Over the last few years it has become fashionable to speak of exports. Books, courses, conferences, posts, etc. As co-author of the book Export Management I, too, addressed issues such as: the most common mistakes, the business plan, target markets and other methods. This is certainly a good thing because it especially helps small and medium-sized enterprises to not improvise. It seems to me, however, that we talk little about a lesser known but equally important part of exporting: building a good network. In other words, cultivating relationships with people.

When I face a new market or a new industry, the first thing I do is to go and see if any person in my network is working in this field. Very often these contacts immediately help me understand what the crucial variables of a certain field are. Moreover, by using LinkedIn I can see the contacts of my contacts and ask for an introduction; this way the network expands enormously.

But to have a good chance that these contacts reply (often they are people who I have not seen in years), it’s important to keep them “warm”. Today the means to do this are not lacking: a birthday or Christmas card (not generic but personalized), a comment to a photo they posted on social media, a message through WhatsApp, sending them an article that might be of interest, a telephone call, etc. It’s clear that this activity takes time but it is time well spent: we maintain a friendship while cultivating a professional relationship at the same time.

Gradually, as the years pass, this list of contacts should become longer. I have collected them into a simple Excel file into which, besides the name and surname, I indicate the country of residence and the business field. I have several hundred and through a simple filter I can select them by region or field.

I recommend, however, two important pieces of advice: be sincere and make sure you also give (not just take). In other words, when you ask a question always explain the reason for the request, the other party may not wish to disclose certain information. Just as it’s also important to always be available to provide information on the industries/markets you know; that’s how friendships work (in business as well as in life). Relationships must go both ways to be fruitful, otherwise they don’t work.