Rob Van Veen, Trade Development Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, explains how his department can help you tap foreign markets.
Why a separate department?
Rob Van Veen (RV): "Trade Development was set up as part of the Global Trade Solutions Competence Centre in Brussels in response to a two-fold customer requirement. Firstly, medium-sized enterprises tend to assign their business development to staff who are also responsible for a number of other tasks. As a result, it is difficult for them to find time to consider a foreign growth strategy or to prospect for new customers. Secondly, they don't have local contacts or the requisite knowledge or resources to capitalise fully on an opportunity abroad."
So they need something that goes beyond standard banking services?
RV: "Indeed. A bank can provide businesses with practical assistance with their plans for expansion by opening accounts, providing guarantees and offering payment services, but customers need much more than that. They want their bank to consider their strategy and help them establish a prudent and efficient market approach. And that's where we come in."
What precisely is the service you provide?
RV: "In a nutshell, we put customers in contact with people who can assist them with their foreign projects from beginning to end. Initially we focus on listening to their requirements, sounding out their plans and examining the various possibilities.
Then we provide the customer with a report containing all the relevant information – including a clear estimate of the costs and projected results – to enable them to make a considered decision that fits with their strategy. This makes the decision-making considerably easier and quicker, because the company doesn't have to do research or establish contacts itself. And if the project gets the go-ahead, we provide the logistical support necessary for bringing it to fruition."
How does that work in practice?
RV: "It all depends on the project, the country concerned and the customer's actual requirements. Our own staff or co-workers in foreign branches provide a number of services. As a matter of fact, Trade Development services were recently set up in France and Italy to that effect. We can also call upon partners on the spot for matters that require specific local knowledge. This might be market research, recruitment, administration, audit services and legal, tax or operating advice.
This approach gives the company the assurance that they have the right people on board. We work with a network of permanent, reliable contacts who are assessed by the customer after every project. In this way we are able to guarantee quality service. However, the main advantage is that our contacts are very familiar with the local rules and practices and are used to working within that framework."
Does that mean you focus mainly on ‘exotic’ countries?
RV: "Absolutely not. Many customers call on us to tap into European markets, often the neighbouring countries. For instance, we are currently working on many cases that involve Germany, which is an attractive growth market for a variety of sectors, but it is very difficult for 'outsiders' to get established there.
And sometimes a company will initially look too far afield. Management may have ascertained an opening in their market coverage or heard from another company in the sector that market X or Y is 'hot', so they want to enter that market as quickly as possible. But they need to consider whether the market concerned does in fact fit with their business strategy. And they also need to be aware of the market's specific characteristics and rules – prime examples are the unique market circumstances in India and China or the high import duties in Brazil."
Is there a fee for the service?
RV: "Yes, customers do pay a fee, but this should be viewed primarily as an investment. And a very attractive investment at that, because it can save a lot of time and a number of other costs that in many cases prove to be pointless.
We need only think of a scenario where a business person prospecting somewhere in South America spends thousands of euros on their flight and accommodation and then has to set about working in an unknown environment, often without the requisite contacts or a clear idea of the potential costs and income. There is every chance that the trip will turn out to be a damp squib.
We can't, of course, give our customers a guarantee of success, but we do ensure that everything is in place to give their projects the best chance of succeeding. And there is also the advantage of continuity: once we have worked with a company and know its strategy, we can act very quickly if it comes to any future projects or projects involving other markets."
Essentiel: London calling
This summer, the Antwerp fashion house had a unique opportunity to set up in London. The challenge: setting up a British unit in just a couple of days.
Essentiel's colourful, jazzy creations have been part of the Belgian fashion landscape for many years. The brand is also becoming popular in other countries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands and, more recently, in Great Britain, thanks to the intervention of Trade Development. An interview with Erik Vercauteren, CFO at Essentiel.
Why did you decide to enter the UK market?
Erik Vercauteren (EV): "Some years ago we had a presence in the UK through an agent, but we eventually decided to withdraw from that arrangement due to falling sales figures. But a return to the market was never ruled out entirely, provided that the circumstances were right.
Rather paradoxically, our new UK venture began in France. Last year, we opened an outlet in the 1st arrondissement in Paris, in the heart of the fashion district. As our result, our brand had a high profile with fashion lovers and professionals, and also with importers and department store buyers. Harvey Nichols soon approached us with an offer to sell Essentiel through their shop in London."
And that was an opportunity not to be missed?
EV: "Indeed. Harvey Nichols is a multi-brand concern that works on concession: in exchange for a certain percentage of the revenue, we have a counter in their store staffed by our own people and with our own reporting, visual merchandising, etc. That means we can display our wares in Knightsbridge, a prestigious location with a high footfall. To get in on this attractive system, we just had to set up a unit in the UK. We didn't have much time to reflect, because counters at Harvey Nichols are snapped up."
How did you get in contact with Trade Development?
EV: "That was on the advice of our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis. We had already had a close relationship with the bank for many years and we were in regular contact to discuss our strategic plans, potential financing or other matters. The proposal from Harvey Nichols came up at one of our discussions and our relationship manager immediately suggested getting Trade Development involved."
How did it work in practice?
EV: "Our main concern was to set up an entity in the UK as soon as possible, and to opt for the most appropriate legal form. Trade Development's role in that was primarily that of 'matchmaker', putting us in contact with a local partner, Frenger International. They advised us to set up a limited company with start-up capital of 10,000 pounds; this is rather more than the legally-required minimum, a clear signal that Essentiel was serious about entering the UK market. We agreed to this proposal. Once the decision had been made, things moved very quickly: the limited company was set up in a matter of days.
Although contact is now direct with Frenger – which is also responsible for VAT, accounting and tax matters – Trade Development is on stand-by to assist if problems should arise."
What was the advantage for you?
EV: "First and foremost, we saved time in finding a partner, opting for a legal form and getting things off the ground. We also had easy access to local contacts with a very good knowledge of local rules and regulations. Our experience on other markets had taught us that this local knowledge is essential, both with payment norms and business practice."
Is Essentiel doing well in London?
EV: "Our counter has been operating since mid-August and the initial results are very promising. If that continues, there is certainly the possibility of working with Harvey Nichols in other UK stores."
Ideal Felt: potential in Poland
With a concrete strategy, specific offering and – more importantly – the right contacts, the Belgian felt manufacturer established a foothold in Poland.
Ideal Felt is a Belgian supplier of technical felt for a variety of industrial uses and coloured felt for decorative purposes. They also manufacture made-to-measure filter sleeves, heat-resisting seals and protective components for industrial use.
The company operates mainly in the Benelux countries, France and Germany at present. Since Ideal Felt has virtually exhausted the potential for growth in these markets, it is now looking further east. We asked Henry Symons, Director of Ideal Felt, how Trade Development helped him approach the Polish market.
Why exactly did you choose Poland?
Henry Symons (HS): "The decision was dictated by our market approach: Ideal Felt is a niche operator with a highly specialised product range. We work with an extensive portfolio of customers in various industrial sectors and they place small orders from time to time.
As the name implies, a niche market is limited: in recent years we thoroughly tapped the market in the Benelux countries, Germany and France and don't expect to turn up many more potential customers. We can therefore assume that companies that want to work with us in those countries are already doing so, or at least know us. As a result, it will be difficult to achieve any further significant growth in those countries. We therefore sought out new outlets, preferably in countries with a lot of heavy industry. Poland came out on top of our list."
Did you go prospecting yourselves?
HS: "We did go to Poland a while ago, but returned empty-handed. That was primarily due to the fact that it was extremely difficult to find the right contacts. Because of our specific range, we rarely – if ever – negotiate with a central buying department, but rather with technicians and specialists on the shop floor. And in many cases those persons were not familiar to the company's general contact, let alone at reception. And when we did get to meet someone, we still had to contend with the language barrier."
So what prompted you to try again?
HS: "During a meeting with our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, our plans to expand came up again. He immediately advised us to contact the Trade Development department. They in turn put us in contact with Valians International, their partner for Eastern Europe."
Can you describe the actual process involved?
HS: "We worked in stages. Initially we provided the people at Valians with comprehensive information on our company, activities and products. This gave them a better idea of the market, so that they could focus on seeking appropriate prospects and contacts.
Together we then clearly demarcated the target market. It couldn't be too small, otherwise the profitability of potential business with Poland would be compromised, due to the transport costs. We were therefore looking for companies in potentially interesting sectors that could order significant volumes.
We drew up a very specific questionnaire to help Valians identify suitable companies. Based on that, and taking account of the profile of our 'ideal customer', Valians then drew up a shortlist. We whittled the list down further, and eventually we had ten or so 'must see' companies plus a few other 'possibles'."
And then you visited those?
HS: "That's right. There were three of us: our contact at Valians, who acted as interpreter when necessary, our commercial representative for the Benelux countries and myself. We were able to make seven site visits during our week in the country. Because we had selected various sectors and industry in Poland is very geographically spread, too much time was wasted in travelling to manage any more.
Nevertheless, the difference from our first visit was enormous. The major advantage was that the prospects were expecting us, so they took the time required to talk to us and show us their company. One of the company tours actually gave us some ideas for a new application for our products. And this time language was not a problem."
Can you already gauge the results?
HS: "Most of the companies we visited have asked us to provide test material and draw up a tender. It was drafted in Polish, again thanks to intervention by Valians, which is also responsible for the follow-up. So far that has generated one order, and other negotiations are under way.
Establishing a lasting business relationship is not easy, especially for a Belgian niche operator in Poland. Our potential customers had for years been working with cheaper local suppliers, most of them offering lesser quality products. So it will take a long time to convince them that our products are well worth the extra cost.
I remain optimistic, especially since our contact at Valians is now totally familiar with Ideal Felt's offering and can recommend it to other potential customers in Poland. Working together was also a very informative experience that provided us with a wealth of knowledge that will be useful in investigating other markets. As business people, we are constantly on the look-out for sustainable, profitable growth."
Export plans? Make sure you talk to our experts first
To prepare your international adventure properly, ask yourself the right questions and talk to people who have done it all before: partners, customers, fellow exporters and experts.
BNP Paribas Fortis listens to the questions asked by international entrepreneurs and offers reliable advice. "A lot of exporting companies ask for our help when it's too late", Frank Haak, Head of Sales Global Trade Solutions, says.
Entrepreneurs with little export experience are often unaware of the bigger financial picture. So what do they need to take into account when they set up a budget for their export plans?
Frank Haak: "Budgeting and pricing are affected by a lot of crucial factors: working capital, currency exchange risks and currency interest, prefinancing, profit margins, insurance, import duties and other local taxes, competitor pricing and so on. We always advise customers or prospects to start from a worst-case scenario. Quite a few companies are insufficiently prepared for their first international adventure: they see an opportunity and they grab it, but quite often disappointment and a financial hangover are not far away.
Our experts have years of export experience and the BNP Paribas Group has teams around the world. This means that we can give both general and country-specific tips. Let's say a machine builder wants to design and manufacture a custom-made machine. We recommend including the machine's reuse value in the budget: can this machine still be sold if the foreign customer suddenly no longer wishes to purchase it or if export to that country becomes impossible due to a trade embargo or emergency situation?"
What type of companies can contact BNP Paribas Fortis for advice?
Frank Haak: "All types! Entrepreneurs are often hesitant to ask for advice. Sometimes they are afraid that it will cost them money. However, the right advice can save them a lot of money in the long run. For example, we recommend a letter of credit or documentary credit to anyone exporting goods to a foreign buyer for the first time. This product is combined with a confirmation by BNP Paribas Fortis to offer the exporter the certainty that it will receive payment when it presents the right documents and to assure the buyer that its goods or services will be delivered correctly."
The consequences of not seeking advice: what can an exporter do in case of non-payment without documentary credit?
Frank Haak: "If you are not receiving payment for your invoices, the counterparty's bank can be contacted in the hope that it advances the payment on the customer's behalf. However, we shouldn't be too optimistic in that respect: the chances of resolving the issue without financial losses are very slim. Once you have left your goods with customs, you usually lose all control over them. Hence the importance of good preparation: listen to and follow the advice of your bank and organisations such as Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT). It will protect you against a whole host of export risks."
BNP Paribas Fortis
- is the number one bank for imports (approx. 40% market share) and exports (approx. 25% market share) in Belgium (according to the statistics of the National Bank of Belgium): it offers advice/financing and can help you to discover new export markets through trade development;
- is proud that Belgium is one of the world's 15 largest export regions and is pleased to give exporters a leg up, for example by sponsoring the Flemish initiative ‘Leeuw van de Export’.
Source: Wereldwijs Magazine
The conversation manager: essential and permanently online
Coordinating a company's social media strategy is a task in itself. Who will you use to handle this? And what about involved customers who suddenly get too involved?
Because of social media, the role of a traditional marketing manager is evolving more and more towards being a conversation manager: someone who facilitates consumer communication. This includes communication between customers themselves and communication between the customers and the company.
Some key tasks in the conversation manager's job description are:
- Uniting and activating ‘branded fans’, as they will recommend the brand to friends and family.
- Listening to what people are saying about your company and seeking their active contribution to your products and strategy.
- Creating content worth distributing in order to encourage discussions.
- Managing these discussions.
- Ensuring your work is very customer-oriented and customer-friendly through customer care, i.e.by responding faster and providing more than what the customer is expecting.
Some companies are big enough to hire a full-time conversation manager. In other cases another employee will take on this role part-time. A third possibility is using a specialised company.
Caroline Hombroukx, conversation manager at content marketing company Head Office:
“No matter which option you go for, communication in social media must come across as personal. There is definitely a reason why large companies such as Telenet and Belgacom have created a fictitious person to deal with their customers; Charlotte and Eva respectively. The conversation manager also has to know the company and its social media strategy very well. It may therefore be an advantage if someone in the company itself takes on that role. That person is right at the source and so can distribute information, take a quick picture and post it online, etc.
This task is not for everyone. A conversation manager must have experience with social media, have fluent communication and writing style and must be empathetic, positive and solution-oriented in his or her dealings with customers. Prior training is not a luxury, because the employee must be very aware of the company's content strategy. The audience is varied and unpredictable. You have to decide time and time again whether certain content is or is not suitable for your target group. It is also not a nine-to-five job: the online world keeps on turning even at night or at the weekend."
The advantage of hiring a conversation manager from an external company is that in principle the expertise is present. In that case the challenge is to know the company to such an extent that the customer has the impression that he or she is talking to a real employee.
Getting angry is out of the question
Traditional marketing and advertising are a one-way street. If they do not work, they are a waste of money. However, they are not likely to result in angry comments. A company venturing out on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, can be sure to receive comments and reactions. Including negative ones. Caroline Hombroukx:
“On social media the consumer is suddenly right next to you banging the table. It is important to respond well to that. Getting angry yourself is out of the question. You need to respond by showing that you understand and you are taking the question or complaint seriously. Everyone following the discussion must see that the company is providing a quick answer and is trying to find a solution. If a mistake has been made, you can acknowledge this openly and honestly. You can also show the problem as something positive: as an opportunity to improve your brand, product or service. Of course you must find a suitable solution in the end. If the person sharing the complaint becomes too negative, you have to try and divert him or her to a private channel: a private message on Facebook, a direct message on Twitter, an e-mail or a phone call."
An enthusiastic, understanding response also works well if the consumer is sharing something positive about your brand, company or service. Thanking the consumer strengthens the bond between the company and the customer. Caroline Hombroukx:
"The dialogue with the target group is an opportunity to improve your product or operations through constructive criticism. Make customers feel involved. It creates a strong relationship. If you are publishing a magazine or starting a poster campaign for instance, you can let customers choose the best layout or title from three options posted on Facebook, for example. Everything that engages customers can only strengthen their commitment."
Social media dos and don'ts
- The consumer is always right (even when this isn't the case).
- Be open, honest and friendly.
- Use a personal style.
- Respond quickly to any questions or reactions.
- Stay positive and be understanding.
- Do all you can to engage your customers.
- Come up with a free gift every now and then.
- As a brand, try to avoid political topics.