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How to use market knowledge and connections to find customers in new markets.

What works at home might not work abroad.

Woman entrepreneur making soap

By Hailey Eisen


When it comes to finding customers in a country you’ve identified as a promising market, connecting with someone on-the-ground — like a representative in one of EDC’s overseas offices — is a great first step. These individuals can help you navigate the market, introduce you to decision makers, and match you with local business prospects.  

If you’re an entrepreneur looking to expand into Australia, Teri Nizzola is someone worth knowing. For nearly four years, she’s been based out of Sydney, working with EDC as its chief Australia representative, with the primary focus of helping Canadian businesses break into this market. Prior to Australia, she spent more than three years doing the same in Mexico.

“Here in Australia we have a team Canada approach,” Teri explains. “We work together with partners and stakeholders to help foster positive exporting experiences for Canadian companies that are mutually beneficial to the Australian market.”

The process of identifying potential customers depends greatly on the country, the nature of your business, and the specifics of your industry — but there are some universal truths. We asked Teri to share her best advice for any business looking to make meaningful connections in a new market.

Determine who your customers are and the best way to reach them.

Your approach to sales and product management will vary greatly depending on whether you’re selling directly to your end users in the market or through a distribution channel that will sell your goods on your behalf. The first step in the process is to determine which approach will work best for you in the country you’re looking to export to. 

Generally, if you’re the original manufacturer of the product, require longer-term engagement with the customer to complete the sale, and are needed to provide post-sale service, you’ll want to opt for direct selling. In this case, you may only have a few dozen potential customers in the market. 

“The end user will want to deal with your team directly, especially if you’re required to provide on-going support and maintenance,” Teri advises. “Customers won’t want to wait 16 to 24 hours for you to return a call, which can often happen for Canadians dealing with countries like Australia. So, you’ll need to have someone locally who can provide real-time support.” 

Shamira Jaffer, founder and president of Signifi Solutions — a company that provides hardware and software to the automated retail industry in over forty countries — has learned to navigate selling a complex product. “Signifi’s solutions are complicated and require a lot of resourcing to implement successfully. We pride ourselves on being trusted advisors,” she says. “Now that we are larger, we have a lot more dedicated resourcing for ensuring client success and repeat sales.”

“When you’re doing business in a different country, they really appreciate when you’ve done the work.” 

Selling indirectly through a sales channel often works best when the product’s sales cycle is short and simple, the dollar value per unit is relatively low, and the distributor’s decision to buy your product involves a small number of people. This type of selling also makes sense when the overall market for the product involves a large number of end users, and distributors within the channel can sell these products in quantity to those users. 

For example, Teri explains, there are many Canadian consumer goods manufacturers that sell their products through Australia’s grocery stores via local distributors, thanks to relationships fostered through EDC’s Global Business Development team. In this case, distributors handle the on-the-ground sales process, help you understand the competitive landscape, and ensure that your product meets the needs and tastes of your customers. 

Having distribution support is key, but Teri advises business owners visit the country — when restrictions set on by the pandemic allow — to connect with the market directly, explore the stores you’re going to sell through, and get a good sense of what the customer base looks like and how they shop. 

Until in-person meetings and travel are possible again, online resources and events, plus virtual trade shows and trade missions have popped up to replicate these experiences. Using the web to connect with potential customers and to garner a sense of what the culture is like in a particular country often works well, and when travel isn’t possible, having local connections in a particular country is even more valuable.  

Get familiar with local business culture.

Depending on the part of the world you’re dealing with, cultural norms and customs can vary greatly. “When you’re doing business in a different country,” Teri says, “they really appreciate when you’ve done the work.” 

Navigating business practices and appropriate etiquette is an important part of knowing your potential customers. After doing your research, much of these nuances can be obtained during market visits, speaking with other Canadian businesses in the market, and connecting with the Trade Commissioner Service, among other things. 

What has worked for Shamira is having trusted agents in Europe and the U.S. She says, “our agent model has been successful with having dedicated people in the foreign market who know the clients and market nuances and culture.”

Teri advises that some important considerations to include are how and when business is conducted. “Do they hold formal meetings, or prefer to converse over a meal? What time of the day is off-limits? Also, try your best to understand what etiquette to follow during negotiations ahead of time.” 

Familiarity with the local culture is also essential in understanding your potential customers and their needs and wants. Knowing which countries already have an interest in your type of products, which markets are already saturated, and where you fit in, are important parts of customer research. Since tastes can change, staying on top of trends is not only key to breaking into a new market, but also to remaining relevant and ahead of competition. 

Use a variety of strategies to find and connect with new customers. 

Connecting with local organizations and businesses and attending events (both live and virtual) are excellent ways to establish relationships with potential customers. When it comes to getting to know your customer base in a particular market, being there in person, or having someone there in person on your behalf, is often highly beneficial. 

Teri’s job is to help forge these connections, pair businesses with the appropriate events, and suggest potential partnership opportunities. The value of your network is huge when it comes to establishing a customer base, which is why EDC has individuals on the ground in each country with real relationships to leverage. 

“Just this week I spoke with a CEO from Canada whose solution pertained to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and she was looking to break into the Australian market,” Teri explains. “I was able to introduce her to The Trade Commissioner Service and an expert at EDC, while also helping coach her through her value proposition prior to making introductions to local companies.” 

Thanks to EDC’s rich expertise in global trade, these types of introductions and warm leads are what Canadians can expect from EDC in a number of countries. Beyond the Trade Commissioner Service, EDC also works with Chambers of Commerce and industry organizations, plus other ecosystem partners and business networks who can help navigate the ins and outs of the local market and customer base, such as SheEO, WEConnect International, and the Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT).

“There are often other Canadian companies in your ecosystem already in the country you’re looking to export to, and we can forge these connections so you can pick their brains and gather intelligence,” Teri advises. “Sometimes partnerships come out of these connections as well.”  

Trade shows and events are another great way to connect with a specific market, to directly interact with potential customers and distributing partners. From oil and gas and mining events to Australia’s annual ‘Fine Foods’ trade show, Teri is able to suggest the right opportunities for virtually any business. 

And while travel is restricted, don’t miss out on other opportunities to connect. Dannah Davies, founder of Sweetsmith Candy Co., has had success both in-person and online. “Trade shows have always been a great way to find new customers, however there are ways to find customers digitally as well,” she says. “Contacting buyers directly through Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are ways to engage your target audience and build brand awareness.”