I was flicking through the news the other day and a headline from the BBC caught my eye; Foreign language skills cost Scottish businesses“. In fact, it should really have read ‘LACK of foreign language skills’, as the article was discussing the findings of the British Council’s Language Rich Europe survey and the likelihood that Scottish businesses are missing out on global trade opportunities because of their attitude that ‘English is enough’. The article’s angle was on education and with a Scottish view, but I was interested to find out the report’s overall view.

I have to say I wasn’t very impressed with the LRE website or the results of the report given there; it seems like a very brief overview and the charts and abbreviations are insufficiently explained. However, they do cite their sources, one of which is freely available and contained exactly the type of research I was hoping to find.

The eXport factor: British SMEs’ approach to doing business overseasis a couple of years old, but I think its findings are still valid in 2012. There were a couple of points in particular that stood out for me; firstly the surprising proportion of SMEs for whom exporting was not a result of planning or strategy but unplanned:

59% of the SMEs that export were approached by overseas customers. This is particularly the case with the retail trade (70%) and the leisure and entertainment industry (65%).

Secondly, the opportunities that result from the export market; the top four things that the businesses surveyed listed as the benefits to their business from exporting were

Spreading our customer base (59%) ; Increased sales (55%) ; Increased turnover (50%) ; Increased profits (43%).

Granted, one would hope that a greater customer base would lead to increased sales, which is bound to increase turnover and in a successful business, therefore profits. But it’s clear from this that SMEs should not, and do not seem to, underestimate the importance of global markets.

Finally, when asked what the main barriers to exporting were for them, equal with ‘regulations’ and ‘time & effort’ came

Language issues / understanding culture (31%)

Taking these highlights together, what strikes me is that if you are running an SME with the potential to export, you would benefit from striking up a relationship with a language specialist now – before you get caught unprepared when opportunity knocks!

Language skills & SMEs
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