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In an increasingly interconnected world, bridging the digital divide probably isn’t a high priority for many small business owners. But as businesses expand into a foreign market, and form relationships with vendors and partners, a gap in technological capabilities can lead to a breakdown in digital communication and productivity.
A recent survey by the World Bank shows just how much of a digital disparity there is between developing and industrialized nations. For example, in an industrialized nation such as Canada, 82.7 out of 100 citizens have access to the Internet; but in a market like Cameroon, that figure falls to just five citizens.
Here are three approaches to consider when helping foreign vendors and partners use technology in business operations.
In an ideal scenario, a business owner would have the opportunity to see a potential vendor’s office or factory in person in order to gauge whether their technology is up to par. However, it may not always be feasible to visit vendors and make in-person assessments. In these instances, it’s important to pay attention to details that may indicate a vendor has shortcomings in the technology department.
Email response time is one of the key qualities that Alyssa Dver, founder and CEO of Mint Green Marketing, pays attention to when seeking out contractors in a foreign market. As the owner of a strategic marketing consulting firm near Boston, Dver works with international contractors and clients that have different email response times based on where they are located. In particular, she says, a vendor who takes longer than 48 hours to respond to emails may be indicative of poor technology skills or access.
With digital communication, it’s also important to take different time zones into account. For example, with a two hour time difference between a business in Vancouver and its vendor in Chicago, a business owner may expect to hear back within a couple of hours. But, if the business is based in Vancouver and the vendor is based in London, it may be more reasonable to expect a day to pass before receiving a response.
“That’s usually a good sign that someone is on the tech bandwagon,” Dver says. “They’re using technology [like email] efficiently so they can be responsive.”
When trying to work around a technology gap, it’s sometimes best to use the technology that a vendor feels most comfortable with. “There are preferred methods or channels that people like to communicate [through],” Dver says. “You have to figure out which is best.” Dver tends to use email, Skype, Google Docs, Box.com, DropBox.com and other digital communication systems when working with people in other countries.
In addition to accommodating a vendor’s technology preferences, business owners should consider ways to make the international payment process a little easier. If a business is using a trusted online foreign exchange service to send money online, it can help both parties keep track of the status of payments. Senders can view payment status from their computer or mobile devices and recipients will be notified via email once the international payment has been sent. Plus, services such as Online FX give business owners greater control over their money by providing full access to their international payment history. Other benefits of a trusted online foreign exchange provider include helpful tools such as a free online currency converter and 24/7 customer service.
Business owners may want to work with their international business partners and vendors so they know how to use the technology that’s available to them in order to track international payments.
If there is a technology gap, international business owners should consider offering education or even providing the vendor with the same technology used by the business, says William H. Saito, L.A.-based founder and CEO of InTecur, an international technology consulting and advisory firm headquartered in Tokyo.
Saito’s company regularly trains vendors to bring them up to speed on technology the business needs them to use. “By providing education, what we’ve found is that these vendors actually become very close to you, and become not just vendors but partners,” he says.
He suggests setting up a weekend workshop — whether digital or physical — for training vendors. “Give them some of that basic training so that they can communicate with you better, whether it’s using Outlook or your online ordering system,” Saito says.
 “Internet users (per 100 people),” The World Bank
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