„Let’s export more to Germany“ – sounds like a plan. It is the 2nd most important international destination for our goods and services with British companies exporting $44bn worth in 2016. So our SMEs should just ramp up production and get those exports over here and in the shops and warehouses so that these wealthy Germans can buy whatever we want to sell.
For decades British regional and national economic developments agencies focused most of their resources on attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Ideally it came from North America but actually it was welcomed from anywhere. Now that FDI inflows have declined dramatically due to protectionism and politics the agencies and governments have switched to encouraging „exporting“. The problem is, though, that nobody seems to know exactly what this means and how to do it.
Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy and a short plane or container trip away. One would have expected that small and mid-sized UK companies would already be heavily engaged here. In fact there is surprisingly little activity and very few examples of successful market development (please send me any you know of). Why this is so is the result of a mix of factors but, ultimately, it is because Germans have pretty much all they need from their own companies, it is a mature market.
The lack of British success stories in Germany means that there are few mentors or case studies to learn from. A prospective exporter is left with platitudes about the supposed German love of punctuality and the need to avoid making jokes in a business meeting. Actually if Germans know that you are running late it is not a problem, it is the not knowing that freaks them. And a well-timed joke is welcome anywhere in the world to brighten up a dull meeting.
Success here in the future is all about building and maintaining trusted relationships with customers business partners and service providers. There is no shortcut and it takes a strategic approach. And a couple of the obstacles have become smaller. Firstly, in the technology space at least, English really is the language being used by all and, secondly, the increased pace of change has forced German business owners to become more open to foreign partnerships and different forms of collaboration.
The best advice is to copy what thousands of German companies have been doing around the UK for decades – get on a plane, meet people, have a plan, build relationships, make friends, commit time and money and set up shop here. If that is exporting then it could be Great.