A Trade Expert’s Wish List for Good Commercial Diplomacy

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Written by Philip H. de Leon, Guest Contributor

Embassies in Washington, DC spare no efforts to promote their country by opening their doors to special events by sponsoring, organizing, hosting or participating in conferences, by distributing glossy investment guides and brochures, etc. Commercial diplomacy is a critical embassy activity as trade interdependence brings people together and reduces conflict risks.

However, once importers, exporters, business development managers or investors are hooked, many embassies fail to capitalize on the interest they generated and to provide practical information. In a world of globalization and increased competition, the embassies with a well-established system to address and answer inquiries will ultimately generate more traction for their country. Here are some basic steps embassies can take to raise their country’s visibility.

A Country Can Be Marketed Like a Product

Each year, different reports come out giving an assessment on issues that affect trade. They may not be the bible by which decision-makers will decide to explore a market, but they are definitely tools that will be used to gauge the potential of a market. The World Bank publishes the Ease of Doing Business Index that ranks 183 economies after assessing how conducive the regulatory environment is to business operations. In the 2010 Index, the top three economies were Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong, China. Of course, the ranking is not necessarily a deal breaker: for instance China only ranks #89. Other indexes constitute valuable tools such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index and the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, a global civil society organization that measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories.

In this context, some countries may be at a disadvantage in light of their average or poor ranking, even though they offer true business opportunities for those who are not deterred by the challenges of doing business in transitioning and emerging economies. This is where a responsive and engaging embassy will make a difference: as the expression goes “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Steps Embassies Can Take to Shine

Simple steps can be taken at minimum human and financial costs such as:

Making information easily available: embassy websites can be loaded with practical information and useful links. If visa application procedures can be explained in great details, certain aspects on doing business in country X can also be posted online. Many calls could be avoided and answered with online information. Mailing lists are picking up, enabling companies to receive news reports as well as announcements on country-related events, conferences, etc.

Having an established A-to-Z mechanism in place to address and answer inquiries: this should start with anyone answering an inquiry: that person should be trained to properly answer or route the inquiry. Making a genuine effort to stir it in the right direction can create a predisposition in favor of the responsive embassy. Making sure that there is no breakdown in communications in the answering process is also critical.

Avoiding cumbersome requests: Oftentimes, embassies will say “please send a letter to the ambassador.” This is a legitimate request for screening purposes, to clearly understand the request, and to dismiss inquiries from people who are simply fishing around without a clear agenda in mind. This said, having to prepare a letter and mailing, faxing or scanning it is a debilitating task for business executives who cover many countries at the same time and have to generate results under time constraints. In the early stages of information exchanges, the lack of formality is a plus. The need for a formalized written request can come at a later stage, notably if it needs to be relayed to higher authorities.

Having up-and-running systems: getting a professional looking email, with an automated signature, and not one at Yahoo, Gmail or aol.com would look more professional. Also, making sure voicemails are not full or email boxes undeliverable would be a nice change for some embassies. Returning phone calls and emails in a timely manner (within 24 to 48 hours maximum) should be the standard. The frequent lack of use of out of the office auto-replies is confusing because companies are left assuming action is being taken when none is and they can become very frustrated as precious time is lost. If any staff is going to be out of the office, even for one day, he/she should activate his/her out of the office auto-reply and state who is an alternate point of contact in his/her absence. Sending a notification when diplomats are about to leave the country or are no longer stationed in Washington, DC and have been replaced by X is a must.

Not underestimating small and medium-sized companies: big company names are not necessarily those that will come with creative ways to operate in more challenging business environments. The telecom sector is a good example of how small foreign companies enter challenging emerging markets like Tajikistan and Afghanistan, build a prosperous business, sometimes to the point that several years later it is bought back by large international groups. Therefore, SMEs should not be dismissed.

Modesty: Quite understandably most embassy staff is very bullish and proud about its country. A dose of modesty is still needed. The lack of trade or tourism activities is indicative that this enthusiasm is not universally shared.

Working Together

Naturally cultural shocks, the lack of customer service culture, and different business style (formal v. casual) cannot be overcome overnight and companies reaching out to embassies need to also show some flexibility. Some diplomats do try to make themselves available. For instance, many use their personal email accounts to handle inquiries because having an official email account it not an option or too complicated to implement for technical or internal reasons. Some even reply to emails on weekends. Ultimately, clearly formulated inquiries increase chances of being properly answered.

Philip H. de Leon is President of Trade Connections International, LLC, a Washington, DC-based international trade consultancy.