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By Rom Rudzki.
Exporting is like any other international activity – you are up against the best that the world has to offer. So how do you raise your game to be able to match and then beat your competitors?  Well what applies to the All Black’s, Kiwi Olympians and Peter Jackson also applies to you, as demonstrated by these findings from the New Zealand School of Export through its work with Kiwi exporters and how they compare to exporters from other countries.
The 12 key characteristics of successful exporters anywhere are:
(1) World-class product or service that people want to buy. Xero’s Rod Drury talks about “beautiful accounting software".  If you have a look at it you will see that it is user-friendly, great value and has superb customer support on the end of a phone or email. Compare that to the competition.
(2) Commitment that comes from motivation, which in turn arises from a real passion for what you are doing.  Remember the old saying; ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work another day in your life – because it won’t feel like work!’  If you don’t like what you are doing maybe it is time for a career change.
(3) Skill can come from asking others how to do things properly, and some skill comes from practice – think Dan Carter and kicking through those goal posts or how great chefs work at a dish for months or years to get it perfect. In exporting, coming second is the same as coming last – either you get the order or you don’t.
(4) Asking for help, especially when it’s free and from people who know what they are talking about. There is lots of free help out there from NZTE, NZ Customs, and NZECO. You pay your taxes so use these government agencies for everything from online country briefings and what the import requirements are in a foreign market, to how you can insure yourself against non-payment.
(5) Training and turning professional – this is where you need expert help. For example, the New Zealand School of Export offers an immensely practical part-time Diploma of International Trade that takes you through every step of the export journey so you end up with a comprehensive export plan for your product and your target market. This is what ‘upskilling’ and ‘increased productivity’ means. Successful completion of the Diploma allows you to make the step to Global Trade Professional status. You are then ready to go toe-to-toe with the big fellas knowing that you have the same level of international training as they have received – you now know what they know.
(6) Customer-focus – your business should be built around your customer and not the other way around. The old 18th and 19th century mindset was production-led: ‘We make this, so you do want to buy it or not?’ The 20th century has seen the rise of the marketing-led approach, which asks ‘What do you want to buy?’ and adapts its product or services accordingly. For example, I know it may be hard to believe, but not every nation on earth enjoys pineapple chunks or hokey-pokey ice cream.  The 21st century wont even need to ask as the metadata knows exactly what you are buying and at what price, so companies will target you according to your spend and lifestyle.
(7) Research and Development (R&D) – you need to be committed to improving what you do not only in terms of what you make, but also in every part of your business from design excellence to Lean Manufacturing processes.  Complacency is what led Kodak to bankruptcy after being the dominant global player in photography for nearly a century. Ask any teenager what Kodak is and they most likely will not have a clue. 
(8) Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. This saying by the 18th century Chinese general Sun Tzu, who wrote ‘The Art of War’, applies equally to your business competitors.  It is relatively easy to look at their websites and company reports, as well as do a bit of ‘mystery shopping’ to find out their product range, turnover, staff numbers, distribution network, profitability and a whole lot more. A quick search of social media will also tell you who the key players are and their contacts. Don’t worry, if they are any good, they will have checked you out a long time ago
(9) Play to your strengths and get rid of your weaknesses.  A chain (like a business) will break at its weakest point. The recent problems at Fonterra clearly show major weaknesses in product safety testing, managing recalls and public relations in ensuring that the customer perception of the company is not irrevocably damaged to the point here they won't touch a Fonterra product with a barge pole.
(10) Have a game plan. What is your strategy and is it capable of changing with circumstances as the best strategies do? In the jargon this is known as having an ‘emergent strategy’ rather than sticking to a plan because Head Office told you to, even when the plan doesn’t fit reality. In the words of the TV comedy series 'Spin Doctors' ‘Just because an idea doesn’t work in practice doesn’t mean it can’t work in theory.’
(11) Gather useful information. The best exporters have a way of systematically collecting information from the market on a regular basis and extracting information from it of commercial value – such as, China is opening up 120 new airports in the next 20 years; priceless if you are making baggage conveyor systems (Glidepath) or the luggage and cargo weighing machines that go with them (Atrax).
(12) Reflect, get feedback and start a Continuous Improvement Programme. High performance individuals and teams are constantly examining what they did and how they can do better next time, so think about what you can do better next time and make the changes. Small changes made regularly equal massive changes over time. Eating three teaspoons (3 x 4 grams) less of sugar a day will lead to a 4.38 kg weight loss after a year.
What’s missing from the above list? Natural ability, money, and a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude among other things – you can add your own favourites. Why do some exporters lose their shirt when exporting? Basically because they just ‘give it a go’ and hope for the best. In other words, they are lazy (won't research the market or business culture or the people they are doing business with), believe that the world owes them a living (and is as honest as they are), and think that everybody is as relaxed as those of us lucky to live in God’s Own country. 
Rom Rudzki is founder and director of the New Zealand School of Export. 
Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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