Five ways to leap the language barrier

Does language hold you back from jumping into overseas trade? Yes? Then you’re not alone – a recent survey 1 by the British Chambers of Commerce found that more than 50% of its members cite language barriers as a key consideration when deciding whether to enter international markets.

But here’s the thing. There are successful British exporters who aren’t fluent foreign language speakers. As Tessa Fras, Head of Strategic Communications at the UKTI, points out: “You don’t need a degree in accountancy to run a business, so why should you need a degree in Mandarin to do business with China?”

What makes for a successful exporter is knowing where and how to get help. So here’s how to trade overseas – even if the best you can do is make small talk in schoolboy French.

1. Master a phrase or two

Experienced exporters confirm that something as simple as learning to say “Hello”, “Pleased to meet you” and “Thank you” in the language of your target market really is appreciated and respected. “If I go into a company in the south of France and start speaking English straight away I might as well go home,” says Mark Detnon, MD of pharma software firm, ClinIntel. “If I try to speak a few words and apologise for my poor efforts, they respect me for it.”

2. Find a native speaker

It’s not as hard or as expensive as you think to find translators. The UKTI should be your first port of call, as they can provide interpreters who can help you with everything from customer introductions, manning stands at trade shows and making small talk at socials. You can also expect help from local distributors. More often than not, they’ll bring along an interpreter to accompany you. This can be particularly useful if your industry uses specialist terms.

3. Translate only when you need to

If you’re in a technical or specialist industry it’s worth employing a translation service for product literature and your website. Your customers may be able to read English but they may not pick up the nuances that could provide your USP. Initial negotiations, however, can be in English. “If a translator doesn’t know your business, it’s hard to translate your passion,” says Mark Detnon. As for contracts, stick to English, as translated small print can catch you out. “It’s more important to decide the country where any disputes will be settled,” Mark adds.

4. Keep it simple

Keep your explanations short, sharp and jargon free. This goes for conversation, product explanations and contractual terms and conditions. “We went to visit a potential customer in Pennsylvania,” says Mark Detnon. “I assumed as we both spoke English that I could chat away. His marketing director, who was Irish, ended up re-explaining everything I said.” We tend to think that when someone nods they’re acknowledging they understand, but sometimes they’re just being polite.

5. Go travel, then adapt

Your brand name, your logo, the wording on your packaging – they can all give your new customers a completely different impression of what you stand for. “Many of our local distributors re-label our packaging for us to meet the needs of their domestic market. They also make us aware of how some of our products can be adapted to suit local tastes,” says Chris Taylor, Director of Business Development at skincare firm Eve Taylor, London.

It’s also worth talking to a UKTI international trade advisor about their Market Visit Support and Export Marketing Research Scheme. Building relationships is best done face to face. “It’s only when I visited Hong Kong that I realised how unlike a European market it is,” Mark Detnon says, “or how strange our packaging looked and what retail and branding techniques I could use to get it noticed.”

1 British Chambers of Commerce survey between 10th-27th January 2012. Read more.

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