How to Find Overseas Customers for Your Import/Export Business

Woman holding bottles of wine

 Getty Images

You can't run a successful import/export business without customers, but where do you find them? Whether you sell wine or wallets, it's easier than you think. Here are nine ways to find and cultivate overseas relationships, such as exporters looking to purchase on behalf of their customers.

  1. Review this list of import/export websites that will help you build your business. It's a great place to discover lots of online resources and determine which is best suited to your particular needs. This includes the American Association of Exporters and Importers—provides advocacy and government regulation data—and the supplier database website Kompass. And for women executives, entrepreneurs and business owners, there's a bonus resource that includes webinars and educational workshops.
  2. Read "Exporting: The Definitive Guide to Selling Abroad Profitability." Chapter 16 covers Finding Cross Border Customers, including making customer contact and other ways to snag customers worldwide. "In addition to the valuable but widely available information on nuts-and-bolts topics like logistics, regulatory compliance, and international payments that one typically finds in the how-to-export genre, Delaney also addresses the human side with sections on ethics and cross-cultural learning," notes one review. (Full disclosure: I am the author of this book.) 
  3. There are three ways to take charge and find international customers:
  4. Purchase a service
  5. Exhibit at trade shows
  6. Build an online presence to market your business.
  7. The PIERS Directory of U.S. importers and exporters can help identify thousands of companies involved in global trade. And there are other companies that provide similar services. 
  8. Try The Gold Key Service, which is provided via the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Commercial Service and offers pre-screened international contacts.
  9. Ask bankers, accountants, freight forwarders, transportation professionals and supply chain managers for tips and referrals as to who might be an ideal target customer.
  10. Network with peers in your industry. If you sell consumer packaged goods like soft drinks, toiletries or processed foods, attend workshops, conferences and seminars revolving around this type of product you export. Listen attentively, but be prepared to ask a lot of questions.
  11. Don't forget to create brand awareness. How else will you be discovered or remembered? That means catchy advertising and strong marketing. Have a product image that stands out to customers.
  12. Keep your customers. Make them your top priority. Keep the Rolling Stone's song, "I can't get no satisfaction," in mind because you don't want your customers thinking that way. You can deliver the right product, the right service, the right price, but do you deliver satisfaction? The only way to find out is to follow up and ask flat out, "Are you satisfied with my product or service?" And if the answer is "no," you'd better have a plan.

And one more important detail: When you find and cultivate overseas customers, figure out how you're going to get paid by them. It's not uncommon to use a third party go-between in international trade, such as an ​escrow service. The service collects the money for you and holds onto it until you deliver on your end of the deal. By reviewing and tapping into these resources you'll be running a profitable import/export business before you know it.