When starting out in export, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of obtaining and fulfilling that first order. If you want to retain that customer for the long term and build your reputation in the market, you need to also think about international sales and service.
Those two should really go hand in hand, but the international after sales service is actually often only an afterthought, only to be considered when a problem arises.
Together with Kimberly Kirkendall, I discussed some aspects of what companies need to think about in Episode 11 of International Expansion Explained. We’re not talking about the details of customer service in different countries, but giving you some points that you need to consider.
Table of Contents
Let me introduce Kim to you
Kim began her career on the ground in China over 35 years ago after studying in China. Having lived in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Germany, France, and multiple US cities she combines her technical experience (manufacturing, operations, sales, as a CPA) with her deep knowledge of how business operates internationally.
She is currently the President of International Resource Development focused on international trade consultancy, she is a Beachhead Advisor for New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, and hosts a podcast on international trade. She is also teaching a series of courses for women in operations, lecturing for various universities, and being a guest speaker for many organisations.
Having grown up in a small town in the US, Kim dreamt of breaking out and travelling the world, hence her decision to study International Relations. Although she spoke fluent Spanish, she decided that her chances would be better if she learnt a language that was spoken less and managed to participate in an exchange programme to China. This gave her a springboard for the rest of her career!
What made China such a great choice (other than the massive economic growth of the last decades that we can see with hindsight)? Well, China actually shares a lot of values with small town America, such as an emphasis on family, community and maintaining relationships.
Customer Service in International Business
It certainly isn’t the first thing you think about when you receive your first international order. Probably you’re more focused on the nuts & bolts of how to get your product from A to B and making sure that you get paid, however if you’re looking to make this sustainable systematic export for the long term then you need to give some thought to how international sales and service will look.
Ideally you should work your way through these considerations at the time of mapping out your export plan, but you should certainly think about how customer service in international business will look BEFORE you get the first questions or even complaints.
I’d like to say up front, the kinds of things that you need to think about will of course vary depending on the kind of product (or service) that you are offering, however offering excellent after sales support is one of the ways you can differentiate yourself from the competition.
I’ll only scratch the surface of this topic today with some food for thought.
What kind of “issues” are we talking about with international after sales service?
These can cover a range of questions that might arise, depending on what you sell. They could include such things as:
- the product getting damaged in transit
- spare parts being required
- the end user not knowing how to use the product properly or having other questions
- various questions about certification from the authorities
- routine maintenance requirements or repairs
- quality complaints (whether justified or not)
- does the equipment integrate with other machines in the factory
- safety instructions
You can see there are lots of different scenarios, and they don’t necessarily mean some kind of crisis, but how you deal with them will determine your reputation on the market for the near future and possibly even longer.
Regulatory Questions in International Business
This point shouldn’t be part of your customer service in different countries, but rather a standard question to check before you even try to find a sales partner in the target market. However, a frightening number of shipments get stopped at international borders each year simply because the seller didn’t take the time to find out in sufficient detail both the regulations in respect to the product itself as well as any additional certification.
That might range from an export license to prove that a component isn’t part of a weapons system, through to a veterinary certificate on a shipment of meat or dairy products, or an ISO certificate for an electronics shipment.
On the product side, it could be the voltage for an electronics device or the language on the package of a tube of toothpaste.
Remember even within the EU, countries sometimes have different requirements so it’s important to check in advance what the legal requirements are. If you export your products half way around the world, only to realise they either can’t be imported, or can’t be sold then you have the expense and hassle of working out what to do with them. Repatriation may not be feasible, so you then need to either sell them to a nearby country if possible or worst case even destroy whatever you had shipped.
Regulations are one side, customer expectations are the other
This is probably most clearly seen with the example of returns. You might not have any legal obligation to accept returns of any kind, however if that is the clear customer expectation in the market you are working with, then chances are you need to build that into your returns policy.
eg in Europe, fashion platforms such as Zalando receive around 10% of the goods back as returns.
Or in China, I remember a friend returning a USB stick she’d ordered because 2 days after it arrived she found the one she thought she’d lost…
To manage such situations, then you need to define a returns policy in writing from day one. Of course, if you are selling via a distributor, then your policy might state that he has to accept returns, but that you don’t take product back. In that case, you have to figure out how it will work with reimbursing him – or whether that is part of his risk of doing business.
It’s the same with disclaimers about warranty limitations. In a country like China where you can’t afford to ruin your reputation, you probably would just fix a piece of equipment even if you had a disclaimer in force.
Thinking about what you need up front can really help with customer service in international business
As you can see above with the question of a returns policy, the earlier you start thinking about your after sales requirements the better – best of all is if you can build these into your distributor agreement in the form of a distributor manual.
Kim and I are both of the opinion that your international contracts shouldn’t purely be negotiated on the basis of how you will litigate in future if needs be, but they should also be a roadmap for how you want to do business.
Your distribution agreement should clearly include the responsibilities and obligations of both parties, so if that also includes an obligation to carry certain spare parts and to carry out routine maintenance, then it’s best to negotiate that up front.
Making it crystal clear what you expect will make everyone’s life easier.
Setting Clear Expectations can make a World of Difference
It’s one thing for your distribution partner to KNOW that you want him to also stock the necessary parts for general repairs and to also do that maintenance, but as the product owner, you need to make it clear HOW that should be done.
Training is a key to customer service in different countries
I’m a big believer that if you are working with a distribution partner in your export markets, then you have the responsibility to train them about exactly how you want your product to be sold and managed on the market. That doesn’t purely mean, how to maximise the turnover, but also includes imparting the knowledge about frequently asked questions, how to repair/maintain the product if necessary, your company values etc.
In many markets, especially in Asia, your partner may not want to admit to his clients that he doesn’t know an answer to their enquiries, as that would constitute a loss of face. Making sure that he’s been trained on all the general questions that your experience shows have come up in other markets means that he can give a fast and competent answer. If you don’t provide that training, but insist that each enquiry is directed to you for answering, you may find that he starts to make up his own answers or explanations as that’s faster and involves no potential loss of face.
So make it clear WHAT your partner can answer herself and what she should refer to you – if you don’t make things crystal clear, you shouldn’t be surprised if a partner makes decisions that you don’t agree with.
Checklists and SOPs are your friend ?
Training is just part of the solution. Anything that can reasonably be standardised in international sales and service, should be documented in the form of a standard operating procedure or checklist.
You want to drive behaviour so that the quality standards you have defined are kept. eg a form where the serial number of expensive components has to be entered and signed for. Boring? Probably, but it creates a kind of accountability that makes it easier for you to better serve your clients.
Remember that your assumptions about how a product may be used, or perceptions of what constitutes “good quality” are not absolute values, but vary from one country to the next. eg an expensive piece of quality monitoring equipment not actually being used, but the fact it was purchased “demonstrates” in country that the company cares about quality.
Ideally your documents should be clear enough to be used by a 10 year old & of course need to be in the local language! International after sales service means that you have to make everything accessible to everyone who will be working with that process.
Define Clear Crisis Procedures
Think about all the possible worst case scenarios and what you would need to do in those circumstances…& then write that all down in a crisis handbook! A friend of mine describes this as “doomcasting”, all those “what ifs” such as
- what if a part fails on the machine?
- what if a shipment arrives damaged?
- what if a client has a severe allergic reaction to the face cream they bought from you?
- what if your product fails a safety control by the local authorities?
- what if a consumer claims your packaged food landed them (or their child) in hospital?
- what if you get caught up in a social media ? storm?
Don’t leave those kind of decisions up to your distribution partner, but give them clear instructions of who to inform and which additional information they need to send.
Your procedures need to take into account the time that can be lost due to different time zones and also the expectations of different markets. For example social media issues usually require fast answers if they’re not going to explode in your face, but if the original post occurs at 2am in your home time zone, chances are it’s going to get messy before you even realise.
For consumer products manufacturers, you also need to consider how you will inform all of your partners should something happen in your production that necessitates a recall of shipped products. This is really one of the worst nightmare scenarios…
According to the Oxford Online dictionary a warranty is “a written guarantee, issued to the purchaser of an article by its manufacturer, promising to repair or replace it if necessary within a specified period of time.”
Warranties are actually a really complex corner of the law though, which I couldn’t explain in detail here, even if I were qualified to give you more than the basics. Suffice to say, the legal situation with warranties around the world varies greatly so for customer service in different countries you really need to get professional advice about what your legal obligations are as well as the usual market expectations.
Your warranty, including any restrictions and disclaimers, should be included in writing in the distributor manual I mentioned above. Your distributors need to be clear about what they can and can’t promise.
The 3 Most Frequent Mistakes Companies make in International After Sales Service
We’ve already mentioned these points in more detail above, but here summarised:
- Insufficient Documentation – making expectations really clear up front (& adapting them according to experience as you go) will save you a lot of headaches in the long run
- Not researching up front. This is “tear my hair out” level for me personally if people don’t make the effort to do this. You need to understand how your product will be used in the country you sell to, but also to understand the environment in which it will be used and the challenges that poses. It’s no good selling a product which is sensitive to power surges or poor water quality to a country which struggles with both of those.
- A lack of crisis planning or worst case scenario planning. Your domestic procedures probably won’t be robust enough to simply translate to an overseas environment where both the regulatory environment and the customer expectations will differ.
International Sales and Service is always a Learning Curve
You’re never going to have finished learning how to manage this aspect of your international business. You’ll always be needing to learn how to adjust your communication according to the market evolution. That means staying agile & being open to new ideas as to what’s necessary to keep your customers happy.
International after sales service can be a source of additional income too. eg with spares and maintenance contracts, so it should simply be regarded as an annoying part of the marketing activities. Yes, customer service in different countries varies in the detail as to what is seen as the right level of service and how that is delivered, but in general it’s now truly a key differentiation factor in many industries.
Starting out with smaller orders give you the opportunity to manage your learning curve and adjust more easily as you grow.
In the end, the way you deal with customer questions after the sale has been made determines their experience with you as a producer or brand. Many complications can be avoided with good planning and whilst this is a time/cost factor up front, it certainly pays off in the long term.
You can find the full interview here:
If you’d like to get in touch with Kim, you can do so here:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-kirkendall-cpa-92b8664/
- Website: https://intlresource.com/
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