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Tune in to Your Customer Base Abroad

Staying in tune with customers has always been a critical ingredient for achieving business growth. But it's even more important for an international business to stay connected with its customer base overseas because shifts in trends and tastes are hard to gauge if one isn't immersed in the local culture.

"You have to monitor your customers, and you need constant feedback," says Diego Patane, CEO and partner at Global Business Union LLC, an international business consultancy based in San Diego, with branches in Milan, Amman and Dubai. "If you don't have those metrics, you can't be competitive."

Here are a few tips to stay in touch with a foreign customer base if the business owner is not immersed in the local culture every day.

“You have to monitor your customers, and you need constant feedback.”

— Diego Patane, CEO and partner at Global Business Union LLC

Reach Out and Get Customer Feedback

Patane recommends business owners seek out a variety of customers and engage them in "any way that gives you natural feedback."

Customized surveys are generally based on location, age, salary and gender. However, information obtained through extensive comparison of local traditions, customs and history will help ascertain the likes and dislikes of customers overseas. Questionnaires or a simple phone call are also tools at a business's disposal.

Furthermore, when it comes to keeping tabs on customer feedback, Patane says social media is a no-brainer nowadays for businesses. Reading customer feedback on Facebook and Twitter and for example, paying attention to the number of Facebook "likes" that a business receives is an essential strategy for gauging whether people are satisfied with the product or service.

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Still, nothing can beat having an in-person conversation with a customer. "Looking at the customer, individually or in groups, and having him or her in front of you helps you understand the body language," Patane says. If possible, it may be helpful to employ the services of a specialized psychologist or another expert who specializes in understanding customer behavior.

"We usually try to select a certain type of niche that we feel are not responding well, and we try to have a full interview [with them]," Patane says. For example, Patane took this approach regarding a new product line of baby food that wasn't selling. His team conducted interviews with women in different age groups, and realized that they were making purchasing decisions before their babies were delivered or in the first days after a child was born. The survey also showed that the new moms only consult a tight group of people, including their pediatricians and their own mothers. As a result of these learnings, the marketing strategy was adapted to partner with gynecologists and pediatric organizations, and deliver the product packages as a gift directly to hospital nurseries.

As business owners attempt to conduct their own customer research, Patane suggests including the following questions:

·      At first glance, what positive or negative feelings does the product invoke in you?

·      Why did you buy it?

·      What detail captures your attention?

·      How easy was it to use?

·      Would you recommend this product/service to others? Why or why not?

·      What features would you like to see added or changed?

Whatever tool a business owner uses, "You have to have a certain strategy in order to make the customer respond and answer you without being influenced," Patane says.

Tailor the Conversation Tool to a Local Culture

While staying in touch with customers abroad is important, "How you do that is going to depend on the culture that you're in," says Neil Payne, managing director for Kwintessential, a London-based consulting firm that specializes in helping international businesses navigate language and local culture.  

For example, he says that customers in the U.K. and U.S. are "very much used to receiving feedback emails and customer service surveys. But in other cultures, that might not always work."

For example, Payne says that in Middle Eastern countries, "those emails are never going to get clicked." Instead, "feedback is [typically] attained by sitting down with senior people of clients and speaking to them."

Likewise, in Scandinavian countries, customer panels may be more effective, since those countries tend to be more "consensual, collaborative cultures," Payne says. "It's really a case of working out where a certain format will work."

Once business owners have taken the time and done the work to solicit customer feedback, it behooves them to listen and respond. For instance, if customers say they prefer to pay with their local currency, the business could use a trusted online foreign exchange provider to help send money overseas.

"Put those changes in the strategy," Patane says, "and then realize that you can't just get feedback one time and think that the work is done. This is an ongoing process."

Keep in mind that discovering what customers dislike is just as important - if not more important - than finding what they like. By continuing to learn about customer preferences and then making an effort to accommodate and adapt to that feedback, business owners can build on their strengths while also building sales.

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