A World Outside the US
Copyright 2004 Dave Collins
With the exception of myself and a small handful of very remote and isolated journalists, no-one today bothers writing about the growth of the web. It's old news, and we already get it. Today's buzz is more about reaping the benefits of what's already there. Global business is now the norm, and the world is our marketplace.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to be making a living writing and selling software have the luxury of riding on the very crest of the wave of good fortune. The whole Try Before You Buy concept allows us to send our software across the whole world quite literally in minutes, and users from almost every part of the globe can download, try and hopefully buy our products. If our business deals exclusively with downloads and avoids working with physical media, then we have nothing to worry about with getting our products from A to B, and no packaging, shipping, customs or tax issues to keep us awake at night.
But the reality is somewhat different, and the vast majority of websites selling products or services online are doing so almost exclusively with the US market in mind. If you truly want to sell your products to the rest of the world, chances are that you'll need to make some changes.
Change the way you think!
The very first step is the most important, and requires a change in attitude. The world extends beyond the US borders, and to assume that the rest of the world follows the same norms as the US is wrong. A potential buyer may not speak English as their main language, may have no access to US Dollars, and may not have, use or want to use a credit card.
Assuming you'd still like to sell your products to a buyer like this, you have to consider the practicalities. Setting up a link to an online currency converter is child's play, and there's no shortage of options to choose from. Doing so not only reassures the buyer that you take international considerations into account, but also makes the buying process easier for them. And making it easy sells.
Make sure that you provide this information before the actual order page. Many people's first question when a product catches their eye will be how much it costs, and they shouldn't have to go searching for it. Again, make it easy.
The same principle should also be applied within the software itself. If your application deals with different currencies for example, then you shouldn't assume that the user will automatically want the US Dollar as their base currency, or even that they will want to use the Dollar at all. And I'm assuming that you have already included the Euro, haven't you? Many users will be unfamiliar with the concept of sales tax, and other countries have different names, such as VAT in the UK, and GST in Australia.
Regional variations in numerical formats are also important - most countries outside the US don't use the MM/DD/YYYY format, and many will use a comma for a decimal symbol, and a period for the digit grouping symbol.
If your icons and interface are non-standard, then make sure they're clear to all users. There's a reason for sticking with the standards and familiar icons, and that's the fact that they have become instantly recognisable to most users, all over the world. If you're going to use something a little more original, make sure that other people will understand the symbols and images that you use. Having a US stop sign might not mean as much to someone who's never actually seen one before.
What about your web forms?
But even once your potential buyer has found your website, understood how much your software costs and even decided to buy it, the battle may be far from over. If you've ever tried ordering from an "international" store on the web, and you live outside the US and Canada, you'll already know how frustrating the process can be, and how the dreaded web forms can often make the process near impossible for us to work with.
I've tried to buy products from sites that don't have Finland listed in their pull-down menu, that demand a State and/or County even when I don't live in one, and don't leave enough room for my phone or fax numbers.
Even though my wallet, bills and bank statements are all full of Euros, there are still (at the time of writing) a huge number of sites that allow me to pay in everything from Algerian Dinars to Zambian Kwacha, but still don't consider the EURO a real currency. I'd suggest they wake up.
And even the more flexible forms that allow all these options may still fall over when it comes to shipping costs. I can enter my delivery and credit card addresses in Finland, but when it comes to choosing my shipping option, I frequently have US POSTAL SERVICES and US FED-EX DOMESTIC only. More than once this has resulted in my simply giving up and looking elsewhere. Wasted opportunities don't get any easier to avoid!
If you use a third party to handle your sales, then make sure you use one with flexible options. I use SWREG, who can handle everything under the sun, including fax, phone, online, check, international money orders, direct payment and more. Can yours?
And if your software involves a large file download, then you have to consider the many users around the world connecting at a theoretical 56 KBPS, who simply cannot even consider downloading a 15 MB file. If you want to reach those people, then you have to make it easy for them. Even if you don't want the headache of burning a CD and mailing it yourself, there are services out there that can do this for you, and their prices are very reasonable. Make it easy.
If you don't want their business - let them know!
But ultimately if your business cannot or will not adapt to the rest of the world, then I have one humble request. Please make it clear from the start. I've filled out so many of your long forms, only to find out at the very end of the process that you can't deliver to Europe.
Amazon is considered by many to be one of the world's most successful online stores, yet even they are guilty of these sins. Assuming I don't mind paying the shipping, I can order books and software through their US website. But when I go to software downloads, and add these items to my Shopping Cart, everything is fine until it comes to checkout time. At this point I get a message informing me that they do not offer digital downloads to my country. Go figure - and ask yourself why they waited until that moment to tell me.
I've also filled out other long forms and received an email 24 hours later explaining that you don't normally ship outside the US; but if I will pay an additional $35, you'll send your $30 product direct by courier.
And when your international user has already downloaded, installed, used and admired your software, falling at the final hurdle is a very painful and frustrating process.
The irony in writing this article is that while preaching the concept of internationalism, many of the ideas I suggest for achieving it are aimed primarily at US developers. But it's not only the US developers who need to expand their views.
The ability to reach across the globe is yours for the taking. But if your software, website or ordering options aren't up to the task, then you're throwing away a whole world of opportunities. Think international. Be seen, be sold.