Once certain countries have been identified as good matches, Ranck has an entire federal network at her disposal. The U.S. Commercial Service has experts at every U.S. embassy overseas whom Ranck can call to find out the key players and trends in specific industries. "Our collaboration is truly stellar," she says. "We trade leads, and we really work well together."
When a company is ready to take the next step, it can sign up for "Gold Key Service," a fully planned customized sales trip. The U.S. Commercial Service sets up a schedule chock full of meetings with prospects and handles all the details that can make international travel intimidating, including recommendations for hotels, translators and drivers. The cost for a simple contact list is usually a few hundred dollars; a trip involving two days of meetings costs $1,000 to $3,300, depending on the size of the company.
Another way to gather overseas leads is to join a trade mission, where leaders of companies within the same industry travel as a group to investigate a promising market. North Dakota, home to a number of agricultural equipment manufacturers and distributors, organized a trade mission to agriculture-heavy Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 2006; Ranck says contacts made then are still paying off today.
But such success stories only happen if the company that has been set up with potential foreign clients has thought through what happens once that first sale is made. "So much depends on how companies follow up," Ranck says. "You can lay everything out for them, but nothing ends up happening. If a company is serious about exporting, they have to put a specific person in charge of it." Often, that responsibility starts out with the owner, but companies should be prepared to hire a dedicated person to oversee exports as sales grow.Companies that are not quite ready for the full commitment of selling overseas can always investigate their options by checking out the U.S. Commercial Service's market research library at no cost. You can search by industry and country to see what analysts say about growth opportunities and the leading companies in that sector. If, one day, you decide to get serious about exploring foreign markets, remember that there are people ready and eager to help smooth your way. "U.S. companies tend to look at exporting as icing on the cake, rather than as a necessity," Ranck says. "They wait for the apple to fall from the tree. I try to push the branch down so the apple is closer."