These days it seems that wherever you look online, you are being told to increase your personal productivity by stacking habits or increase your business productivity by systematisation. That can seem like a daunting prospect for a new exporter, however people forget that one of the simplest tools out there is also one of the most powerful. Using checklists in international business can ensure that you avoid most mistakes, continuously improve for the future and have a better cashflow. So are you already using checklists for your international shipments & other aspects of your exporting business?

checklists in international business

It sounds simple, but checklists are one of the most powerful & underestimated tools to avoid making unnecessary mistakes, especially when it comes to customer shipments.

Nightmare Scenarios with Shipments

Let’s just imagine for a moment…

You don’t want your container to get stuck in Hamburg en route to Indonesia because Martin in the shipping department forgot to arrange for a pre-shipment inspection, prior to collection in your warehouse.

Or your shipment for Harare to be incurring demurrage costs in Beira because the certificate of origin was filled out incorrectly for the shipment.

You have a shipment that arrived in the customs warehouse in South Korea, but the importer can’t clear it because the organic authorities sent the NAQs (the organic goods certificates that should accompany the shipment) by regular post instead of by courier & the documents have never arrived.

Why Systematise with Checklists in International Business?

Standardising checklists for each customer allows you to save time making each shipment as you don’t have to think what you need each time. (No point in reinventing the wheel).

don't reinvent the wheel

Any time that the kind of mistake mentioned above occurs, it costs you additional time and money to correct, not to mention the good will of your customer, which is harder to re-earn. Often it’s far more complicated to obtain a retrospective correction for a shipment, than it would have been to follow the correct process in the first place.

International shipping is usually a time critical process, often working on extremely tight margins, so any losses that can be reasonably avoided, should be.

Working with checklists in international business also allows you to become more independent of individuals. That way, if the responsible person falls sick, has an accident, leaves suddenly or is simply on holiday for a week there is no reason that another person shouldn’t be able to take over any pressing tasks.

This is a low-tech way of ensuring your systems are also easily taught to new staff.

What should your shipment checklists include?

If you have repeat overseas customers, I’d suggest you make a checklist for each client with their individual requirements so that mistakes with documentation can be avoided. The checklist should include:

  • which documents are required
  • how many originals and how many copies of each document are needed
  • any special information that has to be included eg. specific wording for customs declarations, legalisation of documentation
  • all information pertinent to the timings eg. “wait for original B/L to be received & then immediately courier to customer” or “phone bank 3 days after receipt of invoice”

The checklist can include documents such as:
– no. of invoices required
– certificate of origin (with or without legalisation?)
– pre-shipment inspection?
– sale of goods contract
– packing lists
– technical standards certificates eg. veterinary certificates, TÜV, organic, halal, ISO
– etc whatever is specific to your industry

How to Maintain your Checklists

The most basic version of a checklist is of course pencil & paper, but these days we have so many more options open to us, ranging from note taking apps through to very specific online checklist forms or project management software. In short, nobody has any excuse for not being able to at least take this first step towards systematising their exports.

As with any kind of project, the easiest way to establish a checklist is to write down all the steps you take the first time you make a delivery to any customer starting from the order entry into your system, including timing. Note any mistakes, or parts of the process that took longer than expected. Once the delivery has been successfully shipped you can review your checklist and see how you can optimise it.

Rule, once again, is that every minute spent in planning and creating checklists will save you 10 minutes in execution and getting the job done

Brian TracY

You should review your checklists every so often to check that they are really up to date. Regulations change periodically and you may need to allow more or less time for certain steps of the process. eg before Christmas there are always shortages of food grade containers, especially if you need refrigerated transport and this year looks as if it will be especially difficult.

The Devil is in the Detail

Especially for letter of credit customers, missing a document copy can result in huge delays and additional expenses so you want to reduce chances for error as far as possible.

Any single discrepancy between the letter of credit (L/C) and the documents you submit to the bank results in delays and additional bank charges at the very least, so it really pays off to have a checklist to document everything you need to complete.

Realistically these days it’s pretty easy to produce consistent documents using a computer. eg if the L/C has a spelling mistake in the recipient’s address, you should be able to correct it one time and have it that way on all the documents (if you didn’t pick up on the error at the stage of checking on receipt).

However, it can easily happen that your computer system doesn’t have 100% consistent data (you know, garbage in, garbage out) for things like product names and this can cause you difficulties. eg. If you have a product as “Hand cream, aloe vera, 200ml” in your system but the producer describes it as “200ml Aloe Vera Handcream” the discrepancy can cause problems with the import authorities in some countries so if it’s not possible to change it in your system, you have to note it in your checklist that it needs to be done manually each time.

Other Common Uses for Checklists in International Business

Your shipping documentation is certainly not the only great way to use checklists when expanding internationally. Almost any process that you may do repeatedly can benefit from a great checklist. The ones that spring most readily to mind in the field of exports would be:

In the same way that pre-flight checks have greatly improved flight safety, well thought through checklists in international business can reduce errors and help you improve your profits in your export business. However often you’ve carried out a process, it’s all too easy to miss out a seemingly simple step, especially if more people are involved. In his work, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawunde reported how introducing checklists for complex surgical procedures helped to reduce patient deaths by 47%. Whilst most export shipping isn’t a life or death matter, repeated small mistakes can still lead to the “death” of the relationship with your client, not to mention “killing” your profitability. Now that’s hardly worth it, all for the want of a simple checklist…

As an Amazon Associate I earn a small amount when you buy anything through my links at no additional cost to yourself.

I recommend also listening to this great podcast that discusses the benefits of checklists:

  • Episode 6 of The Productivity Power Up podcast provides a number of useful examples of checklists and includes a cool story about how David Lee Roth of the band Van Halen uses checklists.  Check out the podcast by visiting

Thinking that working with a consultant would accelerate your international expansion?

If you’d like to learn more about working with me for support on your internationalisation projects or personal export knowledge, you can book a 30 minute international clarity call here.

If you haven’t already signed up for my free e-book about how to select which international market to enter next, you can do so here, or using the form below.

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  1. […] Like I said before, just because these questions have to be asked and answered, it doesn’t mean that you as the brand representative have to run around with a clipboard and do all the data collection and entry yourself. Automate and delegate the collection of as much of this as possible – ideally you should receive this data in advance of your visit in the form of a dashboard and report with photos. That way you can spot check how correct it is, but otherwise focus on discussing the details and implications with your importer. You can focus your time on discussing measures to improve the sales, as there’s always something you can improve. Just use a retail audit checklist to ensure you don’t miss anything critical – I’m a big fan of checklists! […]

  2. […] Checklists can support your international expansion, also when looking for a distributor […]

  3. […] can be helpful to have a checklist for entry into new markets based on the specific criteria which are relevant for your […]

  4. […] Standardise as much as you can with systematisation […]

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