How to network and find new clients across borders

Test whether you have the traditional skills and social media savvy to land international business opportunities.

BY SABINE VOLLMER
October 1, 2013

Companies increasingly are investing across borders. That includes foreign companies establishing operations in the United States or Canada. The North American investments require accounting and tax services, making foreign companies potential new clients for North American accounting firms.

But what is the best way to network across borders and attract these potential clients? Can social media help limit international travel, keep business development costs down, and save time? The JofA sought answers to these questions from three experts: Douglas Ng, CA, a partner who specializes in international business development for Canadian accounting firm MNP LLP; Hideo Takada, CPA, a partner with Dixon Hughes Goodman, who specializes in recruiting U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese companies; and Art Kuesel, president of Kuesel Consulting, who spoke at this year’s AICPA Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference.

Test your skills with LinkedIn, Twitter, email, and blog posts by considering the following questions, which are based on situations Ng, Takada, and Kuesel have experienced:

1. You want to get your accounting firm’s name in front of potential clients on a global scale. What’s the best way to fuel opportunities?
 
a. Focus your theme as narrowly as possible.
b. Create a content strategy.
c. Exploit the power of LinkedIn, blogs, Twitter, and other social media.
d. Seek opportunities to get your content published in trade publications.
e. All of the above.

2. You have your eye on a potential client, a U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company, but nobody in your office has a contact. What’s the fastest way to get a referral to the subsidiary’s CFO?

a. Seek help from a managing partner in your firm whose office is located near the target company.
b. Do a Google search of the parent company and send an email in Japanese.
c. Check your LinkedIn network.
d. Find the CFO on the company’s website and call him or her.
e. Call the U.S. trade representative nearest the parent company.

3. As the number of potential international clients increases, CPAs will encounter different business cultures. How does that change business development?

a. To win the sale, you need to demonstrate respect for your prospect’s culture and engage in customary business practices even if the discussion is in English.
b. You need to bring an appropriate gift to win a sale.
c. The American style of doing business is accepted worldwide, because most of the world has adopted English as a standard business language.
d. Social media has become a great tool for overcoming cultural barriers.

4. Your accounting firm wants you to recruit new international clients, and you have a good understanding of the kind of companies you’re supposed to target. What effort is most likely to elicit inquiries into the specific services your firm could provide?

a. You attend social events, such as annual chamber of commerce dinners, where you can meet executives of companies and hand them your business card.
b. You start a monthly newsletter that addresses accounting and tax issues your target companies care about, and you email it to them.
c. You conduct regular webinars about accounting and tax issues that companies care about.
d. You offer monthly seminars on accounting and tax issues in various locations, and you use a contact in each location to invite your target companies to attend.

5. Your accounting firm wants you to recruit Chinese companies that are considering a North American expansion. You get the name of a company from the trade office, alliance partners, or other Chinese players, such as investment bankers. What’s the course of events most likely to happen next?

a. You work your LinkedIn network to find a contact in China who will refer you to the target company and arrange a face-to-face meeting with the top executive.
b. You get on a plane and visit your Chinese contacts, who will arrange a face-to-face meeting with the target company’s top executive. The first meeting goes well, so your boss goes to Shanghai to sign the new client.
c. On one of your three or four annual trips to China, one of your contacts there gives you a referral. You sign the new client after visiting the target company repeatedly during your next several trips to China.
d. All of the above.

ANSWERS

1. (e) The splintering of media channels and the proliferation of social media create significant “noise” for targets. They are bombarded by communication all day with hundreds, if not thousands, of messages, and their filter has to be strong just to survive. To overcome the noise, you need to have a hyper-focused theme. Make your communication relevant to their issues and concerns and to the point. Also, it is not effective to have just one message. To be successful, you need to have multiple messages within your content strategy that consistently hit your targets. The tools you use to deliver these messages can vary widely, but blogging, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media platforms should be considered, because you can’t be quite sure how your targets most like to receive information. Finally, don’t underestimate channels such as trade magazines and e-publications. Getting a published article or topic in an industry publication is often considered an anchor to your credibility and knowledge.

2. (c) Working your firm’s resources to network is still appropriate, but it will take time to have the managing partner at one of your firm’s offices call a contact at the local chamber of commerce, who may know the subsidiary’s CFO and can contact him or her. Depending on how developed your LinkedIn network is, you may find a contact who knows you and the CFO or at least a contact who knows somebody who knows the CFO. You can follow the degrees of separation on the LinkedIn network fairly quickly. Emailing the parent company also takes a little time—and writing the email in Japanese is commendable—but in a culture in which relationships are built through personal contact, it is an effort that is not likely to be successful.

3. (a) It is important to recognize that the little things mean so much in establishing trusting and valuable long-term relationships. In Japan, the quality and condition of your business card can speak volumes. It is important to ensure you have a sufficient amount of high-quality business cards on hand at all times. In addition, whenever you exchange cards, ensure you receive with both hands, read over carefully, and then place on the table in front of you, or in a card holder. Avoid dropping it in your pocket, as this may be considered disrespectful. In Brazil, it is often considered rude to start business discussions before your host does. Allow the host to take the lead and decide when to transition from chit-chatting and relationship building to business discussion. In many countries outside the United States, as a foreigner, you are likely expected to be on time, if not early, for a business appointment, even though your hosts may arrive late. Gift-giving, though part of some business cultures, can be problematic legally.
 
4. (d) Seminars cost more than webinars and newsletters, but they not only attract companies seeking help and show them that you know your stuff, they also provide the face-to-face contact necessary to build the kind of trust that attracts new international clients. Social events are great networking opportunities, but the executives you meet may not need your firm’s services.

5. (c) In China, business relationships are built on trust, which requires multiple face-to-face visits to show your commitment. In the beginning, the same person should visit the target company each time, and it helps a great deal if that person speaks the local language or dialect and is familiar with local customs.

SCORING

If you answered four or five questions correctly, congratulations. Your awareness and understanding of how to network in other business cultures will greatly assist you in attracting international clients. But you shouldn’t stop learning about other cultures and about what communication technologies are useful in other countries.

If you answered three questions correctly, you’re on the right track. Continue to gain knowledge and training.

If you answered fewer than three questions correctly, consider talking to international business development experts and intensify your training.

Sabine Vollmer is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at svollmer@aicpa.org or 919-402-2304.

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