Chapter 17: Selling Overseas and After-Sales Service


  • Establishing a policy for international inquiries
  • Researching an international company
  • Building and maintaining working relationships
  • Reviewing options for service delivery

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Many successful exporters began selling internationally by responding to an inquiry from a foreign company. Thousands of U.S. companies receive such requests annually, but most do not become successful exporters. Generally, successful exporting companies make it a priority to create systems to properly respond to inquiries, conduct research on foreign customers, differentiate between domestic and international sales, and build positive relationships with partners. Then they work equally hard to build solid ongoing relationships with their overseas customers, such as providing outstanding customer service.

Responding to Inquiries
Most, but not all, letters, faxes, or emails of inquiry originating abroad are in English. For assistance in translating a letter of inquiry in a foreign language, your company may look to such service providers as banks or freight forwarders. Whatever form the inquiries take, your company should establish a policy to deal with them. Here are some suggested policies:

  • Expect some inquiries to have grammatical or typographical errors.
  • Reply promptly, completely, and clearly.
  • Enclose information on your company’s goods or services.
  • If the potential customer needs to meet a deadline, send the information by email or, if preferred, fax.
  • Keep a record of foreign inquiries.
  • Keep promises.
  • Be polite, courteous, and friendly.
  • Personally sign all letters.

There are a number of ways to learn about potential overseas clients. They include business libraries, international banks, foreign embassies, private-sector providers of credit reports, the U.S. Commercial Service, and the Internet.

Once you have established a relationship with an overseas customer, representative, or distributor, it is important to work on building and maintaining that relationship. Keep in mind that a foreign contact should be treated and served with the same professional considerations extended to a domestic contact. For example, your company should keep customers and contacts notified of all changes, including changes in price, personnel, address, and phone numbers. Your product may be the best and the cheapest, but if international customers don’t like talking to you, you’ll lose business.

Providing After-Sales Service
Quality, price, and service are three factors critical to the success of any export sales effort. Service, which this chapter discusses, should be an integral part of your export strategy from the start. Properly handled, service can be a foundation for growth. Ignored or left to chance, it can cause an export effort to fail.

Good service encompasses a broad variety of factors, including courteous sales personnel; ready access to a service facility; knowledgeable, cost-effective maintenance, repair, or replacement; convenient location; and dealer support. More generally, service is an open line of communication between you and your customer. Of course, service varies depending on the product’s type, quality, price, and distribution channel. For certain export products—such as food products, some consumer goods, and commercial disposables—service ends once distribution channels, quality criteria, and return policies have been identified.

A good starting point is learning about your local competitors. Once you find out what people like and don’t like about them, you can strive to provide an even better experience. More broadly, keep in mind that all foreign markets are sophisticated, and each has its own expectations of suppliers and vendors. U.S. manufacturers or distributors must ensure that their service performance is comparable to that of the predominant competitors in the market. Doing so is important in ensuring a competitive position, especially if the other factors of product quality, price, promotion, and delivery appeal to the buyer.

Using a Local Partner
For goods sold at retail outlets, a preferred service option is to identify and use local service facilities. Although this approach requires up-front expenses to identify and train the staff for local service outlets, the costs are more than repaid in the long run. It also means selecting your local representative based not only on its ability to sell effectively, but also on its ability and willingness to service the product. If the product being exported is to be sold directly to end-users, service and timely performance are critical to success. The sales contract should thus anticipate a reasonable level of on-site service and should specify the associated costs. Eventually, if your export activity in a particular region grows to a substantial level, it may become cost effective for your company to establish its own branch or subsidiary operation in the foreign market.

If you have neither partners nor joint venture arrangements in a foreign market, you must be prepared to accept the return of merchandise that the foreign buyer refuses to take. Your freight forwarder, who can be of great assistance in this process should the need arise, can quote you a price for return of the goods.

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