Small businesses can double their customer base by selling to France – but what are the pitfalls?
As many small UK businesses find it increasingly difficult to meet their targets and keep afloat, more and more of them are marketing across the Channel in an attempt to increase their prospective customer base. You can get an international marketing plan going with as little as £500, but beware of the pitfalls (check out my list of Do’s and Don’ts of doing business in France).
With technology becoming smarter and more ingenious by the minute and multilingual marketing agencies fast emerging, selling overseas has never been easier. But many companies seem unable to convert their marketing efforts in France into new business. Why and what are the most common mistakes people make?
1. Do you speak English?
Language is by far the most important aspect of selling to a different country, yet one of the most common errors British businesses make is to think that they can approach a foreign market with brochures and websites in English and get away with it.
Yes, someone does need to speak French! But it needn’t be you….
Some form of French marketing material is a must: an English website won’t rank on French search engines, English banners won’t attract attention from a French audience, and even if you somehow manage to make contact with prospects, your literature, correspondence and other contracts will soon put them off if they can’t understand it. A bilingual contact is also paramount; you need to be able to communicate with your customers in more than what’s left of your school French, and Google translate won’t cut it either.
I once worked with a company who advertised ‘French speakers’ as part as their customer service, counting on email correspondence backed by automated translation to deliver the service. They eventually lost most of their contracts with French businesses as clients phoned up and discovered that they couldn’t communicate with their supplier.
If you French doesn’t go any further than “Bonjour, comment ça va?”, there are a few options available to any business looking to communicate with French prospects:
- The most affordable option is to employ a bilingual marketing agency (such as www.frenchmarketing.co.uk). This will give you access to all the benefits of a French office as well as the experience of a French marketing expert at a fraction of the cost. They can be at hand to represent you at all time but you only pay whenever there is work to be done.
- A French speaker in your UK office. If you are recruiting for any role at the moment, just add the little line Fluent French would be an advantage to your ad’. It might not cost you anymore and make all the difference.
- A sales person in France. If you can afford their salary and the travel expense that comes with it, hire yourself a French sales person in France. A financially safer alternative is to look for a freelance sales agent to take on your products (“Carte Commerciale”), but note that the commission will be much higher.
- Look for dealers in France. You can start your investigations with a market report with some emphasis on potential dealers, or simply target your French competitors’ dealers. A French dealer will have the same interest in growing the business in France as you do and they will provide invaluable help with your marketing mix, your sales, your customer service etc.
2. Boss, I need to go to Paris again….
Since you mentioned targeting France as a new market to your sales team, their credit card bill is through the roof and there’s nobody in the office, yet you don’t seem to see the sales flooding in. Sounds familiar?
Don’t make the mistake of instantly booking up lots of speculative and cold meetings with prospective clients. There is a lot you can do to virtually warm up leads and seek new business before you get on that plane. Will you need to go to France? Yes, but not to start with.
Use technology (http://ways2work.bitc.org.uk/howtodoit/rethinkingbusinesstravel/reducingbusinesstravel for some ideas) to get around the expensive trips to France: webcams, videoconferencing, teleconferencing (try powwownow.co.uk, it’s free), instant messaging and your good old emails and telephone are plenty enough to get you going. If language is a problem, your bilingual marketing agent can step in to translate and help you close a deal. Obviously, you will get to a stage when you need this all important face-to-face meeting with your new representative and with your clients, but by then you can count on your French business to sustain its own travel costs.
Presence at trade shows can be invaluable when it comes to growing the business but, before you fork out several thousands of hard earned euros into an event, consider whether you could pair up with a prospective dealer to share the cost and take advantage of their fluent French – they may already be attending anyway. Alternatively, your French Marketing Agent should be able to source a French speaker to attend on your behalf.
3. They’ll just have to pay us in Sterling
Exchange rates vary from day to day, and many businesses will try and mitigate their losses due to currency variations by setting their price in pounds. This is a big no-no! If you’re selling abroad, embrace the currency and swallow the (probably small) cost of the Euro rising. If you want to try and keep it under control, check out my tips on how to protect your exchange rate, but offering products in GBP to the French is like screaming “I can’t be bothered to adjust to your culture, and I might not bother to send your order either!”. It will wipe out all your efforts in one clean sweep, and the chances are the reaction will be something along the lines of “I can’t be bothered to buy from you!”.
Just like with any other marketing exercise, keep the purchasing process as easy as possible for your clients. Don’t expect them to convert GBP to EUR, they’ll sooner walk away and buy it from somewhere else.
4. Avoid wasting money on international banking fees
If you’re sending goods to someone who is registered for VAT in France, it’s likely that you’ll be able to zero-rate the supply for VAT purposes (provided the transaction meets all the conditions outlined by HMRC: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/vat/managing/international). Trying to exchange cheques or BACs payment with a customer overseas can prove costly (admittedly, it may well be worthwhile for the best deals). Alternatively, if you don’t already use Paypal, now is the time to give it a go as it will make the transactions with France cheaper and easier. Ultimately, if business is likely to pick up quickly and massively, a bank account in France could well be the best option.
5. Extortionate P&P
Talk to several freight companies and strike a decent international shipping deal: unless you sell online services, the chances are you will be sending out samples and products to your newly found customers and you don’t want to put them off with extortionate shipping costs and complicated return policies. Ideally, look for a courier with branches in both countries (www.norbertdentressangle.co.uk). Once you’ve got it sorted, make it clear in your marketing materials that delivery is no more costly with your quality UK products than it is with lesser French ones!
Stick to the basics
If your product works in the UK, there is no reason it can’t reach a similar turnover in France providing you keep things simple for your clients. The translation costs will largely be offset by the fact that you have done a lot of the leg work already when you set up in the UK. By converting your brand and your business model to French in the right way, you’ll find a world of new prospects right across the Channel.
For more information, visit www.frenchmarketing.co.uk.