|Like explorers, eCommerce sellers are seeking to cross oceans,only with one exception – never leaving the comfort of their living room. In this post, I will cover:
As well as 6 must-know eCommerce customer support growth hacks when expanding overseas:
As he set sail, he could hear the crowd roaring, the royal spanish flags blowing in the wind, the sound of soldiers and trumpets. Giddiness and a sense of hope and excitement filled the air. He was sailing to the new world, on behalf of King Ferdinand of Spain and Queen Isabella. The European colonial machine was hungry for:
Source: The Sunday Times
Explorers like Christopher Columbus craved the adventure and excitement that went hand in hand with discovering new lands and new people. Columbus had actually believed he had reached the Indies described at length by the great venetian explorer Marco Polo, but he had actually reached outlying islands of ‘The New World’, an entire land mass unknown to the Europeans at that time, which separated East Asia from continental Europe. The discovery spearheaded expedition after expedition – all fueled by expansive imaginations, adventurous spirits and a taste for more.
Why consider expanding overseas ?
In the age of eCommerce, many sellers are much like those courageous explorers and adventurers, they are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities and markets to tap into. After all, what is a market of:
- 55 million (roughly the population of England)
- 82 million (roughly the population of Germany) or even
- 325 million (roughly the population of the US),
When the globe has a population of around 7.5 billion people! The possibilities are endless, and eCommerce is growing at an exponential rate all over the world.
Global eCommerce is set to hit a record high over the next 4 years with consumers fueling the growth from:
- China (70.7% growth)
- The US (45.7% growth)
- France (45.6% growth)
- Australia (44.6 % growth)
- Russia (44.2% growth).
The clear leader will be the Chinese eCommerce market which will nearly double in comparison with any other market on the globe! By the year 2020, an additional 1.4 billion individuals will join the ranks of the middle class according to a recent study by McKinsey. Ostensibly, 85% of these new consumers will be living in Asia-Pacific countries, thus creating a huge paradigm shift in eCommerce away from the West and towards the East. .
The bottom line: eCommerce will continue to experience staggering international growth over the coming years!
But what are the advantages and disadvantages of expanding internationally? And what does customer support have to do with said expansion?
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Expanding a Business Internationally
Not all is sunshine and roses in paradise – international expansion of your eCommerce business does not come without its caveats. Here are the top advantages and disadvantages to consider before making your move.
The pros of International eCommerce:
- New land, new opportunity – What is great about taking your products to new overseas marketplaces is that you can potentially be creating new opportunities for your business. The ‘ugly’ red sweater you might not be able to sell on eBay UK, for example, may sell off the shelves when selling on one of China’s top eCommerce marketplaces, Tmall.com. The reason? n Chinese culture, red symbolizes:
- Good fortune
It is also the national color and considered the most popular color in China. You may or may not have known this color tidbit, but there sure are a lot of opportunities to be had in new markets (more on foreign cultures and shopping habits in a bit).
2. Diversification – In business, we prefer to diversify –
When expanding abroad and into new international marketplaces, you come many steps closer to the idolized ideal of diversity. In terms of risk, when thinking about a single-channel vs. multi-channel approach, you will be less reliant on one marketplace. So if you are banned or things go sour for any of a million reasons, you have other options and your entire eCommerce empire does not crash in a day. As far as trend diversity goes, sometimes a product goes out of style in one country only to become the next greatest fad in the next place. Instead of being stuck with inventory because of the local fashion police, you can follow trends to new marketplaces.
Were Joan Rivers from Fashion Police still alive, she would have definitely called this woman out on her ‘fashion statement’, but as they say, where there is a trend there is money to be made….
Pro tip: Check out these sites to discover new trends and products:
3. Cost reduction – When expanding abroad, most folks will be able to significantly expand their customer base and as such will be buying larger quantities from their:
This will allow them to negotiate better prices for larger quantity orders. This means that, the more you expand, the more your profit margins should expand in tandem, not just in total, but on an item-by-item basis.
4. Enhance your brand – Selling in multiple countries can give your brand an international vibe. Your current locale may seem bland to you, but other people may find it exotic.
- South Africa
All sounds run of the mill to those who live there, but it may become key to their brand identity once overseas. A great example of this is the amazing success story of the Australian wine brand known as Yellow Tail.
Picture credits: nickravendesign
In the early ‘90s, Australian wine held roughly 3% of the American market, but by the early 2000s, spearheaded by the then new Australian Yellow Tail brand, that market share grew to a whopping 20%! The main reasons for their success included:
- Using their Aussie novice to charm American consumers with Down Under imagery (see the kangaroo above) and the Down Under stereotypical laid back culture (Slogan: Wine. [The only thing we take seriously]).
- Price also played a big role in their success as they ascertained that $6 per bottle was the price people looking for a cheap bottle of wine were looking to pay.
- In terms of taste, they took out all the bitter tannins and created a flavour profile suited to American tastebuds (think Coca-Cola and orange juice).
- And last, but not least, the screw off cap. When they used this on a bottle of wine instead of a cork, it was pretty revolutionary and suited to Americans who love everything to be easy and accessible
All these contributed to a tiny vineyard run by an immigrant Italian family becoming a multi-million dollar business. The lessons from this case study can be brought over to your eCommerce business when expanding overseas
- Think about pricing
- Needs/wants which stem from cultural conditioning
And you may be able to dominate new markets just as Yellow Tail did
The cons of International eCommerce
- Foreign regulations and taxation – It is no secret that doing business abroad can be a big headache both in terms of laws and taxation. When thinking of expanding your eCommerce business internationally, this is a very serious consideration to take into account. One serious aspect of this to consider is VAT or Value Added Tax. Let’s assume for a moment that you are an EU business selling to an EU customer in another member state. You have to be very careful with VAT issues or your international eCommerce business can be fined or even shut down for violations. When selling abroad, there are certain thresholds. Up until a certain threshold, you pay your local VAT and after passing a certain threshold you pay the VAT of the country you are exporting to. For example, if you live in France, the threshold is 35,000 euros, meaning that, up until that point, you pay French taxes, but after passing that point, you would need to pay taxes to Italy if that is your main market. Taxation and regulations can be daunting and a big turn-off when considering international eCommerce – just make sure you know and understand the thresholds before your items cross the border:
** Please note: I am not a licenced tax attorney – please do your due diligence and consult a CPA before making any serious tax related decisions.**
2. Logistics – Selling in a new country can become a logistical nightmare and can potentially destroy the perfectly good business you currently have at home. If you choose to keep all your goods in your home country and ship abroad, you are taking a risk of shipment delays which can ultimately negatively affect your business and harm future sales. Shipping abroad can be more complicated as:
- Items can get held up in customs.
- There is a higher likelihood of breakage or theft since the distance and number of involved people and modes of transport grows.
On the other hand, if you do choose to store your items locally, there are other considerations including:
- Who will run that facility? You need boots on the ground to receive, package, send out and organize ‘fulfillment centers’.
- What are the local regulations regarding foreign businesses renting/leasing property?
- What kind of insurance do you need to buy?
3. Language barriers – Language barriers are very real and many things can get lost in translation when trying to market your products in a foreign market. Here are some good examples I found on Inc.of faux pas made by international corporations trying to break into new markets:
- When KFC decided to make a move on the Chinese market, consumers were a bit taken aback by the translation of ‘finger licking good’ as ‘eat your fingers off’ in Mandarin.
- When Swedish Electrolux put their vacuums on the British market in the ‘60s, they used the tagline: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’.
Picture credits: The Power of Story by Mitch Teemly
- Marketing anything in Africa can be hard, the main contributing factor is that many people are illiterate, so products tend to have pictures on the label of what’s inside.
Picture credit: The child with the packaging…
Imagine the confusion when Gerber put a baby on the label of their baby food!?
Communicating your product’s value to a customer and handling all customer service needs in a foreign language can be a handful (see customer support hack # 2 for a great translation tool which can help you avoid some of the embarrassment).
4. Time zones – At their most extreme, time zones can be very challenging. Consider that, when it is 3:27 pm in Copenhagen, it is 9:28 pm in Hong Kong, and when it is 2:28 pm in London, it is 9:30 am in New York. These differences can create massive frustration in terms of:
- Response times to customer queries (if it’s 9 pm to you and 9 am to your customer, they may only get an answer the next day).
- Shipping times – Again, an order placed in what is morning to your customer(which he or she would consider one shipping day) but evening to you can create a lot of miscommunication, frustration and disappointment.
Here is a great time zone converter I found online which might be helpful when planning your great leap into international eCommerce:
Above I discussed many aspects of international eCommerce, but what makes this blog post unique is that it approaches this subject from a customer service perspective. So without further ado:
eCommerce Customer Support Hack # 1: Which countries to focus on ?
This is a very hard question to answer and is very individual to the type of seller you are and the type of products you sell. A great way to do this is to gauge interest in your products in the marketplace you have been eyeing. Here are some ideas:
- Run a Kickstarter campaign
Customer support is all about connecting directly with customers and what better way to do this than on Kickstarter? This option is especially useful if you sell or want to sell an item you yourself invented or designed. When you run this type of campaign, you can make a listing for your product and make an educated decision to move into that market based on the quantity of ‘bites’ from a specific region. You should closely look at the reviews and comments. Alternatively, go into someone else’s Kickstarter campaign which is similar to your product and mine their listing for data which is relevant to you and your business.
Here is an example of a motor which transforms a normal bike into an electric bike. I pulled this off of Kickstarter today and, if I were interested in selling a similar product, I would have found out (albeit fairly easily and free of charge) that interest in this product comes primarily from the US, then France, with Spain in third place.
This is the kind of data I can use to decide which foreign marketplace to focus on (in this case, maybe the US on ‘Jet.com’ and France on ‘Cdiscount.com’ – see all 6 new marketplaces below).
Collect data and analytics – Let’s say you currently only sell on eBay but you do not offer free international shipping – I highly recommend you do this if you are interested in expanding internationally since it will encourage foreigners to buy from you and aid in your data collection efforts. What you could do is track which products are ordered by customers from which countries and in this way piece the puzzle together on the whereabouts of your future customers.
Read reviews and correspondence – This tactic is straight out of the customer support handbook. Read reviews and customer comments from your own products and correspondence or from others. This can open up a world of insight into customer thoughts and habits. For example, I know an eBay seller who sold cell phones on eBay and he kept getting messages, particularly regarding whether or not his phones were compatible with German and French SIM cards. After about 10 or 15 similar questions, he not only made it abundantly clear on his eBay listing that they were in fact compatible, but he also decided to sell on marketplaces focused on the German and French markets with major success!
Alternatively, you could use a CRM or Customer Relationship Management tool like Subivi and have all this data collected automatically and then act on it when you feel enough has been collected (more on CRMs in a bit).
6 International online marketplaces to pay attention to
Once you do your research and find out where most of your shoppers are from, you are going to need to find a suitable marketplace to cater to your new international clientele. Here is a list of the top marketplaces around the globe to get you started:
- Jet.com – USA With over 4 million customers and an estimate $20 billion in sales, it’s a unique US based eCommerce site based on an algorithm which provides shoppers with discounts as they shop – discounts increase with every purchase which is a model otherwise known as dynamic pricing.
Monthly fees: Zero Seller fees: 5-15% Active users: 4 million Monthly page views: 10 million
- Cdiscount – France Cdiscount is hands down the largest eCommerce marketplace in France with over $3.5 billion in annual revenue.They have an extremely developed logistics operation with 18,500 pick-up and drop-off points in mainland France and they even offer a fulfillment service much like Amazon’s FBA.
Monthly fees: 39 euros Seller fees: 5-20% Active users: 8 million Monthly page views: 70 million
- JD – China Known to be one of the most effective ways for westerners to break into the Chinese market. JD gives sellers two options:
- You can sell your merchandise directly to JD and they will sell it to customers.
- You can sell items directly on their site for a 2-10% commission depending on the item category.
Annual fees: $1,000 – including local Chinese address and bank account exemption (which is usually mandatory in China as a foreigner if you want to do business there), marketing and logistics support .
Seller fees: 2-10% Active users: 292 million Monthly page views: 675 millio
- Flipkart – India eCommerce sales are set to hit $50 billion by 2021 in India and FlipKart has almost 70% market share, crowning it the jewel of eCommerce retail and making it the largest behemoth on the Indian subcontinent.Caveat: You need a local Indian address to sell on Flipkart.
Monthly fees: None Seller fees: 5-25% Active users: 75 million Monthly page views: 220 million
- Mercado Libre – South America Mercado Libre is the premier Spanish language eCommerce marketplace and covers most of Latin and Central America from Venezuela to Mexico, Argentina to Brazil. It is the 8th most visited eCommerce site in the world, making it the gateway to Latin American eCommerce and Americans of Spanish heritage.
Monthly fees: None Seller fees: 10-16% Active users: 160 million Monthly page views: 32 million
- Rakuten – Japan 80% of people in Japan make purchases via Rakuten, making it the 4th largest eCommerce platform on the planet! Each seller gets their own space to sell on, otherwise known as ‘online real estate’. They encourage sellers to create unique buyer experiences and encourage highly personalized, dedicated customer service as a means of retention and customer satisfaction.
Monthly fees: JPY 19,500 (roughly $175 US) Seller fees: 8-12% Active users: 105 million Monthly page views: 16.4 millionI recommend choosing one international eCommerce platform to begin with. Start with a ‘pilot’, meaning start with one or two items and gauge customer interest, make iterations to your listing or change the item altogether. If one market does not work out as planned, try the next one. When one does work out, slowly but surely add new products and marketplaces. Be very attentive to customer feedback as these comments may have bearing on the entire market.
eCommerce Customer Support Hack # 2:CRM Translation Tool
For argument’s sake, let’s say you determined that France is the next market most suited to your product. Let’s even say that you don’t feel like starting out with a platform you are not familiar with, so you post your item on eBay.fr. And you start racking it in, orders are piling up but as luck would have it, you are getting all kinds of queries, but in French! – and let’s face it, you do not remember a word from your high-school French class. You are getting messages the likes of:
- Livrez-vous la nuit à Paris?
- Votre article est-il exempt d’expérimentation animale?
- Avez-vous cette robe en XL?
- J’ai acheté cet article chez vous mais il n’y a pas d’instructions pour la machine à laver – pouvez-vous me les envoyer s’il vous plaît?
- Cet article est-il en stock?
But you do not understand a word, and using Google translate for every query and jumping back and forth between windows is getting quite tedious!
Enter Subivi eCommerce CRM. This is a tool which can help you manage all your customer support queries and tickets all in one convenient, easy to use place. Not only that, but it has a built in translation tool – all you have to do is type your message in your mother tongue and it automatically translates it into your buyers’ preferred language. It also works vice-versa so all your buyers’ messages are translated into your default language. With Subivi, all the questions you saw above would automatically be translated like this:
- Do you ship overnight to Paris?
- Is your item free of animal testing?
- Do you have this dress in XL?
- I bought this item from you but there are no washing machine instructions – can you send them to me please ?
- Is this item in stock?
Making it convenient and efficient for you to manage communications wherever your international eCommerce expansion should take you.
eCommerce Customer Support Hack # 3: Understanding New Cultures and Markets
I touched upon this point at the beginning of this post when speaking a bit about the Chinese market. In this section, based on a fantastic article in Forbes, I will expand upon the key cultural nuances in the world’s leading consumer eCommerce market: China. Understanding these nuances is key to your brand’s eCommerce success in this explosive market. The Chinese market will serve as a case study for understanding how to run your eCommerce business in the context of foreign cultures. I will be talking about the Chinese market, but the conclusions and insights can be applied in a variety of other global markets.
Chinese eCommerce consumer/customer support nuances
The first thing you need to know about Chinese consumers is that they crave stability while simultaneously wanting to project their success and status.
- Another important thing to understand is that there is a big gap between what people want and dream of being and what is practically feasible. Capitalizing on this gap and providing / being the answer to this disconnection will set you on a path for success in the Chinese market.
- eCommerce = social commerce in China! Everything in China is a show as far as consumption goes. Chinese are different from westerners in the sense that they seek approval from their peers more than they seek individualism. The average Chinese up until the age of about 40 spends around 3 hours a day on WeChat. The main thing to learn from this is that any successful eCommerce business in China must have a social component! Another site which demonstrates this is RED or Xiaohongshu, which is a social media and eCommerce site where Chinese consumers review and rate products.
Chinese consumers take pictures of themselves using these products and share them along with their reviews with their peers. It is the ultimate crossover between social and eCommerce (i.e. social capital). Chinese consumers love to talk about their consumption preferences as a way to demonstrate how unique and sophisticated they are. Shopping is part of their modern identity.
4. Chinese consumers are very emotional shoppers. They have and maintain an online identity which does not necessarily match up with their real-life identity. They feel liberated online and brands who can tap into this have the potential to be wildly successful with Chinese consumers. In China, social acknowledgement is everything. In America, for example, social media followers are nice to have, but in China, it is a sign of status and social acceptance. Brands the likes of Visa and Airbnb have recognized this need and are capitalizing on it. Visa uses the angle of helping Chinese consumers become ‘citizens of the world’ whereas Airbnb plays the angle of allowing them to connect with tourists in a unique way – allowing consumers to express their own unique identity. Brands that help Chinese consumers feel like they are contributing to this multi-layer, multi-faceted social-commercial dynamic will be uniquely poised to claim market share.
eCommerce customer support hacks for the Chinese market and beyond
- Show your love for customers – If it is social recognition consumers want, then give the people what they crave. Everytime someone makes a considerable purchase from you – thank them personally on their social media channel of choice. This could be :
Or wherever deemed relevant. Ask them to take pictures of themselves with the item you sold them and post it and tag them. This will gain you tons of ‘social capital’ points with consumers.
2. Personalization – Add:
- A personalized letter
- Special wrapping or boxing
Make sure your customer knows that this was done specifically for them and that they are the only customer to receive this special treatment. It will make them feel valued and unique.
3. Communication – Instead of using basic customer support templates, try to add a dash of personalization to each note you send the customer. This will show that you care and are taking a personal interest in them. For example, compliment an article of clothing they are wearing in their social media profile picture.
4. Marketing – After asking for permission, use the best images customers have uploaded of themselves with your item on your product page. The amount of buzz you will get from their social promotion alone could do wonders for your brand locally.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, these customer support hacks were derived from the Chinese market, but they are actually applicable internationally. Every modern consumer craves attention, personalization and communication. Try implementing these ideas one at a time and see which work with consumers in your target market.
eCommerce Customer Support hack # 4:Hiring Locals
When taking your ecommerce business abroad, you want to think about hiring local personnel to help with:
- And most importantly: customer support
It can be challenging to recruit and manage a remote team, but you can start slowly. There are plenty of services out there who provide eCommerce businesses with virtual assistants in your country of choice. You can start out with these and build up from there. Some services I found online include:
Once you have a steady eCommerce business set up in your country of choice and a few VAs in place, you might want to consider actually flying over there and meeting your employees or doing more in depth training and getting to know the people who run your business more intimately. Getting to know your team will help foster personal relationships and allow you to more easily understand your team’s weaknesses and strengths.
Learning to manage a remote team can be challenging at times, just take it one customer support agent at a time and remember to:
- Vet future employees carefully.
- Make sure they are motivated for the right reasons.
- Make sure they have customer support experience.
- Ensure they speak both English and the local language fluently.
Something else you can consider is having 24/7 support so that a customer never has to wait for a reply. The best way to do this is to spread your customer support team across multiple time zones. You can have one or two agents over a variety of countries. For example, an agent in:
- The United States
- An agent in The Uk
- An agent in Dubai
- An agent in the Philippines
Obviously this tactic is more appropriate for medium and large eCommerce businesses, but even smaller businesses could potentially have two agents in complementary time zones.
eCommerce Customer Support hack # 5: Localized payment preferences
Different consumers prefer different payment methods. Americans may prefer PayPal whereas Chinese consumers may prefer WeChat. In order to be successful in foreign markets, you have to allow locals to pay for goods using their preferred method of payment. The two main advantages of adapting in this way are:
- Reducing friction in the sales process otherwise known as sales barriers. Thereby making transactions more seamless.
- Reducing the number of customer queries you receive as to additional payment method options. And if you did miss out on one payment option, it will most likely show up in these queries – so keep your eyes peeled for constructive criticism from shoppers.
Here are some of the top preferred methods of payment:
- Alipay or WeChat Pay – These are the top two preferred options in China where shoppers have only recently been allowed to use credit cards issued by foreign companies. These methods of payment have been enshrined in Chinese consumer culture, one can see everyday shoppers using QR codes connected to WeChat, paying for goods on the streets from Beijing to Shanghai. Regarding Alipay, 48% of Chinese shoppers use it and it accounted for almost 55% of Chinese mobile payment volume in recent years.
- PayPal – 237 million people from all over the world have active PayPal accounts. It is one of the first e-wallets which gained unprecedented popularity among users in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia – and is probably the most internationally accepted e-wallet payment method.
- Apple Pay – Is the number one E-wallet in the US and Canada. It sports one of the world’s largest brand’s names, giving consumers the confidence they seek in a transaction. It is also integrated with many bricks and mortar stores as well as with the Apple store and itunes.
- WebMoney – Is the most popular E-wallet in Russia and Ukraine with 38 million global users and 10,000 daily registrations. It has both personal and business options as well as built-in fundraising tools.
- Bitcoin/Cryptocurrency –Bitcoin is a non government backed open source currency which came into circulation in 2009. In September of last year, the Japanese government recognized the cryptocurrency as legal tender. This widespread acceptance is gradually spilling over into eCommerce – the following eCommerce marketplaces currently accept Bitcoin:
- Shopify Stores
- Etsy Vendors
Unfortunately, eBay has not yet joined the ranks, though their senior vice president Scott Cutler showed major intent saying “We’re seriously considering it as these cryptocurrencies become more of a mainstream payment instrument…”
eCommerce Customer Support hack # 6:International Shipping
- As I mentioned above, if you want to start expanding overseas, I think your first order of business should be to offer free international shipping. This will attract international customers and will allow you to figure out where those buyers are from. If you already know which countries they are from, then make sure to write in bold in your listing that this item ships free of charge to that country, for example: **Ships free of charge to Singapore**
- Another very important aspect of international sales is offering free international returns. Yes, this dips into your pocket on the one hand, but on the other hand, it gives the buyer the confidence he or she needs to finalize the purchase. Buying from an overseas merchant can be daunting for a buyer too and as such, allowing free returns signals to a buyer that you have confidence in your product and brand.
- I also briefly touched upon having local:
- Storage units
- Fulfillment partners (such as FBA or Fulfillment by Amazon or fulfillment by Cdiscount)
All these are extremely important in terms of:
- Having your items arrive in a timely fashion.
- If all of this sounds a bit overwhelming, you may also want to consider the option of drop shipping, which essentially allows you to source a manufacturer who produces and/or ships items to your country of choice. A great tool for dropshipping is Oberlo.com (which is exclusive to Shopify users), as well as Yaballe (which works with eBay, Amazon, AliExpress and Walmart), but there are loads of them out there to choose from.
Summing It Up
Taking your eCommerce business international is by no means an easy move and is not for everyone. If, however, you do decide that this is a step you are willing to take or at least look into – the possibilities are endless. Just remember:
- It is important to not stress out and to not be all over the place. Focus on one country and one marketplace at a time.
- Do your due diligence and do some basic research in order to ascertain which markets you want to target.
- Start out small with ‘pilot’ sales.
- Collect information from competitors in order to make more informed decisions based on ‘facts on the ground’.
- Familiarize yourself with regulations and taxation code in your country of choice before making the move.
- Consider using a customer support tool or CRM like Subivi to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.
- Understand customer trends and nuanced culturally based behaviour.
- Hire locals to take care of customer support and consider offering 24/7 support.
- Know your customers’ preferred payment methods.
- Offer free shipping/returns and look into new supply-chain methods.
I hope you found this guide useful in making an informed decision towards taking your eCommerce business international. Please leave a comment with one thing I did not cover, which you feel is necessary for you to learn about in order to move your eCommerce business overseas.
Thank you 😉