French business tips: 5 do's and don'ts about doing business in France

Tips on business in France

With the Brexit rules slowly clarifying and the latest trade deal allowing British businesses to continue tapping into the common market, there is a great opportunity to give your sales a nice boost by ramping up your exports to France. As the UK’s nearest EU neighbour, France is easily accessible and you can get an international marketing plan going with as little as £500, yet many small businesses seem unable to convert their marketing efforts into French sales.

As an experienced french translator, I've seen the most common mistakes British businesses make when trying to sell to the French. Here is how can avoid them.

1. Do-you-speak-Eng-lish?

Language is by far the most important aspect of selling to a different country, yet one of the most common errors British businesses make is to think that they can approach a foreign market with brochures and websites in English or translated by Google and get away with it. Decent, well-written French marketing material is a must: an English website won’t rank on French search engines, English banners won’t attract attention from a French audience, and even if you somehow manage to make contact with prospects, your literature, correspondence and other contracts will soon put them off if they can’t understand it.

Yes, someone does need to speak French but it needn’t be you… If you French doesn’t go any further than “Bonjour, comment ça va?”, there are a few options available to any business looking to communicate with French prospects:

A French translator

The most affordable option is to employ a freelance French translator with a marketing background. This will give you access to all the benefits of a French office as well as the experience of a French marketing expert at a fraction of the cost. They can be at hand to represent you at all times but you won’t need to pay them when there is nothing for them to do.

A french speaker in your office

If you are currently recruiting for any role, it may pay to include “Fluent French a bonus” in your specs; with a bit of luck, you’ll find yourself an office admin or a book keeper who can help, even if they still need a bit of help from a professional french translator every now and then.

A sales representative in France

If you can afford their salary and the travel expense that comes with it, hire yourself a French salesperson in France. A financially safer alternative is to look for a freelance sales agent to take on your products (“Agent commercial indépendant”, aka VRP) but note that their commission will be much higher.

Dealers in France

You can start your research with advertising for potential dealers or by targetting your French competitors’ dealers. A French dealer will have the same interest in growing the business in France as you do and they will provide invaluable help with your marketing mix, your sales, your customer service etc. To show your support, you can start with getting some of your marketing collateral translated by a professional translator.

2. Boss, I need to take another trip to Paris...

Since you mentioned targeting France as a new market to your sales team, their credit card bill is through the roof and there’s nobody in the office, yet you don’t seem to see the sales flooding in. Sounds familiar?

Don’t make the mistake of instantly booking up lots of speculative and cold meetings with prospective clients. There is a lot you can do to virtually warm up leads and seek new business before you get on that plane. Will you need to go to France? Yes, but not to start with. In the meantime:

Make use of technology

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it's how to work remotely. To get around the expensive trips to France, instant messaging, video-conference tools, screensharing platforms and your good old emails and telephone are plenty enough to get you going. If language is a problem, make use of telephone interpreting to help along with communication. Obviously, there will come a time when you need this all important face-to-face meeting with your new representative and with your clients, but hopefully by then you can count on your French business to sustain its own travel costs.

Share the cost with a local dealer

Presence at trade shows can be invaluable when it comes to growing the business but, before you fork out several thousands of hard-earned euros into an event, consider whether you could pair up with a prospective dealer to share the cost and take advantage of their fluent French – they may already be attending anyway. Alternatively, ask your French translation service provider to help you source a French speaker to attend on your behalf.

3. They'll just have to pay us in Sterling

Exchange rates vary from day to day, and many businesses will try and mitigate their losses due to currency variations by setting their price in pounds. This is a big no-no! If you’re selling abroad, embrace the currency and swallow the (probably small) cost of the Euro rising. If you want to try and keep it under control, you’ll have to keep an eye on the exchange rates and keep updating your prices (for e-commerce businesses, your website can do that automatically), but offering products in GBP to the French is like screaming “I can’t be bothered to adjust to your culture, and I might not bother to send your order either!”. It will wipe out all your efforts in one clean sweep, and the chances are the reaction will be something along the lines of “I can’t be bothered to buy from you!”.

Just like with any other marketing exercise, keep the purchasing process as easy as possible for your clients. Don’t expect them to convert GBP to EUR, they’ll sooner walk away and buy it from somewhere else.

4. Getting their invoicing wrong and wasting money on international banking and transaction fees

If you're sending goods to someone who is registered for VAT in France, it’s likely that you’ll be able to zero-rate the VAT (check here that the transaction meets all the conditions outlined by HMRC for VAT on overseas sales). Trying to exchange cheques or BACs payment with a customer overseas can prove costly, although it may well be worthwhile for a large enough deal. Alternatively, make the transactions with France cheaper and easier with a remote international bank. Ultimately, if business is likely to pick up quickly and massively, a bank account in France could well be the best option.

5. Paying too much on postage or courrier

Talk to several freight companies and strike a decent international shipping deal: unless you sell online services, the chances are you will be sending out samples and products to your newly found customers and you don’t want to put them off with extortionate shipping costs and complicated return policies. Ideally, look for a courrier with branches in both countries as their regular trips back and forth will often translate into reduced costs. Once you’ve got it sorted, make it clear in your marketing materials that delivery and returns are no more costly with your quality UK products than it is with lesser French ones!

If your product works in the UK, there is no reason it can’t reach a similar turnover in France providing you keep things simple for your clients. The translation cost will largely be offset by the fact that you have done a lot of the leg work already when you set up in the UK. By converting your brand and your business model to French in the right way, you’ll find a world of new prospects right across the Channel.