Entering a foreign market can be a daunting task for a new exporter. Especially if your target market is on a different continent and you don’t speak the local language, there are many potential mistakes waiting to be made.
A network of local contacts can further your understanding of the market and of operating conditions. It will also help improve your strategy and will eventually be a crucial factor of business success. But how to identify contacts without cold-calling or cold-messaging them? This can be done in various ways.
1. Tap Your Existing Contacts
If any of your business or personal contacts in your home country are doing business in your target country, ask if they can introduce you to someone who might be helpful for you. This may not lead to instant business success for you, but it will be an important first step. It is also much easier to get someone’s attention when you are introduced.
You will obviously also want to pick your existing contacts‘ brains for general information about the market, how they operate, things they wished they had known at the start, trends they observe, advice, suggestions etc.
2. Find Relevant Institutional Contacts
Instead of just scouring LinkedIn for appropriate people to approach, you can start with institutions. The commercial section of your Embassy can be an important resource for information, connections and (should you need it) trouble-shooting. If your country operates a Chamber of Commerce in your target market, approach them and get to know the people there. What services do they offer, how can they support you? Can they refer you to someone else for additional help? Can they connect you with other small exporters?
Likewise, approach any relevant industry association in your target market. You may not be able to squeeze very much out of them, as they are predominantly there for local industry players – indeed, many services and resources are only available to members. But they should at least be able to give you general information about your industry and about regulatory issues. Specialized industry consultants are also often members of industry associations and can be contacted through them.
3. Visit an Industry Trade Show or Event
Sounds lame but can be very effective. Germany, for instance, hosts major trade shows for almost any industry. These can be HUGE. Many of my clients expressed astonishment at how big and international these shows were – they had expected to meet only Germans, but suddenly the whole world was at their doorstep. If you can’t afford to exhibit yet, no problem. Buy a visitor ticket, do advance research to find out who is there (there is usually an exhibitor’s directory available online), try and make appointments, walk the show, and talk to as many people as possible. Bring business cards! (But don’t bring your 120-page company brochure. Nobody wants to lug around extra paper.)
Many trade shows also have conference components that may yield interesting insights on market developments. Exhibitors often host receptions after-hours, either at their booth or at an outside location. Some of these are open to all comers, others are invitation-only. Go if you have a chance, and don’t just hover over the buffet. These are prime networking opportunities.
Same for industry events such as conferences. Depending on your industry, these can also be helpful to gain additional technical input.
4. Visit Your Target Market
To the extent possible, visit the market itself to familiarize yourself with local conditions and customs. This will also help inform your strategy. Ideally, use such a visit to follow up on contacts made at a trade show!
Be serious about this. My former colleagues and I often received the following type of request from totally unknown clients: „We will be in cities A, B, and C on such dates, our product is XYZ, we want to meet contacts, please make appointments for us.“ Forget it. It’s not going to work. First of all, the request is too vague. What kind of contact are you looking to meet? Second of all, it sounds as if you are trying to schedule some meetings during a vacation, so you can claim travel costs as a business expense. No trade officer will ever risk alienating their local contacts by connecting them with such a client – who knows if the client is serious and will actually show up for the meeting!
How Much Notice?
In Germany it is virtually impossible to get a meeting with anyone on short notice. Allow about two months‘ notice, assuming this is a first meeting with someone you have been speaking with and who has expressed an interest in meeting you. Allow much more time, and much more preparatory work, if you are cold-calling them.
By the way, you can also forget about messaging someone a week before a trade show to get a meeting. For the big shows and the big companies, calendars are booked solid months in advance.
My clients often expressed financial concern regarding a visit to Germany. Yes, of course, depending on where you are, costs can be substantial, but:
- There are ways to economize, e.g., in Germany it’s perfectly safe to stay in a 2* or 3* hotel, and
- If you really cannot afford a trip, chances are you will not be able to afford the admin costs generated by exporting.
5. Stay on the Ball
This is the most important aspect of all. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, „I’ve talked to this person, we’ve had rapport, I’ll just given them a call next year when we’re ready to export.“ This may work in some countries, but definitely not in Germany. You really have to stay on the ball and build a relationship with the person. Just like a 10-minute meeting is not going to generate an order, it is not going to get you a friend for life.
Remember that you are not the only one who wants your new contact’s attention. Chances are they talked to dozens if not hundreds of people at the show where you met them, and have received countless emails from yet more people since. You eventually want something from them, so you have to show them why it is in their interest to make you an actual contact in the meantime. Your shared love of dogs will not be enough – show them that your product, your company, YOU are relevant.
But don’t just add them to your mailing list, as this violates data-protection rules in the EU.