9 common mistakes SMEs make when trading online overseas and how to avoid them

If one of your goals this year is to expand your markets look no further than digital trade expert, Brett Harland. As an International Ecommerce Adviser with the Department of International Trade he helps SMEs to reach new customers, sometimes over 600 million, from their smart phones and websites. Here he talks us through some of the most common online trade mistakes businesses make and how you can avoid them.

1. Don’t translate your website.

Did you know that over 30% of German websites are translated to English? That’s because they’re targeting British customers and they know that we don’t buy in German.

By only having your site in English, you’re missing a trick. A whole host of potential customers will be bouncing straight off your website because the immediate trust signal, the common language, is missing. The truth? Initial contact should always be in the customer’s local language.

These rules apply to American customers too. The small differences shouldn’t be taken for granted. For example, a bumper is a fender in the US, so if you have a bespoke car remodelling service or you’re manufacturing vehicle components and you’re not talking about fenders to your American audience, you’re missing out on trade.

Solution: Make a glossary of terms or key words for your business and research them online. Watch out for potentially derogatory or slang words. Another great option is to list your products on Amazon as they translate and optimise it for you. The downside of using Amazon is the commission fee but this is only applicable when a product is purchased. It’s a great way to test the marketplace and your translation.

2. Get a machine to do the translation.

To put your whole business through a machine is catastrophic when entering a new market. As silly as it sounds translating your website isn’t just about translation, it’s about localisation and culture. In the UK, for example, it would be quite normal to see something like ‘Things you need to know about…’ but this sales term absolutely doesn’t work in France. You would never tell a French person what they need to know, it’s derogatory.

Solution: We can offer support to translate your site. Or, if you’re using your own translator, ask them if they use a database called MyMemory. This site catalogues popular translation terms so ensure you website stays consistent across its multiple pages. Alternatively, visit your new market place. By seeing suppliers, benchmarking against competitors or going to local trade shows you can gather a wealth of research on the do’s and don’ts of the language very quickly.

Top tip: Always get a second opinion, even if you’ve had your site translated by a person.

3. Assume everyone uses a credit card.

For us in the UK, the tiny Paypal and credit card icons at the bottom of a screen are signs of trust. But don’t assume that it’s the same everywhere. In Germany, for example, they use GIRO pay a lot, paying straight from their bank account instead of via a card or e-finance platform. In the Middle East, too, there is more of a cash culture so customers there tend to use a service called MarkaVIP. Here, a van containing a safe travels around hand-delivering the ordered products and taking cash direct from customers on their doorstep.

Solution: You can find a list of the most common payment methods for each country on About Payments. Again, it’s important to do your research and test the market. Don’t forget to look at the structure of your website as well. If your design or CMS platform can’t support GIRO pay, for example, you may need to look at a redesign or platform switch and you’ll need to budget for these changes too.

4. Have an unresponsive site.

A responsive site has been a must-have for all websites since Google launched their ‘Mobilegeddon’ update in 2015 and this applies to selling online overseas too. In China, for example 600 million customers shop online, 500 million of which do so on their mobile. So, to not have a responsive site, in markets like China and India particularly, is to miss out on 500 million potential customers.

Solution: Build your site to work with mobile first and work backwards to desktop from there. It’s that simple.

5. Forget to consider local return cultures.

Return culture varies wildly across the globe. In Japan, for example, returns are very low because returning a purchase is not the done thing, they’d rather give it to a friend or sell it on themselves. Germany, however, has the highest return rate in Europe: 17%!

Solution: Adjust your margins according to the returns culture of your new market. If, for example, you want to start selling online in Germany, a profit margin of 25% won’t cut it and you’ll need to raise your margins to compensate.

6. Hope your .co.uk site will be found overseas.

A .co.uk site is a good example of localisation (see above) but it won’t work for an overseas customer base.

Solution: Get a .com address. Or a .net, .org, or .eu. These are what we call top level domains, or TLDs. TLDs are seen globally by search engines and some of our clients have seen an uptake in international visits just by moving to one. These domains are quite low cost, about £6-£20 a year and, if someone’s already bought your name, you can always add a variation to the end like ‘businessnameglobal.com’ or ‘productnameinteranational.com’.

7. Ignore the difference selling online overseas makes to your UK business.

Selling online overseas can have a hugely positive effect on your UK business as it often boosts the confidence of your UK market, particularly new customers. However, it will only have this impact if you shout about it. Sometimes I meet businesses who might be selling to 25 different countries but they don’t tell any they’re doing it and so they don’t reap the rewards of that accomplishment.

Solution: Add an international page to your site; this could contain a world map marked with your other trading destinations, a list of those countries or a list of your distributors or agents. Adding an international address or number alongside your normal contact details are also easy ways to indicate that you’re a trusted exporter. Listing your products or services in different currencies or adding dropdown functionality to allow users to select their preferred currency is another great option to make sure everyone knows you sell online overseas.

8. Stop caring about the customer journey after the sale.

The Shipping or Delivery page is one of the most important pages on an international site. Buyers want to know who much their delivery will cost and how their purchased products or services will reach them. Ali Express, a Chinese e-commerce site, has over 10 different pages on customs duty, couriers, costs, etc all on five different sites and in five different languages. You don’t have to go into this level of detail but it’s a useful insight into a) what Chinese customers expect and b) the level of detail some international retailers go to.

Solution: Don’t underestimate the importance of the ‘last mile’ to your customers. Create a Shipping or Delivery page and list the countries you deliver to, the couriers you use, the estimated time of handling and shipping and the cost.

9. Assume that all website platforms are the same.

Some platforms, like WordPress or Magento for example, are better at supporting multilingual structures for search engines than others. We’ve already talked about the importance of localising your language so getting the right platform is a non-negotiable!

Solution: If you’re just starting out or if you have a planned upgrade to your site, make sure your new platform will go multilingual. Some platforms can be extended to multilingual but you may need to involve (and pay) a web developer. If your existing site absolutely doesn’t do multilingual you may need to ‘replatform’ (where you move your site from one platform to another) and redirect all of your pages for search engines. We can provide guidance for your developer on replatforming if they need it and we have lots of worksheets and guides on platforms and international trade in general.

A lot of SMEs think that a website redesign will hurt their search engine rankings but actually it improves them; Google wants the web to better so it will reward you for having a better website.

Want to find out how you can start selling online overseas? Contact the Growth Service on 0113 348 1818 or businessgrowth@the-lep.com or go direct to the Department of International Trade to see the latest export opportunities or call 0300 365 1000 to speak with a sector specialist.