Sometimes the hardest part of having international clients is finding a way to connect with them. Small businesses often have to worry about different time zones, different languages, and even different customs and traditions.
While there’s no catch-all, golden resource that can solve every problem a small internationally-minded business could have, there are some easy ways to keep your business up-to-date and in the overseas loop.
Here, we'll help you through the basic steps of interacting with overseas clients, from translating pleasantries to tracking shipments to making sure you don't accidentally call them in the middle of the night.
1. Basic Information
Before you even get started, it’s important to know the basic information about your client’s country. Usually the most thorough and reliable way to bone up is through the country’s official webpage. England, for example, has a good site with lots of information. Unfortunately, most of these sites are geared towards tourism and less so the time-pressed businessperson.
Wikipedia can actually be a great, quick and comprehensive alternative. Wikipedia pages exist for most major countries and include a helpful info bar on the right side of the page (usually just below the country’s flag). This information includes official languages, government make up, population estimates, GDP, currency, time zone and calling code.
Also check out The World Factbook, maintained by the CIA. It includes "information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 266 world entities," according to their website.
2. Time Difference
No one likes getting a business call at 3 a.m., especially when you thought it was scheduled for 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Time zones and time differences can be difficult to remember on the fly, especially if you’re handling international clients from more than one country.
Time Zone Converter is one way to keep all your zones and time differences in check. The site lets you convert any time from a huge range of possible countries and zones. Ever wanted to know what time it is in Moscow, Russia when it’s 11:25 a.m. in Dublin, Ireland? (The answer is 2:25 p.m.). You can also look up time differences on specific days, perfect for future meetings or conference calls that might overlap with tricky shifts in daylight savings. One catch: Zones are described by their central cities, so you’ll still be able to convert even if you don’t see your home town.
World Time Zone is a more graphical display of time zones across the globe. You can either eyeball the map, based on Greenwich Mean Time, look up relative times in world capitals, sort according to continent, or simply type in the place you’re looking for. With an impressive, nearly exhaustive list of cities, if World Time Zone doesn’t have it, it probably doesn’t exist.
Lastly, if you're in a hurry, you can alway use Google. All you have to do is search "time City, State, Country,". For example, if you "time Atlanta, GA" Google tells you the time right now in Atlanta.
Quoi? Qué? Huh? No matter how you say it, it’s important to speak a little of your client’s home tongue. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to pick up some pleasantries without taking a night class.
Some basic often-used options include Yahoo! Babel Fish, Bing’s Translator and Google Translate (complete with its own drag and drop buttons). All three are easy to use, but a little slow when in the middle of a chat, and are best employed in emails. Word of caution: Though the language range is impressive, and usually spot on, sometimes idioms and complicated sentences can throw off the accuracy. For example, the phrase: "So great speaking with you again!"translated into French on Babel Fish reads "Parler tellement grand avec vous encore" (To still speak so large with you again!).
Google also has some translation bots you can add into your Google Chat. By adding a series of coded bots as friends in Google Chat, you can send quick IMs to be translated. For example, firstname.lastname@example.org will translate from English "2" French. This is helpful when you need a sentence quickly, or when you’re typing an IM.
4. Chat Services
Phoning long distance can rack up bills pretty quickly. Free chat services like Skype, Google Chat and Campfire are fast, effective, and accepted ways to speak with your clients. Skype is an instant messenger with a built-in web-video function. You can use it as either a phone, IM chat, or for face-to-face discussion online. After both parties set up an account, the whole process is free and relatively pain free. Also, some phone and portable devices have Skype enabled so you can take the chat service with you. Google Chat offers similar services to Skype, with expanded video and phone options being included.
Campfire is a message-based business group chat and file-sharing service. Campfire has more customizable options than Skype or Google Chat but requires a monthly payment. It is also tailored for people within a business -- meaning it might be the perfect option if you have an office overseas and don’t mind the monthly fee.
Nobody like shipping things, but it is a necessary evil. While you might have to slog through getting your package to the post, a couple sites can help you track how and when it gets to your clients. TrackThis, TrackthePack, and Packagetrackr are online services that let you track shipments by email, text message, Facebook or Twitter. All three sites track major US shipping carriers like FedEx, UPS and DHL Global Mail by looking up your tracking code. Packagetrackr promises all the same services as the other two but will auto-detect your tracking code when you email your shipping confirmation to its email address. And as an added bonus, TrackThisPack has an iPhone app.
6. Cultural Faux-Pas
When dealing with other cultures, it’s important to know what is in good taste and what is considered bad etiquette. For example, it’s best not to invite your Indian client to a steak house without first asking (cattle are sacred for Hindus) or to give your Russian client an even number of flowers as a thank you (even numbers are reserved for funerals). There are a variety of ways to find these customs and traditions on independentsites, About.com or Kwintessential’s extremely helpful international etiquette guide. Often, the best way to gauge foreign customs is by politely asking about anything you’re unsure of.
These resources can help you connect with your international clients and improve the reach of your small business. While this post focused on web-only resources, there are many other resources out there and ways to connect. Please add your favorite resources, hidden gems and best tips in the comments below.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, AlexMax