I often talk about the importance of building international business relationships , and I’d like to share this interview showcasing the work of Wael Masri, demonstrating just how you can found your success and drive export growth in this way.
My interview with Wael was recorded during the Business Beyond Borders event in Q4 2020.
Who is Wael?
Wael Masri has two master’s degrees: one in industrial engineering and the other in International Business Studies from top ranked universities in the States. Over the past 20 years, Wael has utilised his management and technical background and his family US export sales and international procurement business to create strategic and cost effective solutions for clients worldwide. Intimately familiar with the culture and the business language of the Arabian Peninsula, Wael travels there normally to create and nurture long term business partnerships for Teknitrade Limited.
He also enjoys volunteering as a guest speaker on international topics in the role of a cultural ambassador for students of all ages, as well as coaching disadvantaged jobseekers in his local community on their interviewing skills.
Wael was born in Beirut, Lebanon, (one of my favourite cities to visit) and then grew up in a cosmopolitan environment in Bahrain, where he attended an international school that has students from 48 different countries. He’s currently living and working in Raleigh, North Carolina where he first came in 1986 to attend NCSU.
How the business started
Wael started out helping his father on a part time basis when he established the business in 1990. And he established it in a very natural way; the family were living in North Carolina which in 1990, was still the world capital for home furnishings. It is no longer that right now, but at that time, it was the world centre for that industry. He had friends in Bahrain, who were interested in furnishing their homes and villas. So, he just started a conversation with them saying, “Well, I’m here in the States, I’m sure I can find for you more options at a lower cost than what you can find there.”
The business was started from scratch and evolved from selling home furnishings to friends to servicing B2B clients in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
From the beginning the growth was driven by whatever the customers want. And so long as there are customers, Wael can find for them what they need. The referrals of his satisfied clients lead to an ever-growing stream of business.
Customer centric process
Wael starts out by surveying his customers to find out what they really need. How can he support them? Then he establishes connections in the States with the suppliers and by approaching them with a buyer in hand, he is empowered to accomplish a lot.
It took time before he realised that actively requesting referrals would accelerate growth.
Wael’s Tip: even if you don’t have such an established customer base, you should automatically ask those clients you DO have for references, reviews and referrals right from the beginning.
Think out of the box to make clients your salespeople
You can encourage orders by offering for example the possibility of saving money on the shipping costs if 2 clients want to order things at the same time. You can consolidate and help them save on the shipping cost.
You can even offer to waive shipping costs if they refer other customers to you. There are many ways of offering an additional service as a referral incentive without directly paying people, because not everyone wants to wants to do that. That shows gratitude without them feeling as if they are being paid and other times you just want to make it seem as a friendly thing.
It’s a fine line to tread between offering a courteous gift and insulting someone so you have to be careful.
Relationships in international business are the core of success
Whether you want someone to become indirectly a salesperson for you,or if they are “just” your customer you always want to treat them right. Ask “what else can I do for you?”.
As your relationships with international partners deepen, you may find yourself supporting them with advice about college or medical treatment. Topics which have nothing to do with the business per se but which all go to cement your position of the trusted advisor and keep you top of mind.
This is not about being purely transactional and just a quid pro quo. It’s about being helpful for the sake of being helpful. Building international relationships in this way can lead to your partner wanting to do even more business with you, or refer his friends to work with you.
Not only that but it’s a much more pleasant way of working.
This it goes both ways. When you then visit your business partner, they will probably want to show you their country and introduce you to the family. So it becomes a much more warm, cordial relationship that can continue to grow in an in an organic way.
Think about your strengths when selecting markets
Are there cultures/languages which you have a deep understanding or affinity for?
Why do you want to go into an international business? Is it because you know that someone from that country has a need for your product? Or that your product is so new that it is not explored yet outside? Is there a customer need? It comes back to putting the customer in the centre of your considerations and truly focusing on customer centric export sales.
Sell solutions not features
Don’t get so caught up in the wonders of the product and its new features that you forget that if nobody needs it or wants it, then you’re not going to sell, whichever market you’re in (& however wonderful the product is).
You sell products based on the problems that they solve for the customer and the benefits that brings to the customer. Once your customer knows that you are interested in them and that you care about them and about addressing their needs, they are more prepared to listen to what you have to offer.
When talking with customers, you don’t need to be flattering them, but you do need to show them that you want to know & understand them. You need to understand what their issues are.
Wael’s Tip: begin by asking them open ended questions.
How can I help you? Sometimes that may mean that you simply refer them to someone else.
It’s so important to actually show people that you have a genuine interest in them, in their company and in the problems that they have in the company. And that you are genuinely interested in solving those problems, whether you solve them personally, or you know someone else who can – so you help indirectly.
In that case both the client and the person you referred them too know that you have their best interests at heart and so the relationship is strengthened.
Wael’s Tip: take the time in the beginning to establish that trust and to put the focus on the relationship rather than on the sale.
How do you decide on payment terms?
As a concierge export sales business, Wael sees his biggest currency as trust, so he takes care to develop close relationships with a small group of customers. As long as he can trust someone, then he’s willing to to give them credit terms. eg 30 day or even 60 day open account terms.
For very large orders (above $20000) Wael might ask for an LC.
It’s not a one size fits all answer. For a new customer, he will ask that they pay in advance until they get used to working with one another. And then as the trust is developing, the payment terms can be extended. As the sales amount increases there may then be a move to letter of credit payment terms.
For non-cancellable orders a partial prepayment may be necessary, so it’s a fairly flexible approach which can change over time.
Wael’s tip: it’s important to for people to understand that even if you want to have a secured method of payment from a new customer, doesn’t mean that you have to stay with that forever. You can say “okay, I like the first two or three orders to be secured in some way or payment in advance and then maybe we go to 50% in advance and the rest of the order then we go to an LC but it doesn’t have to be that for the next five years you have to pay in advance.”
You can change payment terms as the business and the relationship develops.
Check the details of letters of credit and keep them as simple as possible
If you receive an LC from a new client, then the first thing you need to do is check through it and see if it’s okay for you, and if not then go back to them and discuss the changes you need.
Keep the details in the L/C to a minimum ( a standby LC is better for this) and ensure that you are not promising something that you can’t comply with. In export there are always some things which come up that you can’t control.
You probably are not going to want to pay for credit insurance if you don’t have really large orders, but it’s a very individual decision – it’s not as usual in the US as in Europe where companies are less risk averse.
You don’t only need good international business relationships with your customers
- establish a good relationship early on with some well established and trusted international freight forwarders. They generally have all the answers about documentation. Make it clear that you’re establishing a relationship with one or two of them and not trying to work with 10 or 20 and always trying to find who is going to give you a slightly lower cost than the other. You want to develop a working relationship with two or three so that they feel that their time that they’re giving to you is going to come back to them.
- your local World Trade Centre in the States and the local small business technology development centre (or Chamber of Commerce in Europe). There are various state institutions (this varies state by state) that offer services to small and medium sized businesses who want to do export.
- Work with a specialist such as Wael or myself.
You only want to have relationships with the RIGHT companies
There are certain companies overseas that may be on the US Department of Commerce blacklist that you may not know about. You need to find out about that before committing to a shipment.
Having said that the Department of Commerce in the States operates sometimes in an Orwellian fashion where they don’t publish a list because they don’t want to make it easy for people who are on that list to simply rename their company. So we again come back to why it’s important to have a relationship with your freight forwarder who can guide you about that list and maybe even establish a relationship with someone at the Department of Commerce to show that you are exporting in good faith.
You need to ensure that the person you met at this international conference is not on any kind of list. If you give them the name, they may say yes or no. They’re more likely to help you that way than they are to give you a comprehensive list, as the situation changes continuously. But if you give them a name and say “I want to start with selling to so and so is there any issue on that?”, they will usually help you.
Check that your customers and the combination of products/country are not blacklisted
Most countries have a similar have a similar structure in place that you can either go to the local Chamber of Commerce or you can go of course through various private consulting channels, but there’s usually some kind of national organisation in place who can give you help such things. It’s important to check in individual cases about anybody who might be on black lists or if any kind of products are also restricted in some way for certain kinds of products. For example, Iran is always the famous example where you have to be careful. For the States it’s also when you’re selling to Dubai because maybe that’s not the final destination of the goods and they are landing in Iran afterwards.
Do your due diligence
One way to avoid that is to try to find out where all of the offices of a customer are because the issue might not be with the office that you’re talking to. If they have a sister company that you were not aware of, that happens to have an office in in Teheran then the US Department of Commerce may have a blacklist on all of their offices and you may not know them. It becomes due diligence on your part to find out who are your customers, what are are they doing, where are their offices? Are they doing anything that the US Department of Commerce might not be very happy about?
This kind of problem is more frequent, I think that people would imagine.
Reputations can be ruined in the blink of an eye
The US Department of Commerce is going to judge you as an exporter. Under intent: meaning that if you have been exporting without any issue for 20 years, and you had this one thing happen that’s one thing. If your first three attempts at exports were all going into into Iran, that’s a different story. Then they would think that you’re being more of a smuggler than an exporter (& not a very smart one at that), and then they’re looking at you in a different way. You still might be completely innocent, but you might have the bad luck of having bad timing with the type of your first interactions.
If you make a bunch of mistakes of that kind when you’re still brand new, there’s no track records to check you on. So you have to be especially careful at the beginning.
This is a reason many manufacturers don’t want the liability of exporting
That’s probably why certain manufacturers in the States are simply not interested in doing any exports. If the first export is someone trouble that they’re in trouble for a long time, and they just don’t want to deal with it. They just don’t know when they’re going to get something wrong. It’s just too much of a risk for a lot of small companies – it’s a lot easier for them to simply outsource it to an exporter, who has the understanding & expertise to deal with the risk. And that risk now is outsourced to somebody else.
How to find the right importer by building international business relationships for the long term?
Start by getting to know them. Prioritise people over the money – it’s basically the same as any other relationship. You want to try to get to know people as much as you can.
If they are your first customer, go ahead and visit with them. You can visit with them over Skype or zoom. But try to establish an understanding that’s beyond simply a telephone call and an email. Try to widen that circle. Try to establish things on a basis that’s broader than simply trying to sell something.
Most exporters are looking for the opposite of Amazon’s business model, of trying to sell everything to everyone. Focus on selling to a few dozen contractors and catering to all of their needs. What that means is you have the focus and the bandwidth to really concentrate on who they are, and on really building international business relationships.
Of course, it depends on what your business model is as to what kind of customers you want to attract. Is it a b2b business, is it a b2c business? There isn’t a one size fits all answer but if your business is based on giving service, getting relationships and all that, then there is no fast way to do that. You want to nurture that relationship.
Be more interested than interesting
Export is for people who are more interested than interesting. What that means is if you are more interested in learning about your customer, than in appearing interesting to him then you are interested in building a relationship as opposed to simply telling stories about how wonderful you are.
There are no shortcuts to deep relationships. You have to go beyond the transactions and view things in a holistic way. You need to really get to know the person and you want to let the other person know that you open to them saying yes, and I’m saying no. And because you want them to feel comfortable with you as you feel comfortable with them, and you’re open to all possibilities. It is an interview process. You just take it slowly and show your interest in the people.
You have to also accept that a relationship is something that grows over time and changes over time. You have to invest your time and energy into building and strengthening that relationship in the same way that if you want to have a successful marriage you have to also invest your time and energy into maintaining that relationship.
Time Zones complicate things but agility wins
From the East Coast to the Middle East, it’s seven to eight hours depending on the Daylight Savings times. It can be an advantage though international business with the various time zones gets to be awkward and cumbersome, because that means that it allows us to be nimble, where large companies are not able to.
- am I a small business?
- Am I flexible in my timing?
- Am I willing to go above and beyond?
- Am I willing to adjust to meet my customers needs as opposed to tell them “I’m available from eight to five on Eastern Standard Time, and I’ll let you figure it out. I’ll let you figure out when you can meet me during those hours and if it did not work for you then tough”
If you’re customer centric then you are customer centric. So look at that as an opportunity to show how you are different than others. For Wael that means he’s generally available to his customers seven days a week because not only is he dealing with a different timezone but also different holidays. The Middle East, they’re closed Friday and Saturday, whereas in the US it’s Saturday and Sunday.
Wael makes himself available to them not only over email, but also by mobile (WhatsApp). He can be reached almost anytime without having emails going back and forth. He turns his phone off to sleep but is otherwise available.
This also comes back to that point of you establish a relationship with customers that goes beyond the purely business and then it’s a different feeling when somebody contacts you during what is your weekend or your free time. It’s different than if somebody contacts you who you’ve had three emails from in the past and who now is just contacting you because they have your number and they can. It’s a different feeling. When you have that relationship with them. It just it feels more like it’s like a friend contacting you.
You may also be able to save some time in the whole process by giving them a quick answer of “please supply me with this information so I can check the details on Monday”. If you wait till Monday you could have lost a couple of days in the whole procedure.
Adapting the relationships in international business to a hybrid world
You’re having much more communication over zoom or over Skype. There’s nothing quite as good as being somewhere physically in the same room, but the next best thing is being somewhere virtually the same room. They can see you, they can see your face & your body language. They can see that you’re understanding them.
Wael’s Tip: email is open to misinterpretation even though the communication is supposed to be explicit so try to have “real conversations” where possible.
When you’re dealing with international trade, communication is complex. Your colleagues and your country may have a slightly different meaning or different nuance when you’re talking to someone somewhere else. This could be clarified quickly & easily if you’re with them over the phone or over zoom where they can see and hear you. It is so much better.
These may seem like basic things but they’re often not. Be mindful of your customer. What is your customer needing? What is your customer wanting? What is your customer thinking? You’re not going to understand your customer correctly every time.
How are you going to accommodate that?
What actions are you taking to get past that?
Make sure you are listening enough!
Especially if one of you is working in a language that isn’t the first language (or both of you). For example, if I’m dealing with customers in China and we’re talking English, it’s very important, this face to face communication because often you get even more chance of misunderstandings in written communication purely because the aspects that you transport with your nonverbal communication just get lost.
Humour is not international!
If you’re making a joke over email, the chances that it gets misunderstood are very high. You may think that it’s obvious, but if you’re going outside of your cultural blocks, or even within the States, if you go from one region to another, you might get yourself into trouble.
If you’re going from the States to another country, you’re foolish to think that your jokes are going to be understood everywhere all the time, they will invariably not but if they can see your face, then you can tell if your joke is ending in the wrong way.
They can tell that you mean something different and that’s why it really helps to break the ice and every once in a while you get into a conversation that’s not strictly business. And that’s not only over email. It’s really important to once in a while to make things personal.
Building international relationships is a key to drive export growth
Wael’s top tip for people who are getting started in export is to really take the time to build international relationships, to invest in a relationship and to put the people first.
You have to understand who your customers are and what value you are bringing to them. If your value is you’re offering them a concierge level service because you are small and nimble, that’s fine.
If your value is that you have a niche project and you have a deep technical understanding of your customers’ needs. That’s also fine. You’d have to find how you are adding value and how you are communicating that effectively without the focus on your features, on what makes you special, but by focusing on how you can make life easier for your customer. It’s always about your customer.
It’s not only important that that you understand them, but that you make clear to them that you wish to understand them and having them feel that you understand them. They should feel that they can contact you at any point if there is a misunderstanding or anything they feel uncomfortable about.
You need to be personable. Try to get to know your business partners. Depending on the culture, it might affect what kinds of personal questions you can ask. But basically try to learn more about them to see how else can you be of service to them beyond your product or your service? Don’t always try to sell them something but always try to give them value.
Always try to be mindful of how can you be of service to them as a customer? What else can you do for them? How can you make them feel better taken care of and make yourself more available to them? Your partners should be encouraged to come back to you and ask, what else you can do for them. Encourage them to tell you of their colleagues and friends and even some of your competitors who have a similar service.
You can find the full interview with Wael here:
You can find some of the other interviews from the Business Beyond Borders Event also here on the blog:
- Maria Iacob: International Money Transfers
- Kate Isichei: Internal Communication Strategies Across Borders
- Lorenzo Fornaroli: Managing International Logistics & Supply Chain Management when starting out in Export
- Kathrin Bussmann: Starting to Build your Brand in International Markets
- Joanne Chan: Localisation and Translation Management. Be multi market ready
- Alexander Assouad: Managing Global Teams and Building Culture when Working across Borders
If you enjoyed this post, you might find these posts about intercultural topics and business culture interesting:
- Cultural Differences US and Japan: sales communication in East Asia
- Business Etiquette in Vietnam
- A review of The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
- China Challenges: Understanding Chinese Business culture
- Israeli Business Culture
- How to Succeed as an Expat
- Time is Time, Right? Here’s why that isn’t true
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