If you have a website, your business and its goods can be viewed from around the world - but you may not be prepared for orders from overseas customers. Find out how to deal with online orders from international customers, and how you can use the opportunity to expand
Although exporting is less complicated than many small businesses think, processing overseas orders without taking certain steps could result in losing money or breaching your legal obligations.
Vet overseas customers before you export
The first thing you should do if you receive an overseas order is verify the customer's contact details.
"It is essential to get in touch with the buyer, to check they are genuine," says ecommerce expert Maggie Choo.
"A lot of businesses get over-excited when they get overseas orders, and don't do any due diligence," she adds. "This could leave you with nothing to show for the product you've sent."
Email the customer your terms and conditions - for example, you could ask for 30% of the payment before you send the product, and 70% on receipt.
For smaller orders, those placed by overseas consumers or direct orders via your website, you might receive the whole payment upfront when the order is placed.
"As long as you use a secure payment method, this should be fine for overseas customers, too," adds Choo.
"I'd suggest using PayPal or bank transfers. Be clear on what currency you'll accept, as exchange rates fluctuate and you could lose out if the customer chooses to pay in a currency that is more favourable to them - but if you agree a price in writing, they are locked in to that."
You should also make it clear that they are responsible for paying any import charges.
"When you post the item, opt for a tracked delivery service so the customer can log in to see where it is," suggests Choo.
Check your legal obligations when exporting
Next, consider the legal implications of selling overseas. Goods that are exported can usually be zero-rated, and most services that are exported are 'outside the scope' of VAT: so you don’t have to charge VAT. However, there are special rules for some types of service, including those that are supplied electronically. If you have any questions about whether to charge VAT, you can check with HMRC's VAT helpline on 0300 200 3700.
"If your transactions are transparent, you haven't got anything to worry about," reassures Choo.
For certain products, including technology, plants, art and specific food products, you need an export licence so you should check if you need one first.
Entering new export markets
After receiving an order from overseas, you could use it as an opportunity to enter a new market. However, ensure you assess your export potential first, as exporting on a larger scale is an investment.
"There are free resources, for example the Department for International Trade and the BCC run schemes to help you research new markets," says Choo. "And you can use web analytics tools such as Google Analytics to see where your website visitors are based."
You could also contact your local chamber of commerce and ask them to put you in touch with the chamber or embassy in that country. "The Government sees exports as a growth engine, so there's plenty of support available," says Choo.
Choo adds that small firms should not be daunted by exporting. "It really isn't very different from trading locally," she concludes. "You just need to be diligent, because of the distance, and be clear about your terms."