The truth about languages and exporting

One big misconception is that languages are a barrier to exporting. The other big misconception is that everyone in the world speaks English. So, how are these seemingly opposite two points reconciled?

Well, suppose your business is in Newcastle and you identify a potential new client in Southampton. Would you expect them to travel to you so you could sell to them? After all, the road from Southampton to Newcastle goes in both directions, they could just as easily come to you as you could go to them. But that’s unlikely. You would travel to them – or at the very least you might suggest an initial meeting at a half-way point, perhaps Nottingham. You would show them you are serious about selling to them, you would put yourself out a bit, you would go to them, or at least meet them half way. And, you would not think twice about doing so. It’s obvious that if you want to sell, you will “accommodate” your potential new client to show commitment, respect and consideration. In short, to make it easy for them to buy from you.

So it is with languages. You prospective client in Italy or Holland or Chile may well speak English so you could expect them to accommodate you and speak in English, just as you could ask them to come from Southampton to Newcastle to meet you. But what message does that send them? “If you put yourself out for us, we may decide to sell to you…” Probably not the ideal start to a fruitful commercial relationship.

So, why would you not show the same level of commitment to a foreign client as one from Southampton? Because languages add costs? Because translating slows communication down? Because everyone else speaks English and they know we Brits are bad at languages? These are not answers, just excuses. Why not see the minimal COST of translation as an INVESTMENT that will bring excellent returns. Why not see that communicating in the client’s language demonstrates COMMITMENT, RESPECT, CONSIDERATION?

How many of us have a truly totally unique product or service? Very few, I suspect. So, how do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors? In the export market the single best differentiation is to be the supplier that accommodates clients by using their language. If I had to choose between two similar products but one had instructions in English and the other didn’t… well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?
So, treat potential export clients like clients from Southampton. Go to them, at least part of the way. Once you’ve established a good working relationship with them by investing in travel to Southampton (or Nottingham) or a bit of translation, you will find they will be more than happy to meet you half way, or even come to Newcastle, or speak English.

Many years ago my business in Spain grew from 2% to 15% market share in 4 years. I told my boss in London it was because I was the world’s best salesman. Sadly that wasn’t true. It was because although there were many competitors with almost identical products I spoke to clients in Spanish and my competitors didn’t. Simples! I hope my old boss doesn’t read this…

Graham Webb