Body_Overseas.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Ever heard that old saying about the language of business being universal?


Anyone who’s been stumped while trying to de-code a company’s website in another language knows the folly of that exercise. Unfamiliar phrases, confusing Web navigation, and an entirely different currency—many sites aren’t exactly intuitive in their native tongue, let alone for a buyer on the other side of the world. 


But wait: What does your company’s website look like to overseas customers?


There’s a huge world of ecommerce out there—global online sales are reported to have reached $961 billion in 2011, an increase of 20 percent from a year earlier. A historically weak U.S. dollar has Washington pushing to double exports in the next few years, and the percentage of growth has surged in several developing markets, such as Turkey, Brazil, Panama, and Russia.


So how can a small business best welcome online customers from another country? Rolling out the Web technology may be the easiest part of the international red carpet.


Here are a few tips from pros that have transcended borders with their sites.


PQ_Overseas.jpgStart with one new country

Adrian Salamunovic has two e-commerce websites that deal in four languages and dozens of fluctuating currencies in around 50 countries. In 2005, he and his partner, Nazim Ahmed, co-founded DNA11, a now-50-employee company that turns images of customers’ genetic sequences, fingerprints, and other individual biomarkers into framed, artistic portraits. (You may have seen their work on CSI: NY; they also own CanvasPop.) His advice for other small businesses: Pick the lowest hanging fruit.


“First, the good news: Never in the history of mankind has it been easier for a small business to become global. And two, it’s never been more inexpensive to do it,” Salamunovic says. He suggests finding that new audience by first looking at where your foreign customers are coming from: Google Analytics’ figures on your site should show the second-biggest national source of Internet users checking out your website—and that’s where to begin. He says small business owners should consider those missed customers a lost opportunity for growth. “If you look and see 2,000 hits from people in France, going by even a standard two-percent conversion rate—that’s several thousand dollars in business you’re missing every month,” Salamunovic says. “When you are able to show that country’s flag at the top of your site, it’s like a big, warm hug to those customers.”


Translate your site—carefully

It’s crucial to have a native speaker read your new site and edit it, but it’s equally important to have someone who knows the current culture for marketing purposes, says Ora Solomon, vice president for sales and operations at Acclaro, a localization and translation agency based in Irvington, N.Y., with capabilities in more than 60 languages. “When it comes to the Web, there’s really no concept of borders right now, but there are still certainly big differences,” she says. Translators come in many forms—with specialties in marketing, medical services, software, and cultural trends—so it’s also critical to use someone familiar with the audience you are targeting.  (For a great resource on localization, look at Solomon’s 10 tips for e-commerce sites.) 


Alternatively, a small business can keep things very, very simple—depending on their product. Solomon says to look at the non-English-language sites for small domestic hotels or resorts as an example. Potential guests look at the most important factors—photos of the rooms, the rates, and locations—to make their decision, and many small businesses can hire freelance translators to get the job done. “In those cases, they may not need a perfectly translated website, if it’s a one-time deal and they don’t need to update it often,” she says. And for the super-low-budget, there’s always the free services of Google Translate, but be aware, you get what you pay for.


Think local everywhere

Research the specific country you are looking to target, says Sunny Mui, marketing manager for Globial, a B2B network and marketplace for global businesses based in Sunnyvale, Calif. He says small businesses need to understand potential cultural conflicts between the way you do things and the way your target market does things. Make sure your site is able to accommodate changes in naming formats, from foreign character sets to cultural conventions. (For instance, in many Asian societies, a person’s family name comes first, and some Thais use just one name.) Among the common mistakes Mui says he’s seen: phone numbers that include letters (many countries don’t have letters on their keypads); measurements that aren’t in metric, Celsius, or don’t state a product’s electricity standard; or numerical date systems that lead to confusion about which number signifies the month. One more: Avoid icons that use body parts, Mui says. It might be considered offensive in some cultures.


Mind Customs and export rules

The U.S. Department of Commerce has been attempting to simplify the international trade process. Their website,, offers numerous free tools, including a new, 76-page online e-commerce guide that several insiders recommend; a country-by-country commercial factbook (thinking about Brazil? Look here.); data about numerous global markets; and listings of official trade leads and events. That’s the good news. Anyone selling and shipping goods overseas also must navigate a maze of Customs paperwork, including the classification coding system for any commodity you’re exporting. Thanks to the Internet, this becomes somewhat less onerous with a search tool that gives the required 10-digit code for the 8,000-some entries of almost anything that can be sent abroad.


Keep taxes and exchange rates in mind

Anyone handling e-commerce here in the U.S. is likely familiar with the vastly different state-tax rules on online sales. If you’re shipping something to a customer overseas, expect more of the same, says Robert Swartz, an international tax specialist and president of Illinois-based Business Ways. “There might be an issue with the state you’re in for their cut of that sale, then you have the IRS looking for a cut of that sale, then the foreign country, where the customer is, will possibly try to get involved, too,” he says. Swartz says small companies should begin by checking out,, and the IRS website. (On the plus side, there is a 20-percent tax break on income for U.S.-manufactured goods that are exported.)   


Focus on the basics

Never assume you know everything or that everything you learn about a culture will be true of every person—people are unique individuals after all, says Mui. “Test your site on a few people who are representative of the target country,” he says. “They have perspective that you don’t and can easily catch the big problems that you miss.”


And be prepared: Once your new site goes live, who will be able to deal with these new customers in their language?


“Rule No. 1 is have a plan,” says Salamunovic. “People forget about customer support. You have to be prepared to try to offer help within your new customers’ expected hours of operations and have policies in place to handle their emails. If there’s no one in the entire company who speaks Spanish or French, then you can try translation software, but you’ll be paying a price.”