Winning business overseas: How to ensure you are understood

Whether you’re looking to trade with our neighbours in Europe, or do business further afield, it pays to think about how you will communicate with new markets.

There are a whole host of people and organisations you will come in contact with when venturing into international markets, and language can be an enabler, or a barrier, to your success.

It’s not just about communicating with potential customers either. You may need to engage agents in local markets to work with you, find local suppliers, build cross border partnerships, and connect with the local business community. Language, something we take for granted when doing business on a national level, will play a surprisingly large part in your future growth and plans.

Where to start?

It’s likely that you have a clear idea of the markets you wish to export to. Language may already have been a consideration when exploring different opportunities. If you have native speakers or bilingual employees they can really help you enter new markets; looking at your internal language resources is a great strategy for identifying suitable overseas markets.

Similarly, you may already have contacts in a specific country, such as a supplier, and they may be able to help you with in-market advice and support.

However, at some point you and your company will need to start communicating with people in your chosen market, and although English may be widely recognised as the language of business, communicating in the language of your target market is a necessity.

Being able to say a few words, or have content translated into the right language, opens doors. You don’t need become fluent overnight, or translate every document, web page, or piece of marketing collateral, just get the basics done.

Mind your language

We recommend that you learn a few key phrases and greetings. It makes a real difference when building relationships with other people if you try to communicate a little in their language.

However, if you do need to converse in English be considerate of the other person’s linguistic abilities. They may be more fluent in English than you are in their language, but it may not be easy for them. You’ll need to simplify your language as much as possible so you’re easier to understand, for example don’t use words like ‘commence’ or ‘instigate’, when ‘start’ will do.

Avoid idioms, slang and abbreviations as these will be hard to understand and may not have any equivalent terms in their language. The same is true when translating text for print or digital – you can find more advice on preparing content for translation here.

Remember to speak slowly using short sentences that can be more easily understood, and summarise what you say regularly. If they don’t understand something, rephrase it – repeating exactly the same thing more slowly, louder or with additional hand gestures will not help!

Using Interpreters

To ensure there are no misunderstandings in business meetings, phone calls or at conferences and exhibitions, and to enable a smooth and potentially swifter entry into new markets, the services of an interpreter are invaluable.

If you haven’t used interpreters before, make sure you find someone with industry-specific experience. Interpreters can be a real asset, as not only will they ensure that everyone understands each other; they will also be able to help you do business in a culturally sensitive way.

Where possible meet up with the interpreter beforehand to go through your agenda and discuss your objectives. Ask their advice to ensure that you’re not about to make a major faux pas! More tips on working with interpreters can be found here.

What to translate

You don’t need to translate everything when you first launch into a new international market. For example, a multilingual website is a complex project to undertake, whereas a microsite in your target language is a quick and easy solution while the business grows.

It’s important to think about your digital presence as many potential customers, and business associates, will look online to check you out. Along with a microsite in the native language also consider setting up social media profiles for the market. This may mean looking at different social media platforms as some countries have their own local alternatives to Twitter, Facebook etc.

Consider too whether your personal profile should be localised! If you’re the face of your company in that country it may be advisable to have a bilingual LinkedIn profile and have a set of business cards printed in the local language.

There will be various documents and marketing assets that need translation, and they will also require localisation to ensure the content is relevant and culturally appropriate for the target market.

Don’t forget to translate and localise any presentations you plan to use. This is a common oversight and can be very embarrassing when you realise that no one can understand your presentation. More on translating PowerPoint presentations here.

The good news is that there’s plenty of support available to help companies like yours reach new markets overseas. A great place to start is on the website.

At Comtec we have extensive experience helping companies get started with exporting and developing their international language plans. If you would like to have a chat about your plans and learn more about communicating with overseas markets, please get in touch. Call +44 (0) 1926 335 681 or email

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