Breaking down the import barriers: How to deal with overseas suppliers

As a UK-based small business owner, the idea of leaving your comfort zone to pursue new revenue streams overseas can be daunting. Linda Kozlowski, head of international business development at Alibaba.com is at hand to reduce the fear factor. Here are her tops tips for dealing with overseas suppliers and creating a successful import business.

1. Overcoming cultural and language barriers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is often the first thing people cite as a barrier to taking their business ventures into markets outside the UK. While crossing the cultural divide may seem like a daunting prospect, especially for those without a vast range of experience and expertise, it is something that is easily overcome and should never be used as a reason to avoid trading altogether.

Don't worry too much about attempting to fully master the language, it is more important to build a solid cultural understanding of your target market.

Familiarise yourself with the basic customs and business practices of your supplier's region, taking into account the daily and weekly working hours (including time differences) and when the country observes national holidays. It may seem obvious, but many people assume other countries have similar work patterns and ethics to our own, so it can be quite easy to get caught out if you're working to strict deadlines or managing supply chain requirements in the UK.

You should also take the time to learn about the varying ways in which business is conducted, as this is a key area where miscommunication can occur. For example, business interaction in the USA is often known for being direct and 'to the point', which some cultures may find quite blunt, whereas others tend to be non-confrontational and work at a slower pace when forming partnerships or negotiating, as is often the case in China.

A wider understanding of the culture in question will help to provide a starting point for this, but the best route is to seek advice from other SMEs operating in the same region. Like-minded individuals are usually willing to share experiences and expertise, and you can generally seek out quite granular advice on different cultural business variations online.

The 'Ask It!' feature on the Alibaba.com community forum is a useful platform for finding answers to these types of questions.

2. Keep things legal

As with all business practices, it's vital that your paperwork is in order and that you carefully maintain all your records. However, as an importer it's also your responsibility to know the import/export laws of the country you're trading with.

Requirements on customs duties, VAT and excise present additional considerations when importing, so it's important to swot up on the laws particular to your chosen market. Also make sure that the terms of your agreement with the supplier are absolutely clear. Having this information in writing will prove invaluable for future reference if something goes wrong.

At Alibaba.com, we frequently offer advice on legalities, however outsourcing to specialist agencies can often prove a cost-effective solution. Expert management of these issues generally won't cost much and will save you the hassle, leaving more time to think about other aspects of your business.

3. Confirm that the seller is legitimate

You should do everything you can to verify that the supplier is both authentic and accountable. It's an unfortunate fact that scams do exist, and some of them can be very convincing. However, it's not simply a case of taking your chances. Before sending money to any supplier overseas, there are various precautions you can take to ensure that they are a genuine business.

Reverse phone number look-ups can be useful, enabling you to see if the details provided match those you've been given. Mobile phone numbers can be dubious, due to their disposable nature, so it's recommended that you only work with companies that can provide you with a landline number. For the same reason, free email addresses could also be a sign of questionable business practices.

It's also good practice for companies to provide references such as bank information and business certificates, so ask for these. Finally, if you are sourcing from overseas suppliers you could try contacting your embassy in that country, as they should be able to advise you on whether companies are legally registered to trade in that region.

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