I like to think I have a feisty, hybrid business attitude. I was born and raised in Denmark, then later made Canada my home for the past 20 years, and by now I’ve been doing business internationally for almost three decades. And although I’m technically a service exporter, my customers export both goods and services. Our company, Kisserup International Trade Roots, has helped thousands of businesses export to more than 90 countries. So, you could say I have a dual perspective, in that I have a thorough understanding of the nuts and bolts of global trade from both the services and goods points of view.

Service exports are soaring

Trade in services has become the most dynamic segment of overall world trade in the last two decades. In fact, trade in services is actually growing faster than trade in goods, thanks in no small part to the internet and the rise of cloud-based solutions. It’s also anticipated that by 2025, the volume of trade in services will equal that of the trade in goods. That’s a sea change. And I’m here to tell you to come on in … the water’s fine.

Top 3 challenges: culture, culture and culture

At Kisserup International Trade Roots, it’s my job to help our customers become successful exporters. One of the ways I do this is by demystifying the process. Make no mistake, before you decide to take on a new market, you have to do your homework. In my experience, you can learn a lot by doing your own research and utilizing your networks, including resources such as EDC and the Trade Commisioner Service.

The most important thing to do when developing your game plan is to identify the challenges of entering a new market and come up with ways to work around them. You need to find customers, but they’ll only take notice of you if you differentiate yourself from your competition. I’m sure there’s a textbook answer for the top three obstacles faced by exporters, but in my experience, culture tops the list. I include it in second and third places as well, because it’s that essential.

There’s no single right way of doing business. You can’t come up with a winning business model here in Canada and expect to rinse and repeat around the globe. One size does not fit all in international trade, especially when it comes to service exports. It’s essential to adapt your offering and business model with each new cultural market. The importance of relationships in service exports can’t be overstated. There’s a need for nuanced communications and for diplomacy. The process of negotiating with a company in Germany is completely different from negotiating with one in Colombia. They have different approaches to settling on price, laying out a proposal, and coming to terms with a contract. Their cultural differences will affect every step of the business process, right through to their expectations in terms of after-sales service and followup.

Developing cultural intelligence—the ability to function effectively in different cultural contexts—will give you a critical advantage. It requires the investment of time to understand all aspects of the culture where you intend to do business. There are all kinds of protocols to consider, from how you dress, to where you sit at a meeting table, to what language you use to conduct business. According to the Harvard Business Review, if a trade deal is perfectly aligned on price and service, but fails to come to fruition, 80% of those failures are most likely due to a cultural misstep. 

Developing cultural intelligence

There are many ways to sharpen your cultural compass. Canada is wonderfully diverse, and in my experience, people are proud of their various heritages and are only too happy to share their customs. Reach out and connect with these communities and immigration associations. Ask them about their cultures. Find out what they value most.

Get out of your comfort zone, get away from your desk, and learn in real time. I once spent two weeks on a scallop boat off the shores of Nova Scotia to learn more about how the vessel captured critical environment data. There’s a huge difference between testing instruments in a lab and in a boat on the high seas. You have to get your feet wet, to go into the market and find out what makes your customers tick.

There are lots of resources you can pull from to enhance your cultural awareness specifically, and your international trade skills in general. Take a look at the Business Insider’s A quick guide to business etiquette around the world for starters. TradeReady has a number of articles on cross-cultural competence that offer quick, pragmatic advice. Hofstede Insights provides comparisons of different countries based on six different dimensions.

The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service has more than 1,000 trade officers in 160 countries around the globe. They have their fingers on the pulse of every market, and can help point you in the right direction for market research. Check out their online resources first. Tap into EDC’s country information as well. And be sure to review the Global Brand Database to see if your business trademark can be protected internationally.

One of the best ways you can become a better exporter is through the Forum for International Trade Training, or FITT for short. I was so impressed by some of the first online FITT courses I took that I decided to get my CITP | FIBP designation (Certified International Trade Professional). It’s paid off in spades. The FITT skills courses provide hands-on, real-world, international business and trade training. You learn about entrepreneurship, logistics, financing, research, marketing, and global supply-chain management. Interestingly enough, when my company responds to RFPs, we typically see the requirement for CITP certification even before that of an MBA designation. In other words, it holds immense value for trade and procurement officers worldwide.

On being Canadian on the global business stage

Canada has an amazing brand. When international customers talk about Canada, the words you’ll hear most often are innovative, reliable, fair, clean and safe. These are all hallmarks that you should use to build your brand in new markets.

Regrettably, one of the things we’re also known for isn’t following through during the latter stages of landing new deals. We’re often cited as being too safe, too polite, and not aggressive enough following up on leads. Rather than become more aggressive, however, I would encourage all exporters to be more assertive, in that positive, charming, uniquely Canadian way that I hold so dear. 

My final advice?

Be curious. Curious people are willing to try new things, take on new challenges, and overcome all obstacles. Never think you’re too small to respond to an RFP. Go ahead, right now, check out the government procurement opportunities available in the European Union. As an exporter, there’s never a dull moment and your business life will never be boring. For me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.