When you take the plunge into exporting, no decision is more important than who you select to represent your company in another country. "The agent or distributor you contract with in a foreign country becomes your presence there. If they don't have a good reputation, you won't either," says Frank G. Long, an attorney with Gust Rosenfeld PLC in Phoenix.
Knowing the person before you get involved is key to hiring a good agent. Start by getting referrals and talking to some of the agent's other clients, particularly international ones. Also find out what kind of business entity you're dealing with. If it's a corporation or a partnership, who are the other members? What other lines of business do they represent? Where do they do business? This can affect which laws apply to your relationship. It's also important to make sure your contact has the authority to make binding agreements. "Sometimes the person you're meeting with may not be the person who's calling the shots," says Long.
To be extra safe, consider hiring a private investigator. "You're not trying to dig up dirt," says Long. "You just want to know who you're dealing with." Be sure to inform the agent you're doing an investigation; if he or she hears it from the investigator first, says Long, "that could abort a potentially useful relationship."
Investigating an agent doesn't have to be expensive. Start by contacting the U.S. Department of Commerce; according to Long, that's a good place to start to get general information. Then move on to a private investigator for more detailed data. When selecting a distributor, it's always better to be safe than sorry. Says Long, "Not doing any investigation is just flying blind."
You don't have to read every book and newspaper article ever published on exporting to do it yourself. Check out the following Web sites; they just may be the quickest way to get started.
- For a listing of foreign trade organizations and chamber of commerce offices in the United States, visit http://www.yahoo.com/economy/organizations/international_trade This list will hook you up with everyone from the Estonian Chamber of Commerce to the British-American Business Council.
- Manufacturers need to keep abreast of international standards for the products they make. To stay in the know, look at http://www.ansi.org//home.html which lists information on all 12,500 U.S. standards and details international certification requirements.
- Want to have your company's trade profile matched with trade lead sources? Then subscribe to IBM's Global Business Forum at http://www. pragmatix.com/gbf A subscription isn't cheap ($2,000 per year), but it may be worth it for your business. Trade leads come from 500 international banks, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the United Nations. If you subscribe, trade leads will be e-mailed to you daily.
Selling to other countries is especially rewarding when you actually get paid. However, depending on where you're exporting to, how quickly you receive payment can vary wildly. If you ship a pallet of cookies to Italy, don't hold your breath waiting for a check. Send the same to Finland, and you can usually expect payment in less than a month.
Curious to know how long it will take to get paid? According to the annual European Business Survey by Chicago-based consulting firms Grant Thornton International and Business Strategies Ltd., you can guesstimate based on the following chart:
Average number of days it takes to get paid:
United Kingdom: 50