You can find the first overseas customers for your products or services through a wide variety of methods — including social media and networking best practices, government-sponsored programs, trade shows, trade missions, and related trade-networking services. Let’s explore a number of these services and explain how you can take advantage of them.
Who is your first overseas customer?
First and foremost, define who your first overseas customer is! This usually involves learning the demographics of your targeted consumer in the country you are about to enter, and considering how to reach them in the most efficient manner.
For example, will your customer be a distributor who imports large quantities of your products, an overseas agent or commissioned representative, retailer, overseas end user, trading company — or will all your business take place via eCommerce?
Let’s assume you are looking for a distributor who buys products from you (the seller, or exporter in this case) in large volumes, and then warehouses, distributes and resells them to customers.
How to start finding your first overseas customer
Start with the most useful program: the Gold Key Matching Service, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
For a small company with a reasonable budget, the Gold Key Matching Service (GKMS) is one of the most efficient ways to meet with prescreened, potential cross-border business associates — whether you are seeking an agent, distributor or joint-venture partner to be your first overseas customer.
The GKMS isn’t the only useful program. Here are some others.
U.S. Export Assistance Centers
The U.S. Export Assistance Centers are staffed by professionals from the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Export-Import Bank and other public and private organizations. They can provide the help you need to find reputable distributors to compete in today’s global marketplace.
Trade Leads Database
The Trade Leads Database contains prescreened, time-sensitive leads and government tenders gathered through U.S. Commercial Service offices around the world. You can search leads and receive notification when new leads are posted.
Platinum Key Service
The Platinum Key Service allows U.S. companies to take advantage of longer-term, sustained, and customized U.S. Commercial Service assistance on a range of issues.
The fee-based service can include a range of issues including but not limited to identifying markets, launching products, and developing major project opportunities.
Ongoing service is available for six months, one year, or a specified timeframe based on the mutually agreed-upon scope of work. To request this service, inquire with an EAC.
International Buyer Program
The International Buyer Program recruits thousands of qualified foreign buyers, sales representatives, and business partners to U.S. trade shows each year, giving exhibitors an excellent opportunity to expand business globally. It lets you cast a wider net when your searching for your first overseas customer.
International Partner Search
International Partner Search will put its trade specialists — located in more than 80 countries — to work finding your first overseas customer. All you do is provide marketing material and company background information, and IPS does the work!
Local trade shows
Another low-cost way to generate international sales — for both the large-volume customer and Everyday Joe (think eCommerce) — is to exhibit at a domestic trade show in your industry that offers an “international buyer” exhibit area. This will allow you to keep your transportation expenses to and from the show low. If the show’s local, you can even drive to it and sleep at your own home each night.
International trade shows
When you decide to exhibit internationally at a trade show, you incur transportation, food, hotel, and exhibition-related expenses. Yet those additional costs are often more than offset by the potential of finding your first overseas customer on the ground from all over the world.
Many big international trade shows — such as Hannover Messe in Germany — offer a U.S. Pavilion, where the actual cost of the exhibit is subsidized by our government, offering a substantial discount from the regular exhibit rate (inquire with your state’s U.S. Export Assistance Center). The pavilions are strictly for the American exhibitors. Market experts from the U.S. Embassy are typically on hand at the show to help national firms make connections and further establish themselves in a new market.
Government-sponsored trade mission
Trade missions serve U.S. firms that want to find their first overseas customer and pursue export opportunities by meeting directly with potential clients in their respective markets. They typically offer one-to-one meetings, networking events, site visits, briefings, and media coverage.
The U.S. Commercial Service has what is called a “trade fair certification program.” Certified Trade Missions are overseas events that are planned and organized by private- and public-sector export-oriented groups outside of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
They are designed for new and experienced exporters to establish sales and set up representation abroad at a low cost.
CTMs typically bring representatives of US companies into contact with potential agents, distributors, joint venture partners, licensees, local businesses, and government contacts.
Other resources for finding overseas customers
Don’t underestimate the potential in binational societies, councils and trade associations, and Chambers of Commerce. Search the internet for local binational groups that will put you in touch with your first overseas customer in the country where you’d like to do business.
The National Association of Japan-America Societies, the U.S.-China Business Council, and the U.S.-India Business Council, for example, all promote bilateral trade between the United States and their respective countries.
They also provide a stimulating social forum for people with common interests. In addition, they can help with finding your first overseas customer. You just need to ask.
Tap local clients for their international reach. One of the easiest ways to quickly enter a new foreign market is to partner or form an alliance with a company (it could be a client — Brother International, IBM, or American Express, for example) who is more powerful than you and is already conducting like-minded yet noncompeting business in that market.
Before you consider this avenue, I caution you to consult with tax and legal advisors to learn what type of partnership you should form, if you form one at all, what compliance issues need to be addressed, and whether or not you will be required to file tax returns in the host country. Please note that not all partnerships need to be formalized. Sometimes a trusting relationship and a handshake is all it takes to get started.
Ready to find your first overseas customer?
It’s not simply one tactic that will bring your first overseas customer to your door. It’s several different things in combination, and each part must be done exceptionally well, including becoming fluent in each market’s cultural sensitivities. As a result of your diligence, you will get customers.