Export Sales: Sorry, no speak the language: Britain is still being held back by an insular approach, reports Martin Whitfield

Dinner party talk about the legendary failure of British people to speak foreign languages and their apparent unwillingness to want to understand different cultures has a more serious side in business.

While the appeal to 'shout louder' may get you the required beer on a Benidorm beach, it is unlikely to win much acclaim in a Berlin boardroom.

Professional exporters and overseas sales staff may well be properly trained and multi-lingual but they are a rarity in many companies where exporting is left as a haphazard function carried out by various departments.

The corporate equivalent of shouting louder is the point-blank refusal by a number of companies to sell goods in any currency other than sterling or in quantities other than dozens. Book-keeping at home may be simpler as a result, but it does not show much concern for the feelings of the customer.

A survey by the Institute of Export found many organisations - all those surveyed were involved in exporting in some form or other - were not taking advantage of the opportunities that existed and showed a high degree of inflexibility. Even in Europe, Britain's biggest market, three-quarters of goods were sold in sterling, with 9 per cent of companies refusing to sell in any other currency, according to the Institute's study.

Ian Campbell, director general, said small- and medium-sized companies fared the worst. 'We were not examining the practices or views of non-exporters. It is, therefore, particularly depressing to note the number of active exporters who are insular in their approach to currency management, risk reduction and competitive sales practice.'

The 6,500 individual members of the Institute represent only a fraction of those involved in the export process. Executives using an overseas order to fill a fall in domestic demand are unlikely to be expert in letters of credit, currency protection or export insurance. They may seek advice from their bank - the most common source of external help - but the heaviest users of clearing bank expertise were the biggest companies and exporters.

Susan Wilson, managing director of Maythorne, which specialises in services to exporters, is one of those who has experience of the wrong way to sell abroad when she was on the road as an export manager.

'Trying to sell toothbrushes to French hypermarkets in dozens was amazing,' she recalls. 'The last company I worked for took eight weeks to get the goods out of the door for an export order. We managed to get it down to two weeks but that was still too long.'

The lack of professionalism, combined with a cutback in general staff levels in reponse to the recession, is said by the Institute to be one of the reasons for Britain's decline in the league of exporters from fifth to sixth in the world.

Exports have continued to grow, by around 3.5 per cent in the last recorded period, but they are not rising as fast as a number of competitors. About 50,000 companies are believed to be exporting some of their production.

Robin Ebers, director of education and training at the Institute, said more than 2,000 students, a record, were studying for professional export qualifications but there were still many examples of bad practice. Most students at more than 50 universities and colleges are sponsored by companies, although about a quarter finance their own training. A failure to take sensible precautions, such as protecting foreign exchange risks, can lead to one export experience being expensive and not to be repeated. 'Many firms only suddenly realise they need to train staff when they lose money.'

The Institute has begun to market its own training courses on items from using agents abroad to the handling of hazardous goods. Two-thirds of places are taken up by non-members. However, even the employment of a highly qualified, professional export manager is not the answer unless a proper study of the impact of extra overseas sales is incorporated into production schedules. 'There is no point in having three new export sales staff if you won't be able to cope with the increased volume. Very often they go out and sell themselves silly to justify their existance only to find that the company can't deliver the goods,' said Ms Wilson.

The market for export staff has remained flat as a recession in Britain has been followed by a downturn in European markets.

Signs of recovery have been extremely difficult to detect, although a recent survey by Coopers & Lybrand and Export Today showed a remarkable degree of optimism by medium-sized manufacturing companies about entering markets outside the European Union.

The positive result was said to follow a belief that the European market would improve and that British manufacturing goods had become more competitive.

Similar results were seen in the latest quarterly Industrial Trends survey by the CBI. Predictions of new export orders and the volumes of export deliveries are at their highest for more two years. But even companies willing and able to export can remain handicapped by their lack of the necessary skills, particularly in languages.

The seminal work on language needs in business by the Institute of Manpower Studies identified large gaps in skills which restricted activities in one or more countries.

Nearly a quarter of companies said a lack of language ability created a barrier to business. The most common difficulty was forcing employees to use English where it would be preferable to use a foreign language or allowing executives to speak in a foreign tongue when they were not sufficiently fluent. Managers were preceived as needing language skills the most and secretaries the least, while sales staff, not surprisingly, needed the highest degree of fluency. Private and tailored business training was the preferred option to boost fluency.

Virtually all organisations expected that their need for languages would increase during the next five years, with the greatest demand in German and French, then Spanish and Italian. The need to show an understanding of foreign business culture and the ability to be flexible and responsive to customer requirements is highlighted by all successful exporters. As Ms Wilson said: 'You may only get an order from French or Dutch customers once. If you mess it up, you will be lucky to get another chance.'

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits