Key Learnings

  • Carefully consider your target countries and identify whether they need or want the product or service you are selling
  • It’s also important to think about any restrictions or barriers to a market
  • Do not underestimate the value of knowledge of local customs and business culture
  • Know the law

How do I... do business abroad?

Jim Godsal is managing director at Head Medical, an Edinburgh-based international medical recruitment agency which operates in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and the Gulf Region. He shares his top tips for beginning to do business overseas.

Operating in foreign markets is integral to what we do.  We set-up 10 years ago to support the recruitment of UK doctors abroad.  We also recruit overseas doctors to work here in the UK and support UK doctors who are working abroad and want to come home.  International business is our business and we’ve had to be highly knowledgeable about this from the beginning. 

Working in foreign markets can be challenging and there are additional considerations, but diligence and preparation can lead to success.  In addition, you will get to travel, see the world, and experience different cultures.

Plan ahead and map a market

As with many things in life, preparation is the key to success to ensure you are focusing your efforts in the right locations.  Target countries should be carefully considered to identify whether they need or want the product or service you are selling.  We asked ourselves, does this country need English speaking doctors?

It’s also important to think about any restrictions or barriers to a market.  An effective way of gauging this is exploring if there are competitors already operating there and if so, is there further business to exploit?  The existence of a competitor in the market doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid it.  It means there is an existing route to market, and the market may be big enough for more than one supplier.

If there are no competitors, that can be positive as it means you are first to market with your offer and you can maximise the opportunity.  However, it is wise to question the absence of competitors.  It could mean that you are ahead of the curve, but it could also mean others have tried and failed or avoided the market for a reason.  Conducting research will ensure you have a full picture and can make decisions based on sound intelligence.

Identify your customers

Once a viable commercial market has been established, you will need to identify your clients or customers.  In our business, we knew we wanted to target hospitals and medical surgeries.  But in some countries, to reach them, we need to build relationships with ministries of health, medical councils and other governing bodies. 

Local culture is important – learn it

Do not underestimate the value of knowledge of local customs and business culture.  It is critical to securing the confidence of an international customer.  Different countries take different approaches to business.  We do a lot of business in Australia and there’s a fairly informal approach to business relationships, although huge importance is placed on having government relationships in place. 

In the Middle East, the business community has very different customs to the UK.  For example, you only shake someone’s hand if they offer first.  In addition, it is considered rude to refuse tea or coffee in a meeting.  As someone who does not drink tea and coffee, this was a lesson I learned quickly on one of my first visits.  I now sip my way through meetings. 

In China, swapping business cards is something of a ritual and it’s important to participate. 

These are small, everyday things.  But they could be the difference between a single meeting and a long-lasting business relationship.  Business support organisations, such as Scottish Development International and the Department of Trade and Industry can offer advice in this area.

Know the law

Clearly, different countries have different laws.  Our business is built on people, so we need to be experts in visas and the right to work.  We understand this process inside out for every market we operate in – it’s one of our priorities when going to a new market.  If you’re selling a product, there will be legal and financial implications associated with regulations, licensing and standards, and currency exchange.  There are tax implications too, so make sure you know what your tax obligations are.

When doing business abroad, distance can be an issue as it can make it harder to build relationships and gain and maintain trust.  At the same time, being from overseas can give you competitive distinction.  When we call prospects abroad or walk into a meeting room in another continent and announce we’re from Scotland, it is an immediate ice-breaker.  Everyone wants to know what the weather is like!

Contributed by Jim Godsal
Kay Smith
Article by Kay Smith
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