This excerpt is part of Entrepreneur.com's Second-Quarter Startup Kit which explores the fundamentals of starting up in a wide range of industries.
In Start Your Own e-Business, the staff at Entrepreneur Press and writer Rich Mintzer explain how to build a dotcom business that will succeed. In this book, you'll find recipes for success, road maps that pinpoint the hazards, and dozens of interviews with dotcom entrepreneurs who've proved they’ve got what it takes to survive in this sometimes fickle marketplace. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer some quick tips for doing business with international customers on your ecommerce site.
One of the lures of the web is that once your site is up, you're open for business around the world 24 hours a day. Some entrepreneurs may not see very many, or any, international orders. For other entrepreneurs, however, international sales make up a significant portion of their business.
Step one in getting more global business is to make your site as friendly as possible to foreign customers. Does this mean you need to offer the site in multiple languages? Small sites can usually get away with using English only and still be able to prosper abroad.
Consider this: Search for homes for sale on Greek islands, and you’ll find as many sites in English as in Greek. Why English? Because it’s an international language. A merchant in Athens will probably know English because it lets him talk with French, German, Dutch, Turkish and Italian customers. An English-only website will find fluent readers in many nations. (But keep the English on your site as simple and as traditional as possible. The latest slang may not have made its way to English speakers in Istanbul or Tokyo.)
Still, it’s important to recognize that more than 65 percent of web users speak a language other than English. Providing the means of translating your English content to another language will go a long way toward building good customer relationships with people outside the United States. Your multilingual website becomes more accessible and popular if users can translate your website content into their native language.
One way to make this possible is to provide one of the free web-based language translation tools offered by AltaVista Babelfish or Google Translate. Both work similarly. For Babelfish, all you have to do is cut and paste some simple code, and web audiences who speak Chinese (traditional and simplified), Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish will be able to translate websites into their native language with one click.
At the very least, you should make your site friendlier to customers abroad by creating a page--clearly marked--filled with tips especially for them plus photos and simple pictures for directions. If you have the budget, get this one page translated into various key languages. A local college student might do a one-page translation for around $20.
In the meantime, routinely scan your log files in a hunt for any patterns of international activity. If you notice that, say, Norway is producing a stream of visitors and no orders, that may prompt you to search for ways to coax Norwegians into buying. Try including a daily special for this demographic group and include some industry news that relates to Norway. Therefore, if you're in the fashion industry, have an article on your site about Norway’s latest fashion trends.
Clues about international visitors will also help you select places to advertise your site. While an ad campaign on Yahoo! may be beyond your budget, it’s entirely realistic to explore, say, ads on Yahoo! Sweden. If you notice an increase in visitors (or buyers) from a specific country, explore the cost of mounting a marketing campaign that explicitly targets them.
At the end of the day, whether or not you reap substantial foreign orders is up to you. If you want them, they can be grabbed, because the promise of the web is true in the sense that it wipes out time zones, borders, and other barriers to commerce. That doesn’t mean these transactions are easy--they can be challenging, as you’ve seen--but for the etailer determined to sell globally, there's no better tool than the web.
Here are some quick tips for conducting international business:
1. Check all legal issues. You never know what you can and can't transport legally these days. Before even venturing into international waters, make sure whatever you're selling can be transported into various countries without paying extra fees or landing in jail.
2. Let international business find you. Unless you have a very specific product that you know will work well in certain countries (or one country), it’s hard to go after an international market. Most international commerce for small businesses is the result of inquiries from abroad.
3. Hire a customer service rep that is bi-lingual, at least in English and Spanish. You might also show your customer service reps how to use translation sites.
4. Make sure at the end of the process you'll still come out ahead. Once you factor in the shipping and insurance factors, you’ll need to know that you're still making a profit. With that in mind, you're better off focusing on international B2B sales rather than selling to individual customers unless you're selling products with a decent price tag and a high markup. For instance, if you sell handbags for $500 that cost you only $250, you’ll likely come out ahead on an individual customer purchase. But selling $30 shirts is probably not worthwhile unless you're selling 100 of them to a store or an overseas vendor.