Problem Solver: Strategy is key to unlocking export opportunities
Q:We run a successful business serving the Irish market and have also identified significant European export opportunities. Can you give any strategic advice on what our focus should be?
A: A lot depends on your product category, but as a general rule most companies grow their business in Ireland and then, when they have established the required skill sets, start to look at export markets. This seems to be the case in your business.
The biggest danger is that you don't recognise the size of the export opportunity and you treat it as an add-on to the business, rather than strategically an area of sales growth which could be a multiple times bigger than your Irish business. Quite typically population levels determine sales and assuming your product has appeal in most countries, then you have to follow population numbers as this will determine your sales.
I would suggest you first engage with Enterprise Ireland as they have a very strong team of advisors for the export market. Start by looking at your current management structure and see will it be able to cope with export. Look at your own role and see whether this should continue to totally focus on the Irish market, or whether some of your own personal time should be dedicated to the export markets.
Perhaps you need to bring in some expertise by employing someone who has European export experience and already has contacts within the industry. It will take you a long time to establish these contacts yourself so there is a commercial argument in favour of 'buying in' expertise which would accelerate your journey.
I would certainly like to applaud you by thinking strategically, rather than just adding business on in an unplanned way. Strategy is about finding your place in the future when you are looking at today and that will require lots of standing back from the existing business to develop a road map to help you maximise opportunities.
Q: I read somewhere that when you owned Superquinn, you would meet a group of customers for coffee each week. Surely this can't be a great use of time for the owner.
A: I can see how one could view it in that way. However, with absolute certainty I can tell you that it was the most valuable 90 minutes I spent every week. Yes I did meet with customers and this was part of a structured series of 'customer panels' where customers who had expressed an interest in giving their feedback would be scheduled to meet with me in an informal setting over a coffee, and where we would discuss elements of the shopping trip from the front door right through to departing.
From a practical point of view, it was a great way for me to know everything that was going on in that particular branch within 90 minutes. In some cases I might have even known more than the manager would know at that moment. The other big benefit we had was much wider and involved all of the other shops in the company. We would circulate the panel report for each branch throughout the company and this had the effect of all of the other shops copying the good ideas and ensuring any challenges were eliminated once they read them on someone else's report.
What was also important about these panels were that many of our best ideas, which made us famous, originated from comments customers would make at these panels and then our management team and staff would think up ways to solve the problem. So far from thinking of it as a waste of time, I would encourage any business owner to meet with your customers on a regular basis. As a business owner it will allow you to have a far greater finger on the pulse, and it will allow your business to steal a march on your competitors by truly understanding your customer's needs.
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