all parties. Take notes and share them with colleagues and the visitor by email after the final meeting. If the visitor is travelling straight home, arrange to take them to the airport or station. Then if it’s helpful, have a debrief with colleagues and go through anything you need them to do. Also use it as a chance to look critically at the visit and see if there was anything that could have been handled differently. Before the visitor arrives home, it’s nice if there is an email waiting for them, just thanking them for their visit and briefly setting out the action points again.
A successful visit should be enjoyable for everyone, and should also result in a better mutual understanding and a clear plan of action. Use the visit as a key opportunity to build on the relationship and future business success.
Written on 1st July 2012 by Tim Hiscock, S&H LLP Associate
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