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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tales from the Road 5: Beware the Automaton Traveller

It was 1995. We had been selling capital woodworking machinery through two distributors in the USA for years, one in Massachusetts, and another in North Carolina, but we didn’t seem to be getting much business from the East Coast. So I embarked on a three week trip taking in both existing and potential distributors. Many USA distributors will claim national coverage, but the reality is that most don’t have the infrastructure to support their claim.

My children were 10 and 8 years old, and this was to be my longest time away since they were born. So I did two things. I wrote short poems or stories, or notes giving clues on where to find small presents around the house and garden, and put them in envelopes for them to open each day. I traced a map of the USA and made a fridge magnet with a caricature of my head, so they could track my journey. And they did!

I arrived at an awful Holiday Inn near JFK for a stopover before an early morning flight to Vancouver where we had an excellent Canadian distributor. There was a notice on the door warning of the possible dire consequence of opening it to the pizza delivery man! That was based on a couple of recent gangland shootings where the pizza box had been used to conceal a handgun. The pizza was okay and I am still here.

I had been booked into Holiday Inns throughout my journey, and was relieved when Vancouver’s version was cleaner and less intimidating. I was there a few days and made time between meetings to take in the sights and sounds of the city. My abiding memory was seeing white lights in the distance moving up and down a night sky, and it took me ages to work out that they were ski lifts and not aliens landing.

The 7am flight to Seattle was spectacular, flying between mountain ranges on a clear frosty morning. I spent a long, incredibly hectic day there. It was February 14th, and the hippy cab driver who took me from the airport to my first meeting had a box of heart shaped chocolates in a heart shaped box that he was offering to all his passengers that day.

That was the fun bit. I was late for two out of the following four meetings because I hadn’t worked out my logistics properly. I felt constantly on the back foot. Some of the companies I’d identified as being potential distributors were more like local dealers, something that Google Earth might have signalled had it been around then. From Seattle I flew on to Portland Oregon, to arrive in their Holiday Inn just before 10pm when the restaurant was near to closing.

I left my bags at reception and had my evening meal straight away. Something light for my starter- a salmon terrine. When it arrived it wasn’t a terrine at all but a massive piece of salmon caught that day in the Columbia River. I began to dread what size my fillet steak main course might turn out to be. That was enormous too, a real ‘Tom & Jerry’ steak covering the plate. I managed half of it, partly because I was so tired and partly because it was so vast! I had a brandy nightcap, collected my bags, went to my room and fell on the bed.

There I woke up at 3am still fully clothed, got up to use the bathroom, and in my semi-comatose state I walked straight into the wall! The Holiday Inns I had stayed in until that night had been configured with the bathroom on the right as you walked in, a bed on the right, and desk on the left, and then a sitting room area in front of the window. In Portland, they did things differently. My room was the other way round. So ‘SMACK!’ and it really hurt. I woke up later to my 6am alarm to find an impressive bruise developing above my right eye. It looked like I’d been in a bar room brawl, and I was being collected at 6:30am by an important guy I had never met before!

When you travel extensively it’s very easy to slip into automatic. It’s a bit like that feeling you get after driving from London to Manchester, wondering whatever happened to Birmingham? That kind of thing mainly happens when you fail to pace yourself properly, when you put your mind and body under too much stress. And if you are not on top of your game you will reduce your chance of a successful outcome.

So what lessons can be learned?

1. It’s easy to cram too much into a business trip. It isn’t easy to stay fresh and alert if you do.
2. Plan your trips, and appreciate the size of the country, distances and journey times.
3. Research every company you plan to visit. Know their strengths and weaknesses.
4. Google Earth gives a useful impression of the premises you are about to visit.
5. Don’t arrive for a first meeting with a blackening eye. It can only get worse!
6. Children grow quickly in three weeks.


Friday, 22 June 2012

Gary Grumble new issue June 22nd 2012

Do you remember me having a go at the World Trade Organisation for not coming down hard on marketers of counterfeit goods, China headed the counterfeiters league table by a distance and as a member of the W.T.O. I thought they should have been shown a red card with the threat that failure to put things right could result in their expulsion from the World Trade Body.
Now I am at it again on the question – “what is the W.T.O   doing to reduce protectionism?”
On the sixth of June 2012 a Press Release from the EC Directorate-General for Trade in Brussels reported a  “ Staggering  Increase” of  Protectionism in the G20 countries. G20 countries being the leading nations in the  world  manufacturing  league table.
What is Protectionism?  broadly speaking it refers to trade obstruction measures used by countries who want to protect their industries from competition from overseas, these obstructions can  take many forms, documentary requirements, pre-shipment inspections, product quality certifications and product marketing, import licences and quotas  --- the list goes on. The intention is clear, namely to slow down or reduce the flow of imported goods.
Protectionism is very much against the principles of   “free trade”  and W.T.O policies of reducing or eliminating  “ Non-tariff barriers”

In the depression of the early 1930’s two U.S  senators  with the surnames of Smoot and Hawley sought to reduce imports into the USA and persuaded the U.S authorities to bring in  higher rates of import duties. What happened?  Disaster!!. Their misguided efforts led to a world wide slump of huge proportions. Does it now look as if the world has forgotten Smoot &  Hawley?.
 The following are 31 countries which the E.C. report names as being monitored :-

Algeria, Argentina, Australia ,Belarus Brazil, Canada, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, USA, and Vietnam  

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Small Business - we grow too!

I was with a client yesterday in Oxford, started out very small - 4 people with the idea for a new technology in an old area - and now with funding, investment, energy - lots of energy - after 3 years they have 120 people, mostly scientists and they are going to grow very quickly. Why was I there - they need to export. Note the word NEED - the UK market isn't big enough for them!

Just a minute, haven't they read the press? Haven't they seen the news articles on how hard it is to get into export and how companies won't try because they fear failure or at least not getting paid on time? Don't they know how difficult it is with strategic planning, market research, needing skills you can only learn over years? Well, no they don't and to be honest they don't care.

That's not to say they are stupid, far from it - their management team work under AGILITY MANAGEMENT. Agility management? you might ask. Yes, if management plans need to change, change them, don't get stuck in a rut and not knowing about something doesn't mean they can't do it. They know they need help to export, and Strong & Herd LLP was called in to pull the strands together and make sure they don't miss key things as they sell to USA and China. Have they done market research, strategic planning - yes, but they wouldn't call it that. They know their products, know the markets, know their competition and have spoken to their prospective customers - they know their market edge.

What sparked this blog was reading something posted on LinkedIn a couple of months ago (I catch up eventually!), a link to a USA blogger and these words jumped out at me:

Strategic planning is inappropriate for small companies because:

• No time: They don’t have the management time or resources to invest in days of planning.

• Big cost: Because their top teams usually lead their sales efforts, taking them off the road has an immediate negative impact on revenues.

• Small payoff: The payoff of strategic planning is often measured in millions of dollars rather than hundreds of millions, so it makes no financial sense to overinvest in the effort.

• Short-lived: Smaller businesses must continually adjust their strategy so the strategies they develop during a strategic planning session are usually short-lived. They win because they are more nimble, quicker to seize unexpected opportunities, than their larger competitors. Long-term planning can slow them down and kill this advantage.

This doesn’t mean small-growth companies should fly blind. It means they should adopt an adaptive opportunistic approach to strategy. They should plan in the hallway, not the boardroom.

It goes on to say that what the smaller companies need is strategic thinking, not strategic planning - two key words "Why Not?" to out think the Competition, sometimes this happens just because you are new in the industry and don't know how it should work so do it your own way. Use IDEAS: Imagine, Dissect, Expand, Analyse, Sell. According to Kaihan Krippendorff who wrote the US blog the main reasons companies don't do something is because they think it costs too much, customers won’t like it or it’s not technically feasible without testing if it is true. He was talking about all business, but this sure seems appropriate to exporting.

Well, I met a company like this yesterday and believe me it works! Can't wait to see them win the Queen's Award for International Trade in 2013 - they will, you know, because no-one's told them they can't!

Thursday, 14 June 2012


We live in an age where we have come to rely on technology that has been developed to serve us, yet too often it seems that technology is what drives our daily working lives. Twenty years ago when the first cell phones were like house bricks, we could not have imagined the instantaneous image sharing power of social media, checking our bank accounts online, and calling our overseas contacts via videophone or from our laptops and other mobile devices.

In my first years of international travel, we relied on landlines in offices and hotels where I think the telephone lines must have been gold leafed for the amount they charged. I remember being in the Connaught Hotel in Bombay in late 1996, arguing furiously over a $120.00 phone bill charged to my room when I had made one short phone call, received two, and sent and received two 3-page faxes. From memory they rounded it down to $100.00 after I had made a huge fuss and insisted on talking to the hotel General Manager. And all this with minutes to spare before my shuttle ride to the airport to catch my plane to New Delhi.

A few years earlier I had been in New York’s Penn Station waiting in line for one of the telephone booths. My calls were charged to an AT&T company card, where not only did I have to tap in each handy 14 digit UK telephone number, but prior to that there was the equally handy 16 digit AT&T number which thankfully only had to be tapped in once. And if you got a digit wrong you had to start all over again. I was told by a New York Cop that drug gangs used to stand behind the phone booths and memorise your AT&T numbers, so that when you had made your calls they could use your card to ply their despicable trade.

Back then we had to schedule when we used the telephone. Peak time calls were much more expensive, and international calls were still prohibitively so. Today, we can just dial on our portable handset and Bingo! Yet we all need breathing time, thinking time, planning time, and people time. We humans were not really designed to drive at 70mph, or fly in aeroplanes, or be constantly available to talk to customers even as we lie on sun loungers on a Menorcan beach. Many of us have become slaves to our own technology.

How can you hold two conversations at once anyway? It’s about time management. Time to make phone calls. Time to email. Time to write reports. And most importantly time for the people you are talking to, your family and friends, your colleagues, your customers. In any case, technology really does have its limitations because nothing can replace a handshake or a welcome kiss. As well as travelling to see them, I also encouraged my international distributors to travel to the UK to see how we did things, how we made things in our factories, how we were at work and at play. So we took them to football matches, on tours of Manchester, out to the theatre, and into the English Lake District.

Our customer services team in Accrington mostly had wonderful Lancashire accents, and at times they struggled to understand many of our international customers on the telephone, or to make themselves understood. Now here’s a thing. One of our Agents from Singapore could not make himself easily understood on the phone, but when he visited our offices and was introduced to all the people he spoke regularly to, the communication barrier disappeared. And interestingly after his visit, there was only rarely a communication problem.

Your factory and office staff are part of your selling process. Part of the team that helps create and send goods to your international customers. I used to dread overseas customers visiting a machinery factory where I worked in Cumbria, because we had told such a great story in our marketing and promotional material (this was way before websites arrived), when the reality was that we worked from a ramshackle old factory built in 1859 into a Windermere hillside. So the 90 minute drive from Manchester Airport was always a bit nerve-wracking, as I tried to play down the expectations of our visiting customers who anticipated a new-build state of the art production facility. The charm of the Lake District always helped, but it was the quality of the people who worked there who generally stole the show. And Roger the tooling guy was always far better at explaining what he did than I could ever do, and was probably our best machine salesman!

So more lessons learned:
1.       Manage your communication equipment before it manages you.
2.       Don’t be afraid to turn off your phone. People who want you will find you.
3.       Give yourself time every day to think, prioritise and plan
4.       You can never replace a face to face meeting.
5.       Involve your whole team. We are all salespeople in our own special ways.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Proof of Origin - an update

Following on from earlier discussions regarding proof of origin, here is a quick update for you.

The British Chambers of Commerce recently held their Annual General Meeting at which the issue of providing acceptable proof of origin for non-preferential certificates of origin was raised.  It was apparently stated that the BCC was aware of the problem faced by exporters where obtaining acceptable proof of origin from third part suppliers has been a big problem.

It was stated that the accepted forms of proof include:

·         Manufacturer (not supplier) declarations on the manufacturer’s headed paper.

·         Manufacturer’s invoice

·         Import Customs entry stating origin of goods ** (see below)

·         “Photographic evidence” of origin **

·         “Internet evidence” **

If the exporter is still unable to obtain any of the above, they can ask for their “case” to be referred to a CPG panel, which I understand is known as the Certification Practitioners Group. This group is made up of senior Chamber members with wide experience in exporting. They will review the available evidence and rule accordingly. It is intended to be able to make a definitive ruling within 24-38 hours in most cases.

** My concerns

  • The “origin” of goods stated in box 34a on a Customs entry will have probably been completed by a freight forwarder who has no idea of the true origin of the goods and is more likely to relate to the origin of the shipment, not the goods. Not what I’d call definitive proof.
  • Personally I do not understand what kind of photographic evidence could definitively prove the origin of any products.
  • Furthermore I know for a fact that using a website as proof of origin is inherently flawed as there is nothing to regulate whatever is stated on websites.
I am not convinced we are much further forward but I have raised the above concerns with my local Chamber and asked for further clarification.  Anyone else having problems establishing origin of goods when you are not the manufacturer?

Monday, 4 June 2012


I have never employed a bad interpreter, and I have used a lot of them in different markets. My first experience of working with an interpreter was in Germany in the early ‘90s. I was selling capital woodworking machinery at the time and it seemed wrong and somehow disrespectful to have an exhibition stand at a German international show without being able to communicate with Germans! I arrived on the stand as soon as the exhibition hall opened to find Marjorie was already there, a German-American, and the first thing she asked was ‘What do these machines do?” So I told her, and when the stand became inundated with customers half way through the morning, she was actually able to hold clients with the knowledge she had gleaned. Recognising that can’t have been a comfortable experience for her, I determined that I would have several contacts with any future interpreters well in advance of their project.
On at least two occasions, interpreters have saved me a lot of time and money. I was researching the market in the Netherlands for carpet underlay, and commissioned what was then known as a Tailored Market Information Report (TMIR) from UK Trade & Investment. In the late ‘90s the deal with TMIRs was that if you visited the market within 6 months of the report being completed, you would be refunded 50% of the cost. So that’s what I did, and the Commercial Officer asked if I would mind her tagging along to my meetings both to learn about my products and to provide translation where necessary. The result of her work was that we discovered the Netherlands used a different type of underlay, and that our products were unsuitable for the Dutch market.
Then there was Luis in Barcelona. I took him along to several meetings, including one with Enric Miralles the architect who designed the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood. I met Enric’s partner whose English was embarrassingly perfect, so Luis sat patiently being paid for doing nothing. Or so I thought. I apologised to him if he felt he had been a bit of a spare part during our meeting, and he replied that he had been listening to the chatter in the office and learned that actually I had no chance of getting my carpet products specified for Holyrood because the job had clearly been awarded to one of our much larger competitors.
But perhaps the stand-out interpreter was Katya in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Katya worked for our distributors, and the St. Petersburg event was to mark their tenth anniversary in business, which happened to coincide with the city’s 300th anniversary. And no, it wasn’t easy to avoid the vodka! I presented to the company’s nationwide management team of 45 who hailed from all corners of Russia, and had created a very snappy product training seminar. I had sent a copy to Katya in advance, and we had discussed how the presentation should go. I would say a sentence, and Katya would interpret. Easy huh? Well no not really. It didn’t work out quite like that. I spoke my first sentence, signalled to Katya as agreed who then went off on a soliloquy that lasted about five minutes! Thankfully my audience didn’t seem to mind how long the presentation took, and later that evening I learned two things First, when making a toast in Russia it isn’t enough just to stand up and say something short like ‘This is a toast to all my Russian friends for every happiness and success’. No. They want War and Peace, probably because then they have longer to recover between shots of vodka! The other thing I learned is that most of the 45 spoke perfect English!

But Katya’s star turn was at the British Embassy in Moscow where my colleague and I were presenting to an audience of about 120 Russian architects. I made the mistake of trying to kick off with a bit of humour, which was to tell the gathered professionals where in the UK our company was based, ‘Near Manchester’ I said “Where the football comes from”. And Katya went off on a meandering solo journey through the interpretation of my very brief (and not terribly funny) sporting gag. The hall fell silent when she finally shut up, and assuming not unreasonably that my football gag had bombed spectacularly, I carried on, unruffled of course. And as I continued with the presentation, a group at the front started to laugh and talk loudly about Manchester United and Spartak Moscow and “Very funny about the football. We like the football here in Moscow!” A bit slow on the uptake there chaps!
So what did I learn about working with interpreters?
1.       Only use professional interpreters!
2.       Brief your interpreter well. They are a part of your team, and your reputation
3.       Instruct them to listen as well as to interpret
4.       Know something of the culture of the audience you are addressing
5.       Write a few toasts before you visit your Russian distributors!