The tangible skills and knowledge needed to export 'intangibles'

Tue 26 Jun 2018
Posted by: William Barns-Graham

selling intangibles

The contribution of service exports to the UK economy is well known - particularly in regard to financial services. While exports of goods are often liable to greater documentation and tracking, services can often be exported with less red tape and paperwork involved - due to their greater intangibility.

The same could be said for the exporting of software, training and education such that ‘intangibles’ is probably a better way of viewing what we typically call the trade of ‘services’, as opposed to ‘goods’.

Our services expert Dick Brentnall explains, in an interview on the Open to Export platform, that:

"'Intangible' literally means you can’t feel, see, touch or hold it. An exported good is tangible, whereas a service is primarily an experience. A service is something that you experience at a certain time and it can’t be repeated, whether it’s a telephone call or working with a professional like an accountant or lawyer. You would experience something at that time and its intangible – that’s a service."

Tangible challenges when exporting intangibles

Dick has long been involved, with others, in the delivery of our ‘Selling Services, Software and Skills Overseas’ course, but given that exporters of intangibles are not affected by the same customs and shipping challenges that exporters of goods face, what is there to learn about selling ‘intangibles’ overseas that service companies would not already be familiar with?

Many of the same key considerations that goods exporters face do apply, including mitigating risks around getting paid, ensuring your intellectual property is protected, finding the appropriate market for your offering and reaching and then securing customers in that market. Indeed, given the intangible nature of the services or software offerings being traded, a contract that gives a clear framework for ensuring that particular activity is given and clearly received is key.

Dick explains that there are 4 key questions for ‘intangibles’ exporters to consider:

  1. How are is the exporter going to be able to control the offering of that service at the transaction point in the overseas market with the client or customer?
  2. How can they reproduce the service in the end market, bearing in mind the different cultures and the political/economic environments that may impact on the type of service that is being given?
  3. How do they ensure consistency in the service being provided?
  4. Bearing in mind the variability in overseas market, how can they ensure that their service is there for the long term? Is it a short-term or long-term need?

Several things to consider and learn about when exporting 'intangibles'

There are clearly several strategic elements involved in selling intangibles overseas, on top of the usual mitigation of risk and activities to win and keep customers that are involved in all types of trade.

Indeed, the Institute’s course comprises seven main areas:

  1. What exactly is the intangible you are exporting?
  2. Who is the customer?
  3. How are services traded internationally?
  4. How do you plan your overseas business?
  5. What is your marketing strategy?
  6. How will you deliver your service?
  7. How will you work with your clients and end customers overseas?

With the course delivered through ‘Supported Distance Learning’ with access to tutor support through phone and email, the course applies advice and expertise, from the Institute, across these 7 key areas to your own business situation. In effect, the training doubles as both a qualification for the individual and a consultancy for your company, geared around helping it to expand internationally.

So if you’re a service company looking to sell overseas for the first time, don’t assume that it’s an easy process due to it’s intangibility because the processes involved in winning customers, getting paid, and delivering your service or software will not be the same in every market.

By gaining the skills of trade and working with experts who’ve been there and done it before, you stand a much better chance of truly taking your business global.

More information about the course can be found here:

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