For those international companies that already have their own web site, an important consideration is to ensure that the web site is able to ser· vice foreign customers. A surprising 85 per cent of companies cannot fill international orders simply because of their system’s inability to register international addresses or price total delivery costs.

When devising an internationalisation strategy, one crucial decision companies must make is whether nor not to have multiple foreign web sites and how to manage these sites, On one hand, if an international firm chooses to manage the global operations from the local country (for example South Africa), its foreign sites are far more prone to make linguistic and merchandising mistakes. For instance, selling goods that might be offensive in certain cultures, or offering product instructions that are delivered with the wrong tone.

Such mistakes are less likely if international companies hire a team in each foreign market to handle the web site. Unfortunately, this, too, can lead to problems for companies trying to convey a consistent brand message. ‘Customers can spot inconsistencies,’ Forrester’s Schmitt say: ‘If you have to deal in multiple countries, you don’t want 10 sites with a different look and feel at everyone, and companies don’t want to have 10 different backend systems.

One of the earliest successes in ecommerce globalization was Dell Corporation, which began selling on the Web in 1996 and now has sites aimed at 85 different countries and territories. According to Frank Muehleman, senior vice-president of Dell’s worldwide, division, the company uses a decentralized approach with its international sites – click to view their website.

Dell created a common technology platform for each of its global sites, including a template for ordering and product information, which ensures a consistent user experience across their various international sites. In addition, several hundred country specialists give advice and training to the local managers, while the local team handles the rollout.

Just as important, according to Muehle­mn, is that Dell built manufacturing plants in ach of the regions it serves, including Brazil, Ireland, China, and Malaysia. Because the com­pany employs local customer service staff, everytime a customer picks up the phone, they’re dealing with someone local. In the next section we discuss a number of issues that international firms should keep in mind when internationalizing’ their web sites. These include issues such as language, culture, etc.

Language

There is considerable debate as to whether international firms should have their entire website translated into other languages. On the one hand, only about 57 per cent of users on the Internet speak English. In comparison, as many as 22 per cent of all users are Japanese s­peaking, while 16 per cent are German-speaking with 11 per cent each for Spanish- and French-speaking users.

On the other hand, most of these non­-English speakers can speak English in addition o their mother tongue. What is more, software exists to translate web sites from English into other languages (although these services are till a little weak and slow).

Perhaps the international firm should consider translating an introductory (i.e. ‘welcome’)page into the three or four of the most important languages, say German, French, and Spanish. Alternatively, if a company targets German-speaking countries, then it might be worth translating its web site only into German. Management should at least provide a link on their web site pointing to an online web page translation service such as Babelfish The firm’s management could also let potential customers know that they can communicate withthem in their language of choice. But management will then need to have a transla­tion service on hand locally to translate these e-mails into English and this could be quite expensive, especially if they are receiving a large number of foreign-language e-mails daily.

International forms

If the international firm includes an order form on its web site, then the form should be created in such a way as to be compatible with international addresses, titles, surnames, telephone numbers, postal/zip codes, etc. Care should be taken as to which fields are made obligatory. ‘Province’ or ‘state’ should not be made obliga­tory fields, for example, as many countries do not use these terms.

In addition, forms should allow for any number of digits for telephone numbers, have a field available for a telex number (it is still used in some countries), and allow enough space for complicated street addresses. In addition, there must be a country field – for obvious reasons. Titles are important in many countries so forms should include such a field. The postal code field should also be able to handle letters as well as numbers, and the surname field should be capable of handling multiple last names, such as ‘Van der Merwe’ in South Africa.

In developing an online form aimed at inter­national markets, the likely target audience must be kept in mind. Any information collected from foreign customers should be kept separate from domestic information in order to simplify matters.

Cultural issues

Although the Internet is arguably a single universal environment, culture still plays a role and should be kept in mind when using graphic features such as pictures, drawings, and illustrations. If graphics only make sense if you read them from left to right, then there might be a problem in countries where the population read from right to left. With some graphics this could change their meaning completely. Similarly, companies should be sensitive to the graphics they use, as others may not understand them. International firms targeting Islamic countries, for example, should take care not to use provocative pictures of women on their web site, as this is likely to be considered offensive. Also, understanding that different colours mean different things in different cultures is important. For example, in some cultures white signifies purity while in others it signifies mourning.

Dimensions and measurements

In South Africa we use the metric system (grams, metres, and litres), but in the US use is made of the imperial system (ounces, inches, and pints), which is also still widely used in the UK and some other countries. International firms might consider offering both measures for ease of reference.

Credit cards and alternative payment mechanisms

While credit cards may be popular in South Africa for online payment purposes, they are not popular in countries such as Germany and elsewhere. In Japan, for example, local-Eleven stores are used by consumers to pay for many services including utilities and many other types of bills.

The international firm needs to be aware of these alternative payment mechanisms and they should be catered for on the firm’s web site. If the firm were targeting consumers in Japan, for example, it would be no use offering credit card payments, as no one would buy. Instead the firm would need to enter into an agreement with 7 -Eleven for them to accept payment on the firm’s behalf and their commission would need to be calculated into the firm’s selling price.

In addition, the international firm should always offer an alternative way of paying for a purchase such as provide its banking details or suggesting that the customer contact them to discuss alternative payment methods.

Colloquialisms

Global firms should not use phrases that are local to South Africa such as ‘robot’ for ‘traffic light’, ‘lift’ for ‘elevator’, ‘torch’ for ‘flashlight’, ‘light up’ for ‘illuminate’, etc. Care should also be taken with spelling. Firms need to remember that there are many words that are spelt differently in the US. For example, ‘labour’ is spelt ‘labor’ in the US. If the US is the target market, these misspellings could prove costly.

Localised content

For more serious global firms with established business in specific countries, it is worth con­sidering creating a local web site, with a local web address, and with localized content. In this instance, the firm would probably require someone (the import agent, perhaps?) in the host country in question to take responsibility for the web site and to handle enquiries received via the web site. Such a web site could be trans­lated into the local language and would be tweaked to meet local cultural differences (again the agent or local business partner could assist with this).

Speed of reply

International firms need to ensure that any enquiries they receive are answered and dealt with as quickly as possible. As already mentioned, potential customers may be sending an international firm enquiries from different time zones and yet will still expect an immediate reply. The firm may need to set up an automated e-mail auto response service that sends an immediate reply to the enquirer thanking them for the enquiry and informing them that they will receive a more complete reply within 24 or 48 hours.

Updating information

Web sites not kept up to date will lose the international firm business. If prices, product specifications. or any other information change, the firm must make sure these changes are updated on its web site.

Time and date conventions

Some countries use a 24-hour clock (written as 13h20), while others use the 12-hour clock (written as 1.20 pm). The global firm must make it absolutely clear which one it is using or, better still, should provide both. Similarly, in South Africa companies generally write the date either as day/month/year (written as 1/11/2000) or as year/month/day (written as 2000/11/1). In the US, however, it is more common to write the date as month/day/year (written as 11/1/2000). This can be confusing for a firm’s foreign business partners. The best solution is to possibly write the date as ‘I November 2003’ in order to prevent any misunderstanding.

Currencies

Many customers abroad will not have heard of the ‘rand’ and what is more, they would proba­bly prefer the price of goods and services to be priced in their own currency or at least in one of the major international currencies such as the US dollar, the pound sterling, the euro, or the yen. The global firm needs to provide prices in different currencies and/or provide a currency calculator on its web site.

Symbols, icons, and design elements

International firms should use icons, symbols and design features on their web sites that will not be confusing to others. The popular sign for ‘OK’ in South Africa and in the diving world (the thumb and forefinger brought together in a circle with the other three fingers up in the air) has a derogatory meaning in other parts of the world.