For small companies the prospect of selling overseas can evoke nightmarish images: language problems, mixed signals, misdirected deliveries, customs restrictions, and unexpected tariffs.
But, says Jim Ake, founder of Electronic Liquid Fillers Inc. (ELF), a $12-million packaging-equipment company in LaPorte, Ind., "I basically look at a foreign territory as another state." As the international sales manager, Ake's son Jeff took responsibility for covering that territory. After only two months' preparation, Jeff Ake spent seven weeks making cold calls to 90 potential sales representatives and customers in the Pacific Rim. The trip cost $19,000 and generated $2 million in sales. His strategy can be used as a blueprint by any company that wants to sell overseas but doesn't know where to begin.
* Line up leads the old-fashioned way -- make cold calls. Ake obtained many of his leads from foreign-based English-language magazines that cover his industry. He faxed or mailed letters to about 400 prospects, announcing ELF's search for sales reps in the Pacific Rim. The hundred who responded received a second fax or letter announcing Ake's impending visit and requesting detailed descriptions of their businesses. That was enough information for Ake to prioritize his appointments.
* Keep your schedule flexible. When Ake left the country, only about a third of his time was booked with appointments. The home office worked as an advance team, using the fax to set up and confirm more appointments for him while he was on the road. In each area, Ake picked up the local English-language equivalent of the yellow pages to find other prospects to fill out his calendar.
* Package your pitch. Ake produced two English-language videos -- one for customer prospects and one for reps -- to pave the way for his visit. He also produced a brochure explaining why ELF was a good company to work with, including specification sheets of products, drawings, and press clippings highlighting ELF.
* Offer overseas customers the same level of quality and service you offer stateside. On his Pacific Rim trip, Ake promised a 24-hour response time for price quotes -- just as he does in the United States. He altered ELF's 10-day delivery promise only slightly for overseas customers -- with a confirmed letter of credit, they can expect delivery in two to four weeks. -- Teri Lammers