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Q&A: Finding a Vendor that Fits

In early 2012, Hart Shafer launched TheraSpecs, a three-employee, Phoenix-based business that sells glasses with a special lens designed to reduce the incidence of headaches in chronic migraine sufferers.

For Shafer, it’s a very personal product. His wife — who is a TheraSpecs employee — suffers from debilitating migraines. Here, he talks about the challenges of finding and working with international suppliers in foreign markets.

When looking for quality international business partners, what challenges did you face?

Shafer:  We faced the challenge of finding suppliers of eyeglass frames that met our specific needs. While glasses with this tint were available from other vendors, they weren’t paired with frames that really maximized its therapeutic benefit. We had specific needs that required a lot of work to track down.

My biggest piece of advice is to find a reference or recommendation from someone who has done business with a company before diving in.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about working with international suppliers?

Shafer: Working with [vendors] in Europe and Asia, everything takes longer than you think it will. Every iteration of something that you want to do in communication usually takes a day or two because of the time-zone differences.

Number two is that, if your primary contact is someone with whom a native language isn’t common, you need to scrub every communication you have for idiom and slang. You need to be very conscious about how you’re going to describe something, especially in writing, so that you’re using something that is textbook English. Otherwise, you won’t discover that they didn’t realize what you meant until you get a sample in the mail and it’s the wrong thing or you’re three weeks into a design discussion and you realize, wait, they’re not building the right thing. 

Did this happen to you?

Shafer: What we’ve had are problems where, as an example, I’m describing a certain material I want to use or how a lens needs to be cut, what the groove in the frame needs to be in order to insert the lens, and there was a confirmation from them: “Yes, we understand what you need.” It wasn’t until we got the prototype sample that we realized they really didn’t understand. When I went back and looked, I realized I wasn’t very clear on what I meant, and so they glossed over what they needed to do.

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What’s the number one piece of advice you would give to other small business owners about vetting international vendors?

Shafer: My biggest piece of advice is to find a reference or recommendation from someone who has done business with a company before diving in. Our leads through the various vendor-matching services went nowhere as we discussed our requirements. But, an introduction made through a long chain of people that started with a former co-worker landed us a great overseas relationship.

The other key for microbusinesses is to find a company that has representatives that you are comfortable dealing with. Some larger vendors will try to bully small businesses into making decisions quickly, paying unnecessarily large amounts for samples and so on. You don’t have to put up with that. Keep looking until you’re dealing with a rep that listens to you.

All that said, it’s still going to take a while to get anything done when many time zones mean questions take a full day to get a response. Be patient and keep at it.



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