Last reviewed 17 November 2021

Digital technology has caused considerable changes to the way that most exporting companies communicate with their customers, distributors, agents and other significant players. The ability to communicate by just touching a few keys, regardless of where we are, really ought to make it easier to build effective networks. But some people overlook the small details, often with damaging results.

The most important thing to understand is that networking doesn’t just happen. It’s the manager’s job to create, feed and nurture the network that delivers results. The technology may have changed, but the objectives haven’t.

What is a network?

A network is something that can deliver. It’s a means of sharing information, ideas, opinions and experience and we all use networks without thinking about them in our daily lives. Car won’t start? I know a mechanic. Need financial advice, or worried about my health? I know who to talk to.

In exporting, we need to build networks, feed them and direct them. We need a clear idea of where we want to be and what we plan to achieve. We also need a decent technical understanding of the tools. Social media, online facilities, email, texting and even the humble telephone are all part of the networking toolbox that we can use to make our network effective. But only we can make it happen.

Who?

Effective export networks involve a range of individuals, usually spread across a very wide area. Some work for the business, some are customers, some provide external services or guidance. An essential first step to building an effective network is to consider who should be part of it. Much of it should be obvious. We probably start with people in our own company or organisation. Exporting may already have its own team, with specific roles such as sales and logistics. Who else has a vital internal role? What about directors and senior management? Their support and strategic input can be vital. And what about finance, production, despatch? Think carefully about who has a role; it’s easy to overlook people, but everyone we exclude makes the network weaker.

Now think externally. Distributors, commercial agents, obviously. Perhaps we have direct customers too. What about support functions? Do we use any outside consultants? Do we have a contact at the bank who gives us advice, or a useful name at the local Chamber of Commerce who helps us get the documents right? Do we use any other external people or businesses, such as trainers to help distributors to acquire the necessary product knowledge?

Now here’s the tricky part — who’s missing? What don’t we have that could make a difference? I remember realising that I was very short of people in my region who could train people in using our products. One distributor had a very effective trainer. Could I borrow him from time to time? The answer was yes, and he made a huge difference to our efforts to build our export business. The chances are there will be some gaps in the network. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can make a difference.

Objectives

A network isn’t a network unless it has a purpose. It’s the manager’s job to set the objectives, define people’s roles and to make it happen. We need to be very clear about what we want to achieve. More sales, that usually goes without saying, but what goes with that? Brand recognition? Publicity? Positive reviews? What does everyone need to do to make it work? How can they help each other? An effective network needs a careful plan that fits with an overall strategy.

How?

A network is capable of so much, but it needs to be managed proactively to reach objectives. An effective network can contribute to general wellbeing, such as building morale and encouraging people to co-operate on problem solving. Look for ways to encourage people to use the network in pursuit of the goals they’ve been assigned and also to share experiences and ideas. It might be helpful to look for opportunities to get the ball rolling by sharing ideas and questions or encouraging others to do the same.

Digital networks

Now we can look at how digital tools can help. Internet communication has obviously made deep and lasting changes to the way that international trade happens. Numerous facilities have become available that can help our network, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. All of these are potentially valuable, but they’re not networks in themselves. Each has its own features and benefits and it’s worth giving thought to how you want to use each one, if at all.

LinkedIn is a network for professional businesspeople and is widely used in recruitment. But it can also host “closed” groups, which can be a useful place to share information and ideas that may need fleshing out with other people’s experiences and thoughts. LinkedIn is a potentially useful place to get noticed by potentially useful people such as distributors and representatives. Look out also for complementary groups such as groups related to your products or markets. But avoid trying to use LinkedIn as a place for blatant sales pitches — they usually go down very badly.

Twitter is intended for short messages and links and is intended to be peripheral. A network can use Twitter by adopting a unique hashtag, such as #wilsonspowertools for example. A group of people already working together can notice each other’s Twitter activity, perhaps like or share it and build momentum. Twitter is best used frequently for short messages. Use eye-catching images to get noticed.

Instagram is essentially for sharing images and videos and has become increasingly popular as a platform for business to business. Look at how others are using it and work out a technique. It doesn’t work for everyone.

Then we come to online meeting facilities such as Teams and Zoom. These platforms have become invaluable while the opportunity for international travel has been so limited, and I suspect will be largely retained. Meeting online is a very different experience to exchanging emails and talking on the phone. Arrange regular meetings where they might be useful. I’d tend to err on the side of too much rather than too little at first, frequency can always be reduced if appropriate. If communication about something is becoming complicated or fractious, take it online. More than anything else, online meetings used well can come closest to replicating an office experience.

Be sensitive to the needs and preferences of the group. Some people are not confident taking part in a group talk, especially if English isn’t their first language. On the other hand, some people learned to speak English through talking and are not so confident with the written word. That’s why it helps to mix it up and use a variety of media. Try to monitor how others in the group prefer to communicate with you and take careful note of who may not get the full benefit of certain activities.

Above all, don’t view digital media as an end in themselves. Setting up online groups is just the start, encourage people to use them and be responsive and positive when they do. Naturally, digital networking doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings and I don’t think it ever will. But it’s simple, it’s instantaneous and is mostly free to use. Make sure it’s working for you.