Every year thousands of businesses interact with customers and suppliers internationally on the platform of trade missions: international trips organised by business people and government representatives to discuss business issues and facilitate trade.
Trade missions may be led by federal, state or regional representatives. They may be organised by industry associations or by specialist agencies who tailor specific programs.
The broad intention of a trade mission is to create connections and open doors. But, says David Thomas of Think Global, they are an important opportunity for any leader to increase their understanding of the full range of complex and often subtle dimensions of a target market: from how things work to how it’s regulated, even to the very ‘vibe’ of the place.
It can be a demanding experience, and to make the most out of your investment of time and resources, business leaders must embark on a trade mission with thought and preparation.
David Thomas, who has been leading trade missions and study tours into the region for over a decade shares the lessons he has learned with the Australian Institute of Management.
Before you go
- Understand your goals: your first visit to a new area is all about learning and relationships. “I often have to coach people on managing their expectations,” says Thomas. “Expecting to walk away with a contract after a first visit is unrealistic.”
- Choose the right trade mission: The right trade mission takes you to the region and introduces you to contacts and experiences that are relevant to your business. “Small businesses can get lost in the slip stream of the large trade delegations that focus on creating high-level political impact,” says Thomas. Small missions, targeted to a specific industry or region may be the most effective.
- Choose your market strategically: If entry into the Asian market is your goal, be thoughtful about your strategy and how the trade mission will support it. “The idea of an Asian strategy is absurd. Asia isn’t a single market. The differences, idiosyncrasies and complexities are so diverse that you could spend a lifetime trying to understand them all,” says Thomas. Do your research. Markets like Singapore or Hong Kong may be easier for companies with little Asian language capability, for example, but they may not offer the same opportunities. China and India may offer more opportunity, but the language, cross-cultural and geographical challenges require extra time, planning and research.
- Research people and companies: You are unlikely to know about everyone you will meet in advance, but, where possible, find out as much about the people and companies on your list before you meet them.
- Prepare quality collateral: It is likely that the trade mission organisers will include your business in a delegate booklet. This is not enough. You will need a professionally translated business card and a well developed, professionally produced document about your business in the local language (or bilingual), to leave with your contacts. “It’s a common mistake to cut corners with translation,” says Thomas. “Use a professional translator.”
- Send your best people: If you’re serious about success, send your brightest and best people. “The opportunity in Asia is complex but the prize is great. Never send your B team,” says Thomas.
While on a trade mission
- Listen: The best way to understand the needs, desires and aspirations of the people you meet is to listen. Talk about your business second. Ask open questions, listen to the answers. Tailor your products or capabilities to their needs rather than to yours.
- Friends first. Deals second: “Never do business until the third cup of tea,” is a Chinese saying that Thomas believes applies broadly across Asia. Get to know your potential business partners, talk about their country and about your culture, your interests and your family. Only when you’ve exhausted every possible topic of conversation should you offer to start talking business.
- Take your own interpreter for one-on-one meetings. Your hosts may offer to provide an interpreter. This can be a false economy. For important meetings, you will need an interpreter who knows you, understands your business and is at all times representing your best interests. They can also offer valuable feedback after the meeting.
- Observe and embrace business etiquette: Never underestimate the importance of culture and etiquette. In China, giving gifts is a gesture of thanks and a sign of a willingness and commitment to a long-term relationship. A gift that has a strong meaning for you from your local town, country, community or even family creates a good impression. Talk to your trade mission organisers about appropriate etiquette to observe in the region you are visiting.
After the mission
- Follow up in the local language: You need to work hard to create strong lines of communication when operating internationally. Send a follow-up email in the local language, professionally translated and addressed directly to your contact. Follow up the email with a phone call to ensure it has been received safely.
- Be patient: Don’t assume that a lack of response suggests a lack of interest. Continue to build on and learn from the relationship.