There's gold in them there foreign markets

A shortage of language skills and enthusiasm has kept many British firms out of exports. But recent success is changing the scene.

If the current EU wrangling is anything to go by, it seems Britain will always be sceptical when it comes to forging links with other countries. But perhaps the continued success of UK exports, especially into Europe, will convince British businesses that the overseas market is nothing to be afraid of, and assure marketing graduates that there's fun to be had pushing sales in foreign territories.

In the past Britain has been held back by, among other things, a failure to teach foreign languages with a view to furthering business relations, and a belief that the cost of taking products into Continental Europe doesn't justify the effort. For many, the received wisdom is that internal distribution is easier because of the way the UK population is concentrated, whereas across Europe people are more spread out and difficult to reach. But more and more companies are discovering that exporting is beneficial.

The number of UK exporters isn't known, but it seems that the trend is most definitely up. "The balance of trade figures have narrowed, and more people are now looking at exporting, especially toward Europe," says Robin Ebers, deputy director-general of the Institute of Exports. "Sixty per cent of UK exports are into Europe, and now that the trade barriers are down it is all much easier. But the Government is also seeking to maintain our international profile, by encouraging exporters into North America and the Far East. These are buoyant markets, sterling is highly competitive, and people do want British products - they are of good quality and reasonably priced. The setting-up of subsidiaries in far-off countries is also being encouraged - it's what the Japanese have done to us. Thanks to Japanese manufacture going on here, the UK exports more TV sets than it ever imports."

But venturing into foreign markets does mean treading carefully. "Exporters have to look at EU member states as individual markets," stresses Ebers. "They are still independent cultures, and there is a great contrast between, say, Greece and France." He also points out that "when going into uncharted territory, where there is obviously a lack of security, the export salesman has to negotiate a contract which includes terms of delivery and terms of payment. We're here to stop companies getting their fingers burnt in the beginning, so that they're not put off in future. It is a demanding profession, but there's nothing to be scared of provided you learn the ropes."

And there is much to learn, which is perhaps why finding suitable candidates for positions in export marketing is such a difficult business. Lack of language skills in particular is still a major handicap. "Most jobs in export require an additional European language," says David Bodmer, managing director of EMR, which specialises in sales and marketing recruitment. "Few have got one that they can speak fluently. Then, even when they have got another language, it's often the wrong one. You need the languages of the newer targets, like Spain, rather than, say, Germany, where most business people speak English anyway".

To stand a good chance of success, says Robin Ebers, it is advisable to study for a specialised qualification in order to obtain all the necessary expertise. The Institute of Exports is now linked to several universities offering degree courses in international marketing, and he points out that possession of this kind of qualification "demonstrates that you're really up to date with the business." A general nous for business, and the ability to analyse the relationship between culture and market, he says, is also essential.

David Bodmer believes that Britain isn't taking export marketing as seriously as it might, yet there are more opportunities in selling to foreign markets than in expanding a company's share of the domestic one.

"Marketing in the UK is pretty much saturated," he says, "but going into export marketing could be the way to forge ahead and build a solid career in a very short time. The diversity of the cultures and countries you will encounter adds considerable interest to a job which, if you were working within just the domestic market, might soon become rather staid." After all, if it's a choice between Peterborough and the Pacific Rim, which do you think sounds more exciting?