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The trade brigade Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

The members of your top management breathe a sigh of relief as they report the company has finally saturated the market -- you've reached every potential client.

They're wrong.

You may be reaching less than 5 percent of your potential customers, says Marjory E. Searing, acting assistant secretary and director general of the U.S. Commercial Service, part of the International Trade Administration.

"If you're going to survive in this global market, you've got to be competing internationally," she says. "It's a hard sale right now because the U.S. economy is doing so well. A lot of companies have more than enough business just by selling within their borders. But, the U.S. economy isn't always going to be what it is today, and 96 percent of the world's consumers are not in the United States."

Searing's immediate focus is on China -- a country she admits isn't among the most wealthy but which has huge potential with 1 billion people, 20 percent of the world's population.

"We're working hard to get companies that wouldn't necessarily think in terms of the export market to take a look," she says.

Here's why.

Take the plunge

The domestic market has matured and competition has slowly eroded your client base. You are ready to explore export, but you haven't a clue how to get started. This is one area where the government can help.

"We have an organization located in Cleveland, the U.S. Export Assistance Center, funded by the Commerce Department," Searing says. "We provide an opportunity for companies to link directly with some of our resources abroad."

Those resources include 60 people in China whose job it is to help American companies succeed.

The Commercial Service has a number of programs to help business owners learn more about exporting, including a virtual trade mission. Through the program, companies can demonstrate their products online. Several companies which have never been to China haven gotten hits and leads in that country with this program.

"Our biggest challenge is to get people to know it's there," she says. "China is not for the feint of heart. It's still a tough market."

Because of the difficulties, Searing doesn't recommend new exporters tackle Asia immediately.

"We have a program that we call Canada First," she says. "That's a great place to export and learn what you've got to have to successfully ship a product across a border. You can build on that."

Searing knows her efforts will take time. With a good economy and seminars that reach companies only 50 at a time, it will be a while before a significant number of businesses export. But, the agency has had an impact -- supporting $14 billion in exports, with much of that coming from companies doing $50,000 a year in cross-border sales.

Quick tips

Searing says there are four key components to any export plan.

1. Do your homework

The rules usually are not the same. Review laws to help sell your product and protect your investment. Some countries don't respect intellectual property rights as much as the United States.

2. Provide a product that meets specifications and interests of consumers in each country.

For example, Europeans prefer wood houses. Know who you are selling to and what they want.

3. Be strategic.

Business owners need to take it one step at a time. Don't pursue multiple markets at once. As Searing puts it, you need to "get your sea legs."

4. Don't ignore the obvious.

Just as in the States, customer service is important. Translate your product literature into the language of the country in which you plan to do business. Consider redesigning your product to fit your new customers' needs and desires. Searing suggests visiting www.usatrade.gov to learn more. How to reach: International Trade Administration U.S. Department of Commerce, www.ita.doc.gov or (800) USA-TRADE.

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.