Exporting a professional services

lessons learned, tips for exporters

betterlanguages.com an exporting professional services case study

Are you new to exporting? If so you may benefit from reading our story, about the process of exporting a professional service.

Although established in the early 1980s, and trading in Spain from 2001-5, the company had very limited experience of direct exporting until the mid noughties.

A bit of background:

betterlanguages traded as a partnership, until incorporation as betterlanguages.com Ltd. in 2007. The company translates into a wide range of languages (over 60 at last count), and works mainly with retailers and manufacturers translating for international markets. Much of the work is technical such as food label translation, which requires a high level of accuracy. Work is sent and delivered online, much communication is by email, and we rarely see our clients, making the business ideal for direct exporting, as we can equally send and receive work to other parts of the world.

A false dawn:

In 2006 the company joined UKTI’s Passport to Export programme, undertook an export communications review, and developed Spanish and German international websites. You could argue that all translation is an export, if the text is to be used internationally, but we were aiming at developing direct exports, alongside our UK business.

In 2006 the business won its first two direct overseas regular customers, both US companies, requiring translation for European packaging into a variety of languages. UK sales were growing quickly with key contracts being won with two top UK retailers, translating international packaging. We took part in a couple of trade missions, and started to look at markets including Belgium and Singapore.

Recession and depression:

The recession was of course global – pretty much, and the depression was ours! We received a few low value orders and enquiries from other countries, and expected things to take off but it didn’t really happen. You could blame the global downturn, but actually I think we had made some fundamental mistakes:

  • We expected export orders to come quickly – the reality was it took much longer, and was much harder than anticiated.
  • Internationalising our website generated website visitors, but not lots of sales. We underestimated the appeal of buying local, even for a professional service which could be delivered online.
  • Online marketing was much easier in English, even for a translation company. Adding pages and updating content was much quicker for our .com domain, we had to be more targetted, had less content, and it took longer to develop the translated versions of the site.
  • SEO was much easier for the UK market, we were able to engage the services of a digital marketing company to help with website optimisation, pay per click, and link building campaigns. Our overseas sites were looking abandoned by comparison, we didn’t have budget or time to do the same for the other sites.

A few wins:

We started to get a steady trickle of overseas orders, mainly in niche areas, where our translation expertise was more important than our location. You could characterise this as “passive exporting”, as it was often in markets we weren’t really targeting. We had orders from France, Denmark, Germany, Spain, China and the US, amongst others. We started to notice that it was easier to win orders where there was a supply chain link, for example as sole suppliers to Mothercare, we were asked to provide translations for one of their external suppliers in Denmark. We were recommended by a UK SME to their much larger American parent company.

Good news:

This year we have export breakthrough, with the US accounting for over 30% of direct sales, why translation for the US you may ask, well like UK companies, their US counterparts need translation to sell internationally, especially in sectors which are heavily regualted such as food packaging translation, medical translation services, and clothing label translation. Our second largest customer this year? A Russian retailer, and yes we’re selling Russian translation to Russians, translating product information and web content from English to Russian, and many other languages. After 7 months trading this year, we have passed last year’s total sales, and much of the growth is down to direct exports.

Lessons learned, and action to take:

  • Its taken time to get established, much more than we expected.
  • Don’t underestimate the resources needed to start exporting, and remember you need to keep your UK business growing at the same time.
  • Easy wins are often areas where you have niche expertise, or a link through the supply chain.
  • Seek advice – we have had excellent support from UKTI, are active members of EMITA, the East Midlands International Trade Association, and our local Chamber of Commerce.
  • Consider Passport to Export, and an Export Communications Review. We really benefitted from both.