It’s clear that the impact of COVID-19 has been detrimental to all businesses in the UK and overseas.
A significant number of UK companies, across all sectors, small and large, have had to take measures to ensure business continuity is maintained as much as possible, with difficult decisions to be made about staff and production.
What’s more, international travel restrictions and a slowing global economy will have hampered plans to develop sales overseas, meaning that some businesses will have put international trade on the backburner for now.
Despite the lockdown, businesses who are in a position to use this time to review their international trade activity could consider taking these actions:
1. Review your international markets and reach out to existing customers
Most businesses will be thinking about sales recovery, and fundamental to that is to update your international trade strategy in light of COVID-19. Review your overseas markets to identify the strong performers and those that might be less active in the coming months.
As a priority, it would be wise to contact all your overseas customers and partners to enquire into their situation firstly and reassure them that you are keen to continue working together. It’s a good idea to try and keep communication channels open and warm. Personal contact will go a long way to reassuring partners of your commitment and that will be remembered once things have settled down. Once you’ve established that their situation is stable, you can review the status of your shipments, recent sales and payments. Do they have an urgent need for items that could be shipped out? Although space on containers and in air-freight is at a premium right now, you might be able to help them find a solution – think outside the box.
It is also important to confirm your mutual understanding of where things stand at the moment as regards any new barriers to trade. For example, the introduction of UK export licenses for certain items of Personal Protection Equipment or supply chain difficulties and delays.
If a distributor has difficulty in pursuing sales in the short-term, you may need to consider discounting or a temporary break in your arrangements, with an agreed timeline for review. Placing an agreement on hold means you can focus on other markets. When it comes up for review, in instances where they were not performing before COVID-19, it may be time to find another partner. Ask a lawyer to check your contract terms and conditions if this is necessary.
If your customers sell products that are likely to pick up quickly such as food and drink items, consider whether a fresh marketing drive would be worthwhile, and by what means (more on marketing below). Freshen up your international trade strategy and discuss it with your team for their views. Cultural considerations will be critical – in many countries, they may not want to admit to having difficulties or will want to “save face”. Think about your approach and tailor it to the market.
2. Stay on top of important developments and build market intelligence
Do you have sufficient information on which of your markets are growing? Are distributors not performing as you would like? Can you conduct an online meeting to explore the reasons for this?
Some markets will recover from COVID-19 more quickly than others and spend, whether consumer spend by individuals, or state expenditure in key industries is almost certain to be affected once markets start to gear up again.
So some markets will shrink and new ones might emerge. It’s a good time to review your distributor agreements to check if you need to revise targets, pricing and make sure that your partners have a planned approach.
Are there new markets where you believe your products or services have potential and are as yet untapped? Now would be a good time to undertake research, online or via research providers who are experienced in the market or sector.
Take a look at what your competitors are up to. I work with companies who are very competent at tracking what their competitors are up to and it informs their international trade strategy. Identifying where competitors have distributors may reveal some markets not previously considered and can flag up what pricing they are able to achieve.
You may need to think about the routes to market you have established. Whereas a distributor is appropriate in some markets, an agent or a manufacturing under licence arrangement might be better in others. An International Trade Adviser can help review your strategy and determine whether you need to update your arrangements and try something new.
3. Improve your international marketing materials and online presence
In many overseas markets, it’s vital to have marketing materials, instructions and technical data in the local language. Translators are often able to work from home and will be glad to consider reasonable rates for updating your material and checking that it’s all correct.
Are you on the key online platforms and how are your sales doing through your online channels?
We know that a tailored marketing approach has to be taken in different markets, so for example in certain Middle East markets, images of people in swimwear may not be permitted, so a clothing retailer would need to have appropriate images on their website if targeting that market.
Consider whether your materials reflect environmental concerns and more recent coronavirus developments. Humour that’s often used in British outlets may not be appropriate in overseas markets. This is a great time to review your approach and develop new materials for what will almost certainly be a need to have a fresh sales drive in whatever sector you operate in.
Review your marketing materials from the perspective of your customers, and see if you can make them easier to use or with more images to reflect modern consumer habits where attention needs to be caught more quickly.
How does your online presence look? Does your company have an up-to-date website, reflective of your latest product developments? Can you improve or simplify the language on your website for markets where English is not commonly used? It might be worth investing in some pages that summarise your services in the languages of your target markets.
4. Upskill staff to improve your overseas business
Companies I’ve spoken to in recent days are reviewing team capabilities, to explore what they have and what could be improved. It’s a good time whilst we’re all working from home to upgrade our skills.
Focussed on export, Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Export have a wide range of courses and qualifications that can be done online and could give colleagues valuable expertise and more confidence.
Why not undertake a review of language skills and check that you have the marketing, digital and sales skills the company needs? It will ensure we’re up-and-running when overseas business picks up.
On a more general note, businesses should continue to engage with their International Trade Adviser or the International Trade Centre team at Business West. If you should you need any advice in connection with trading internationally we are happy to help. Subject to and complying with Government rules for social distancing, my colleagues and I are working from home, hosting online export review meetings to help exporters plan ahead - if they are ready to.
Like other UK organisations, we’re concerned at the impact that COVID-19 will have on our working and economic lives, and we want to help companies be ready to hit the ground running at the right time. Export might just be the key.
For general advice on support for your business needed as a result of COVID-19, please go to: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus/business-support and for an easy to access platform offering practical tips for business, check out www.tradingthroughcoronavirus.com