Hawaii Global Links Newsletter
Secrets to Marketing Overseas
Friday, 04 December 2009

You may want to check those fingernails!

What are the secrets to marketing overseas?

If you take the cookie-cutter approach and think that all markets are "more or less the same." Think again.

That's according to Richard Xie, the President of Hawaiian Sealife, and the Small Business Administration's "2009 Small Business Exporter of the Year." Xie has successfully sold a variety of products (toys, electronics, martial arts equipment, tropical fish) all over the world.

"You must consider each market separately and adjust your strategy accordingly," he said. "There are variations among countries, and even variations within a country itself."

"You have to ask yourself:  'Who's your customer?'"   

Take his birth country, China, for example.

"In selling tropical fish to the Chinese, you have to ask yourself ‘Who's your customer?'", he said. "I know that hobbyists are generally males between the ages of 25 to 50. In Northern China, they have a tradition of keeping pets, like birds, and they'll pay good money for their hobby. But in Shanghai, women control the money so that the home market isn't as profitable. But the office market is great, because that's where men can make decisions as to what to raise!"

"In Southern China, including Hong Kong, they're into Feng Shui-it's good luck to have a live fish at home. Some of the consumers don't care which fish they buy, so price would be a major factor in marketing."

Xie feels that it's extremely important to study income levels and the culture. In selling to the U.S. Mainland, he discovered that people in Seattle, Silicon Valley and New York have money to keep an aquarium, but residents of New Orleans don't. "In Florida, they have both the time and the money for this hobby," he said.

"In Taiwan, the leisure market is booming. In Japan, there is a strong culture for keeping pets. They're crazy about fish, and pay the highest prices in the world. But they're extremely demanding. One time I sent a customer a fish that was .25 centimeter (8%) too long, and he complained. Since Japanese houses are small, hobbyists like to keep small fish in 15- to 30-gallon aquariums."

"In Korea, it's best to have your customers pre-pay because there's a history of not following contracts," Xie continued. "The Germans pay on time. But you have to follow their rules."

It's also important to know how you are going to do business, once you have zeroed in on a country.

"In China," Xie said. "For three days, you talk everything but business! You talk about sports, your wife, your kids, food...they want to get to know you as a person before they will buy your product. Once they accept you as a friend, the rest is easy."

Xie has found that the Japanese are great customers, but he cautioned: "If they switch suppliers, they won't tell you why! It's very frustrating. I would like to fix the problem, but I can't find out what the problem is. On the other hand, the Chinese will tell you and you can go from there."

"The Italians and Southern French are like the Chinese--they want to chat about your family and the weather. Once you are over that, they'll give you a big hug and start negotiating!"

Xie is a student of history and feels that knowing history has helped him in his marketing efforts.

"People in nations with many wars and tragedies feel the need to size you up before doing business with you-before they really trust you," Xie pointed out. "It's like they consider you ‘bad' until you can prove to them that you are ‘good.' This is especially true of countries like Egypt or Vietnam, where the people have been oppressed by outsiders."

Want to get paid on time?

It's important to know the culture of the people you are going to be dealing with. Xie studies each country, but he also focuses on individual businesses to determine whether they will pay immediately, or drag things out, or not pay at all.

"I arrive for a business appointment a couple of hours early so that I can check out the potential customers' office, cars, and other things." he said. "I also check out the décor. If everything is neat, then that's an indication that: 1. the executives care about the business' reputation; or 2. the premises are so neat, the staff has the time to clean up and the company is not doing much business-not a good thing."

Xie also pays attention to details.

"I look at their shoes, their hands and feet.  Are they clean?" 

"I look at their shoes, their hands and feet. Are they clean? Do they take care of their nails? If people are too sloppy, they may be too busy, or have management problems. But if they're too neat, they may be very picky and offer too many excuses, and not pay," Xie said.

Xie can vary his approach to bill collecting, depending on how neat the customer's office.

"If the person has a messy office, he may need to be reminded to pay me, as he might have misplaced my invoice. He might be grateful for the reminder. If a person has a neat office, he might take offense if I bug him about the bill, so I'm careful not to push too hard."

Xie also adjusts to his customers educational level. "You don't want to talk too high to someone without much education. And you don't want to talk roughly to better educated people," he said. There are also important considerations concerning entering into a partnership, particularly in China.

"If you partner with someone in China," Xia explained, "You don't want your business to do too well or too poorly. If you do too well, your partner may try to get rid of you and grab the business for himself. If you do too poorly, he may try to get out before he loses too much money. The best situation is when the business has moderate success and sales increase at a steady pace."

In short, Xie feels that if you're going to do business overseas, study hard!

"It doesn't matter how good your product is," he said, "If you want to establish a solid business relationship and, above all, be paid for your product, you better get to know as much as possible about the people you're dealing with!"

Coming from an export star, that sounds like very good advice, indeed.

Last Updated ( Friday, 11 December 2009 )
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