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.'

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