Introduction

The internet has flung open borders like never before. We’re seeing e-commerce companies and on-demand services scale rapidly and on a global level. Trucks are carrying more goods, cars are picking up more passengers, and bicycles or scooters are zipping in between them all to deliver hot lunches in 30 minutes or less. Some products and services you can’t see at all, but they’re out there, flying through Wi-Fi signals or mobile data into smartphones and computers in every corner of the world.

The case for any company to sell abroad is a big one. By reaching more people across the globe, you can multiply your sales many times over. Governments are encouraging firms to develop their web presence and export more: the Exporting is Great campaign is a prime example in the UK, and in the U.S., the National Export Initiative has an e-commerce Innovation Lab that offers resources and guidance for businesses to make the most online trade. All aboard!

Simple, right? Well, to a point. We may operate within a global marketplace, but local differences exist in the languages we speak, the infrastructure we use and the ways we interact with each other. A Deloitte study showed that the highest-performing companies don’t standardize everything—they localize. And the key to business localization is to have global platforms with local implementations.

We’ll examine how this crucial component to e-commerce applies both to a company’s infrastructure and communications channels abroad. How does a company reach out or present itself to foreign customers? How can customers reach them? Can you claim to serve local people and meet local needs if you don’t have a physical office in their country? This e-book answers these questions and shows how businesses can best localize their operations and services in order to reach new markets on an international scale.

Step 1: Look like a local

“Looking” local means taking a tailored approach to each geographic market. This involves embracing your similarities—mirroring them in the way you talk about your products and services—and bridging your differences. In a big world with big targets, you need to hone your message to find ways to relate to your customers at their level. When expanding to China, are there any opportunities to promote your product or services via WeChat, China’s biggest communications hub, or Weibo, the country’s most popular blogging platform? A little homework goes along way.

Make it love at first site

AS an e-commerce firm, your website is your business. So it should be dynamic enough to meet the demands of the diverse markets your company is trying to reach. Here are the ABCs for localizing your site:

A) Translate your website

Most e-commerce sites should have off-the-shelf language options, so don’t rely on your users to copy and paste to Google Translate. Be sure to geotag your website so customers in Germany will be automatically directed to your German language site, and so on. Otherwise, users should be able to select their language manually from a list of names—flag icons work, too. And while you’re at it, pay attention to the direction of your site’s text. For example, Arabic and Hebrew read right to left, while Japanese, Korean and Mandarin scripts are laid out top to bottom. While it might require some restructuring of your site, it’s well worth it to have a truly localized online channel.

B) Use a local domain

If you’re selling in Egypt and have a version of your URL with an “.eg” suffix, that shows you’re invested in the area, and it builds trust. While a good mobile version of your site is key for an e-commerce business, it’s even more crucial in parts of the world where mobile is huge, like in Western Europe and China. Also, be sure to accept payments in the currencies of the countries you’re operating in. Sounds like a no-brainer, but this is another big indicator that your company has made the effort to cater to its international customers.

C) Tailor your content

If your website sells multiple types of products, find out which segment appeals most to the country your customers are visiting from. For example, Amazon will feature different categories of products on their homepage, based on popularity within each location. You can also apply discounts or promotions on big shopping days based on location (Black Friday in the U.S. or Singles’ Day in China). Another important element of e-commerce is SEM (search engine marketing); so pay attention to the popular keywords that are most relevant to your target countries.

Establish an offline address

It’s easy to focus on your website, at the exclusion of all else. Don’t let your other communications let you down. Traditionally, having a place for people to send mail involves setting up shop in a local hub, which is a significant and expensive undertaking. But the times they are a changin’.

Today, thanks to the sharing economy, people can share office space around the world, or even better, set up a virtual office that has mail forwarding without having to commit to long-term tenancy agreements. Through companies like Regus, Golden Square and ServCorp (to name a few) you can establish a professional address in a trusted location with access to a global network of drop-in business lounges if you do decide to make an appearance.

It’s worth noting that you can still have a PO box to avoid putting an actual address on a website. But think about it—a local office space or address in Amsterdam would establish far greater trust among the Dutch population than an untraceable PO box number.

Now, what’s a local address without a local telephone number? Time to move on to the next step in e-commerce localization.

Step 2: Talk like a local

Having an extensive telephone directory isn’t reserved for global conglomerates anymore, as the internet has leveled the playing field. Aside from impressing customers with a long list of countries to choose from, the numbers themselves contain a lot of information. As with an address, they can influence the way a customer sees or acts with your company. If your business offers a +44 country code, it must mean you have a physical presence in the UK. Or does it?

We’ve covered virtual mailing addresses, so now let’s explore how companies can provide customer support without having to establish a local contact center in the countries they serve. Step forward DIDs (Direct Inward Dialing). These virtual numbers were originally developed to assign employees a direct number without requiring multiple physical phone lines. Now they’ve evolved to be much more.

Today, thanks to VoIP, DIDs enable companies to have a virtual local presence and can be used almost anywhere in the world. They let you have a local number with agents that serve the region, allowing you to be physically located just about anywhere else. And this applies to country codes as well as prefixes for individual cities.

If you don’t have a countrywide, toll-free number, you can cater to the exact cities where you operate. Rather than expecting your U.S. customer in Los Angeles to call a New York City number, you could at least give an in-state option. Even the smallest e-commerce site can provide local listings thanks to the flexibility and low costs associated with DIDs.

Build trust in numbers

US survey found people were nearly four times more likely to answer calls from local numbers, while they invariably blocked unknown callers and also screened out-of-state areas codes. For most part, the reasons for accepting a local call from an unknown number, comes down to trust.

Locality matters and is synonymous with ease of use and clear lines of accountability. For instance, when something goes wrong or if a product is faulty or just doesn’t look right, you might assume a local company with a reputation on the line would be more responsive than a distant company on the other side of the world. You might equally assume they’d have local distributors at hand and the means to resolve an issue quickly and efficiently.

Having a local number also shows that a company has invested in a given territory and the local population matters to them.

Stop the bounce

The cardinal rule in business is that the customer is always right. This includes letting them contact you on their terms. And yet, despite the amount of money that companies spend on marketing to court new customers, firms will lose the opportunity to win over leads if they advertise a foreign number.

Given that many people have experienced bill shock from calling local premium numbers, one would assume they’d be hesitant to dial an international number, especially if international calls are not included in their mobile price plan. A local toll-free number, on the other hand? That would stop the bounce immediately.

Don’t get lost in translation

Your agents can converse in the native tongue, but also check that they’re familiar with the local culture. It’s very easy to show disrespect without intending to. Here are a few general pointers:

  • Formal vs. informal: Companies often use a casual style when speaking with American customers, but a more business-like interaction is often the way to go for delivering support outside of the U.S.
  • In Arabic speaking countries, it’s customary to exchange pleasantries for up to 5 minutes before beginning the conversation! Cutting it short would be considered rude.
  • The opposite is the case in Russia. You’ll be met with silence until you introduce yourself, or receive a curt “Who is it?” as a greeting. Russians typically aren’t as big fans of phone chat, so make your conversation short and to the point.
  • In Denmark, it’s particularly important to ask if the phone call has come at a convenient time before proceeding with the conversation. But the same should be said for any unexpected call, right?

Step 3: Write like a local

Semantics are powerful telltale signs that you’re either “one of them,” or an interloper with limited knowledge of the local market. Even small things matter, like how you present numbers. Do you partner with 10,000 restaurants or 10.000? Dates are another giveaway. Do you lead with day of the month or month of the year? Get it wrong, and you could cause confusion or perhaps worse, raise suspicion.

You’ll want to be prepared by localizing emails, website copy and snail mail in advance with pre-written and proofread messages. And if you are composing messages or have chat support, of course you’ll want to ensure your customer service agents not only speak the local language but are also familiar with the cultural norms and customs where your customers are reading your correspondence.

When and where to text

We’ve talked a lot about phone numbers within the context of voice calls, but the necessity for local numbers also applies to SMS. Recently, ”application-to-person” (A2P) texting, for notifications, alerts or customer support interactions, have become available in more countries and is rising in popularity due to a 98% open rate (compared to email’s paltry 28%), according to a Frost & Sullivan study.

As a growing communications channel, companies can even further localize the customer experience when they connect with customers using A2P SMS. As with email, these communications can be pre-written and later personalized (with a name or order number) to connect with customers about delivery updates, security information and… you may want to tread carefully here… marketing.

If you’re sending marketing messages, the cloud-based marketing company Signal recommends you should shoot for as little as one and no more than four per month, depending on your industry. And make sure to keep an eye on time zones—you don’t want to connect with your customers in the middle of the night, no matter how helpful your text might be.

Despite the speed and ease of reaching out to customers with SMS, a potential downside is that A2P messages sometimes lack a local flavor. As with voice interactions, the formality of your message should depend on the norms of the country you’re sending them in. And while automated messages are cheap to send from an exotic country, long and foreign numbers smack of spam. Just like with a postal address, customer support phone number and website, you’re going to build more trust with customers if you have your AP2 message originate from a familiar-looking, local mobile phone number.

Conclusion

If you want to sell global, you need establish a local presence where your customers are. If you want to win people’s trust, you have to create a sense of being within arm’s reach. E-commerce companies benefit from being fairly young on the scene and are generally not slowed down by the complexity or costs of legacy technology. With the web as a powerful tool, online businesses can build on a foundation of internationalization and make their infrastructure flexible and translatable from day one.