SMART WORKING: THE FUTURE OF WHITE COLLARS?

These days there is a lot of talk about smart working, digital marketing and, now, also about digital export management. Is this the future that awaits us? Or – as often happens – is it just a passing fad, used by some to sell us (myself included) some type of software or seminar? Certainly, the distancing from our offices as well as the change in our commercial habits have taught us new ways of working. Now, however, smart working is starting to weigh on us and we continuously ask ourselves how long it will last.

It must be said that even before the Coronavirus outbreak we were already discussing the offices of the future. Some companies – especially large ones – were experimenting with new types of office work so as to meet their employees’ needs: coworking, sharing desks, company kindergartens for children, etc. Today a new need has been added that must be fulfilled: health and welfare.

I believe that there is no single solution that is valid for all the possible situations that can arise. Just think about the different needs between large and small companies. It will be necessary to let things settle once the emergency is over and then each company will find its own balance over time. But there are still many who say that work cannot only be done remotely once the need to protect health has been covered. There are times in which social interactions are indispensable. A new employee who must get to know his colleagues as well as learn the company’s method of working, a new client we must train on a machine, or an R&D team who must develop a new product. It should also be added that offices are usually places tailored more to the needs of men than of women and on this front, too, we must reflect and find better balances. Low birthrates also have their causes here (in addition to the selfishness of the men and women of these times).

It must be said, though, that leaving home delineates the dividing line between our work-life balance of which we feel a deep need. Therefore, a working week divided between a few days in the office and the others in smart working is considered – ultimately with benefits for traffic and pollution, too.

If you want to further explore these issues then I would suggest reading “Is it the end of the office?” in issue N°. 1365 of Internazionale.

EXPORT TRAVELS ONLINE

Export travels online is the title of a training course organized by Punto Confindustria which will begin on June 24th. I am one of the speakers together with my colleague, Claudia Zarabara.

I have always been an advocate for the importance of having priority markets to focus on. I have seen many small businesses shoot proposals off wildly in every direction in the hopes of landing a client, with the end result of not having a significant presence in any market. Today it is in fact necessary to invest more time and resources towards the collection of results; think about the costs of trade fairs and business trips, for example. However, these two activities are currently frozen. This, therefore, opens up a new scenario: our salespeople forced into their own offices where – in addition to maintaining contacts with existing customers, of course – they can also explore new markets. Without big investments.

Obviously, the place to do this scouting activity is online; what is less obvious is how to carry out these activities. Hence the idea of ​​this course. Here are some of the key elements I will cover:

  1. First of all we start with a ranking of the most attractive markets for my products, focusing on those where we are not yet present.
  2. Then the competitors in that market are analyzed; something we always do too little of! We must study both their physical presence (local offices, distributors or agents) but also through various digital marketplaces; something that today is increasingly important, even in b2b.
  3. In the third step, we are going to build a list of contacts in these markets. Maybe we will use the occasion to also test a CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) program. If you have never used this tool I suggest Teamleader; by clicking this link you can test it for 2 weeks at no cost.
  4. Then we will make a small investment by preparing the material needed for an initial approach, all translated into the languages of these new markets: email, company profile, a landing page of our site, a company page on LinkedIn, etc. In this phase we will also evaluate the presence on one or more of the marketplaces that are most frequented by my competitors.
  5. Finally the operational phase. With 3 simple tools we will initiate a first contact: email, phone calls and through digital channels (such as LinkedIn).

We mustn’t neglect to also consider entry through a Resident Export Manager. It does have a cost, but if we find the right professional it has many advantages: in addition to linguistic and cultural mediation, you can physically visit potential customers/distributors. In 10 years of activity I have built a good network in many markets.

We obviously don’t expect everything to be easy! But the better we have set up our showcase (point 4), the more likely we are to succeed. As the saying goes, “you never have a second chance to make a good first impression”.

If you want to deepen these themes you can read my book EXPORTING IN 7 STEPS.

MY QUARANTINE

The coronavirus has forced us into a long quarantine. A sudden change of habits, not at all easy to accept. “Out of the blue our ordinary habits have become wonderful and extraordinary. Funny that normal becomes extraordinary.” (Ilaria Capua, virologist) However, it must be said that this setback has also taught us some things. Here are the ones I learned:

  1. I have had more time for family, for reading and for thinking. Then, through webinars – both held and attended – I also had the opportunity to meet new people.
  2. I learned how to manage a webinar. I was a speaker at 16 webinars: I didn’t earn anything, but I got visibility and learned a new way of working. I even wrote a post on the subject. Then, in late April, a Sicilian entrepreneur called and I made my first remote consultation. Thanks to the company Camena Marmi for placing their trust in me!
  3. I understand that e-commerce is an unstoppable phenomenon, not only in B2C but also in B2B. As Sylvie Kauffman wrote a few days ago in Le Monde “…The US technology giants will be strengthened even more, so much so that in the end they will be among the big winners in this crisis…”
  4. I understand that a global production system that is too dependent on China presents many risks. And I’m not just thinking about the lack of surgical masks. It is never a good idea to have a single supplier.
  5. I used the car less. An insurer friend told me that in half a day he did the same amount of work he previously did in a full day. By using email, the phone and video calls, it saved time, money and polluted less.

I think many of us have learned something new, but I fear that when we return to normal we will dive headlong back into our old habits, and the lessons learned during the quarantine will be forgotten. Instead, it would be time – as someone said – that in our companies the P of profit be multiplied by 3: People, Planet, Profit.

Obviously I can’t forget that for many small and medium-sized enterprises the quarantine will have a heavy impact on turnover and business continuity. I believe that as the virus has been harder on the weaker population, so it will be in the realm of production and sales. The companies that are already weaker will be those most exposed to the negative effects of this long quarantine. They should be helped immediately, with economic-financial “oxygen”. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet found a vaccine against bureaucracy.

AND SUDDENLY, HERE COMES HOME-OFFICE

The arrival of the Coronavirus forced us to start home-office, basically overnight. Our offices have moved into our homes, making us discover that many of our daily activities can be done from here: video calls, online meetings, school lessons and webinars. I myself have already done a round of 4 webinars for small and medium-sized enterprises on the topic of exports and I plan to do more in the coming days.

Having, therefore, experienced firsthand how people participate in these meetings, I will share some simple and semi-serious reflections:

  • If you participate in a webinar, don’t think that the others can’t see you; so avoid doing things you wouldn’t do in a conference room.
  • Just because you are at home doesn’t mean you should dress for home. Many meetings are still business meetings and one should present oneself as if one had to “really” meet people (at least from the waist up).
  • The lighting must be adequate. I see people in dim light – almost like a blackout in a war zone. And considering the times we are living in, this increases anxiety. Check the view before
  • Center your face in the middle of the screen but not in a close up. I’ve seen huge faces (close-ups at my age are horrible!) or webcams aimed at the forehead and the ceiling.
  • Headsets help you not hear everyday household noises: the telephone, a slamming door, someone shouting, “I’m going out shopping” (“Remember to take your permit!”), not everyone else. If you can, close the door
  • Use virtual backgrounds with caution so as to not pass off as someone with delusions of greatness (the city at my feet), or of the faux intellectual (mountains of books behind them). I prefer my studio – neat and in order, of course.

In other words, let’s not forget that working in home-office “mode” often leads us to meetings that are, in actual fact, business meetings. We’re not calling our child who works in London. It must also be pointed out, though, that bringing customers into your own homes can also help personalize a working relationship. Not a bad thing, if managed well.

So let’s welcome these new habits. Today they are essential but I believe that they will also enter into our future work habits, benefiting both traffic and, therefore, the environment.

Was the fair where you met distant customers whom you only saw once a year cancelled? A video call is a way of warming up your relationship with these customers, distributors or agents. In fact, those who study language say that non-verbal communication weighs between 30 and 50% in a conversation. A phone call with the distant customer would therefore not have the same effect as a video call. Unless we show up in pajamas.

CORONAVIRUS. I AM FINE AND I’M WORKING

Recently I received an email from a Polish friend: How are you? We receive information about the growing number of coronavirus-related cases in northern Italy. So if you think you need to go with your family from Schio, and spend some time away from danger, let me know. I am happy to help you organize your stay in Poland. It’s safe here so far. I replied: Thanks, for the moment I am fine and I’m working.

This week I work for 4 companies in the province of Vicenza (in the Veneto region). For three of these I will carry out 12 hours of consultancy for export development projects. They are companies in the mechanical, mouldings and food sectors. For the fourth I will develop business and conduct other activities in the role of Temporary Export Manager. The latter – which produces furniture – will ship to Austria, Slovakia and Israel in the coming days.

Personally, I am fine and have just returned from a short holiday with my wife in Madrid. The selfie you see I took myself this morning in my office.

I believe that in recent days the media have exaggerated in describing the situation in our area. As the editor of the online magazine Internazionale Giovanni De Mauro writes in this week’s issue: Much of the journalistic coverage tends to describe the fear of public opinion rather than to inform what is happening from the point of view of the spread of the virus…Like other emotions, fear is contagious and can be transmitted quickly. Risking, among other things, to accelerate the proliferation of false information… The fact that we are all constantly connected only served to amplify the event.

The spread of coronavirus is certainly an exceptional situation that is causing a lot of inconvenience to my business too. On Tuesday, February 25th I was supposed to hold a workshop on my book Exporting in 7 Steps at the Mantua API – which was postponed. The meeting will be held on 8th of April.

So I think it would be wise to keep a cool head and avoid crowded places for a bit more, but life must go on.

IT’S A SMALL WORLD ON THE WEB

Let me tell you about a recent experience I had that made me reflect on how small the world is on the Web. A few days ago, a small artisan company contacted me by writing the following: I would be pleased to meet you and possibly start a collaboration for generating exports. I discovered that the company is located in my city (Schio) and so the next day I went to see them. They make a product that is mostly handmade but they dedicate little time to the commercial-marketing side; they already export – but not enough. This is exactly my job, and it seems to me that we hit it off immediately. Before saying goodbye, I ask how they found me. I imagined an answer like: I heard about you from a fellow entrepreneur (in the province of Vicenza I have collaborated with more than 60 companies), or: I saw that you wrote a book on the subject of exporting (Exporting in 7 Steps). Instead the answer was: I found you on Xing…  Did I hear that right?!

For those who don’t know, Xing is a professional social network (like LinkedIn) created in Hamburg and aimed primarily at German-speaking operators and businesses. In other words: an artisan company from my city – a company that is located 6.7 km from my office – found me on a German social network!

Years ago, I created a profile on this network because Germany is one of the primary markets in which I work. The aim was to identify potential agents or distributors on behalf of the companies with which I collaborate but I never thought that this presence would give me the visibility to help me meet a small business in my city. I think we can say that it is a small world on the web!

Conclusions:

  • In the Digital 2019 study, it is estimated that the global daily average spent on the web is 6 hours and 4 minutes (Italy is slightly below this average). We certainly spend more time in the virtual piazzas of the web than in the piazzas of our cities (we used to go out to buy the newspaper; today there are no more newsstands).
  • It is important that this presence be cultivated; that is, that we stand out. On Xing (as well as on LinkedIn) I write an article once a month. As my friend and colleague Giorgio Venturini says, LinkedIn (and social networks in general) are useful not only for finding contacts, but also for being found. But to be found it is necessary to have an online presence made of content – intelligent content, if possible.
  • Since these activities require skills and time, a small business has to make choices. Once we have decided in which markets we want to sell, we must then consequently choose which virtual piazzas to attend, investing time to get noticed.

On the topic “how to build an effective online reputation”, I would like to highlight an interesting conference with Riccardo Scandellari, in my city, on March 6th: Personal Branding. Today (Il Personal Branding. Oggi)

A training event for companies and professionals organized by Diskos, a specialization school for business communication in which I teach.

TIME, A POOR RESOURCE IN SMEs

In my export development consultancy business I teach companies how to find customers or distributors in new markets. The business owners are always enthusiastic at first but then they tell me: it takes too long, I can’t continue do this search with all the things I have to do! The moral of the story is that I can bring the skills, however, once my involvement is done you risk reverting back to working in the usual way; inundated by the daily workload that always seems too much.

One of the problems is that in SMEs there are few human resources dedicated to commercial and marketing activities. Sometimes it is believed that using interns can make up for these shortcomings, but it is obvious that this cannot be a solution. So – what to do?

One tool that forces you to change the pace is the introduction of a CRM (Customer Relationship Management). Last year, four companies followed my advice and I found that they benefited from it. Especially when used with good training and then integrated with other functions: e-mail, sending newsletters, LinkedIn, etc.

When I hear about a short work week or working from home I feel like I’m on another planet. Yet this is the trend. In Germany, a business owner proposed a 5 hour workday, provided that the rules of conduct were respected. One that stands out was that mobile phones be turned off.

I would like to conclude with a reflection by Enzo Bianchi, founder of the monastic community of Bose: today, more than in the past, we live under the tyranny of time: but we can fight it and resist it if we give ourselves priorities in the things we have to do, if we know how to organize our time and, above all, if we refuse to “do a lot of things” and, first and foremost, try to live life.

If you are interested in deepening customer-distributor research abroad, you can read my book Exporting in 7 Steps

DORMANT CLIENTS

I often work with small and medium-sized companies that have been on the market for decades and that have a customer database with several hundred names – the result of their many years in business; most, however, are dormant clients. That is, customers who have bought in the past but no longer do: they used to buythey changed buyers and no longer deal with usthey told us that we were too expensive … etc. In most cases, however, no one bothers to see if any of these customers can be “awakened”.

Some of them probably don’t even exist anymore, but nobody in the company seems to have the time – or the patience – to go and check if any customers are still open and if they can be interested in our products given that, in the meantime, many things may have changed: the buyers, the market, the suppliers, etc.

Here are some brief tips to carry out this “client awakening” activity:

  • Newsletter: this direct marketing tool is certainly abused today, especially in B2C. However, I am convinced that a few newsletters a year – well done and with interesting content – are a useful way to keep all our customers (new and old) informed of what is going on in our company: a new product line, a new machine, a collaboration with the university, 50 year business anniversary, etc.
  • Christmas greetings: if sent in a personalized and non-standard way (instead of one-mail-for-all in blind carbon copy (bcc)) they are very useful. It is obvious that sending them one by one, with the right word for each one, takes time. But business is, by definition, an investment of time! You just need to organize yours properly: I start writing them in October, I save them in draft form and then send them all a few days before Christmas (as I’m doing these days).
  • LinkedIn: it is increasingly popular and many of our old contacts may be found here. Ask them to connect – again, with a personalized message!
  • CRM (Customer Relationship Management): this tool can also help us organize customer relationship activities. It is almost always possible to integrate it with e-mails, LinkedIn and newsletters. Thus, it becomes a nice dashboard; to avoid the risk of losing some sheep from your flock.

All these activities – to which I have dedicated only a few lines, but which could be discussed in even more detail – obviously applies for both: keeping existing contacts active (and preventing someone from falling dormant over time), and to re-activate dormant clients.

A new year is about to begin and commercial activity becomes increasingly important because the markets are characterized by growing hyper-competition. I suggest, then, to those who hold this role in the company to try to awaken dormant customers, because it is an activity that requires less investment but can give more immediate results compared to going in search of new customers … which must be done anyway!

I talk about these issues in my book: Exporting in 7 Steps

BUSINESS IDEA MADE IN GERMANY

Last month I talked about how, with my business, I often meet companies with a success story in Italy but struggling to replicate this model in other countries: The Business Idea. I tried to explain this situation by using Richard Normann’s Business Idea model: the product and the organization were modelled on the Italian market and do not work as well if they are used – as is – in other markets. A few days ago, however, I happened to meet an italian company in the furniture components industry with the completely opposite problem but which, once again, confirms the accuracy of this model in reading the stark reality.

This company has had Germany as its main market for many years with turnover in this country around 90%. However, besides this important market, the company has had difficulty in building a strong position in other markets – including Italy. It must be said that a little bit of this is the result of the business choice: Italians in this sector often do not reward the price vs quality ratio that is chosen by the company, preferring to rely on the area’s craftsmen. However, management told me that they had recently had a visit from a potential customer from the Veneto region and he seemed interested in their semi-finished product. After a few weeks, however, having failed to contact them back, they called him and found out that he had been impressed with the product, but he hadn’t liked the approach used by the company’s Key Account Manager: You asked us a lot of questions!

The company’s salesman explained to me that he had, in fact, used the same approach he uses in meetings with their German customers: in the beginning the most important thing is to understand the customer and his needs in order to offer the best solution. Obviously, however, this overly-German approach was not appreciated by the prospective Italian client who had felt as though he was being interrogated.

The fact once again highlights how cultural aspects are important when approaching a new market. In this specific case, our Key Account Manager’s experience was formed on the German market which has very different characteristics from the Italian one. Very often, German clients have a high technical preparation and they literally split the hairs 4 ways when it comes to product knowledge. Ergo, it is necessary to be well prepared. Furthermore, their communicative style highly favors frankness and straightforwardness as opposed to diplomacy. For anyone not German, this way of doing things is mistaken for rudeness.

I have no doubt that the company has marked this down as a learning experience and that our Italian-German Key Account Manager will have a different approach with the Veneto-area prospect next time. But the fact once again highlights how it is necessary to adjust your aim on organization and, very often also, on the product as well, when facing a new market.

THE BUSINESS IDEA

This year I collaborated with 10 companies on the project promoted by FarExport and the Vicenza Chamber of Commerce, “Exporting in together 7 Steps”, inspired by my book of the same name.

Some of these companies had the common characteristic of having been successful on the Italian market, but of not having been able to satisfactorily develop their exports. Their turnover in Italy was 90% or more, while the remainder was divided among many markets without having a significant market share in any of them. In other words, the business owner had managed to build a success story on the Italian market, but had failed to replicate it abroad.

Often at fault are the export managers who, according to the business owners, are not good enough. During my collaborations I have worked closely with them and can say that in most cases the fault is not theirs. The causes of the failure are to be found elsewhere. There is an initial mistake that is made when a company tries to replicate the Italian success model abroad.

Here are 3 examples:

  1. the best-selling product in Italy is often not the same one in the other markets, but the company continues to emphasize and invest in this product (for example the product is always in the foreground on the home page of their website).
  2. the company catalogue is ready with a timeline that is designed for the Italian market but is often too late for other markets.
  3. certifications that are good in Italy are not the same for many other markets. One company discovered this when the goods were already in customs in the USA, thereby paying high storage costs and eventually destroying the goods.

It was 1977 when Richard Normann – a well-known consultant on business development issues – proposed a model for interpreting successful entrepreneurial cases that is still relevant: the Business Idea. It defines it as a system of coherences between product, organization and market, which allow the company to dominate a niche market.

As the Business Idea model explains, success on the Italian market is explained by the system of coherences between the 3 elements: market, product and organization. In particular, the product and the organization have been modeled on the Italian market. However, if one of these 3 elements changes, in our case the market, the system no longer works and must be thoroughly rethought.

I talked about these themes in my post “Export Strategies for 2019’”