Whether it's goods, services or software that you provide, if your business succeeds, you're going to end up expanding. Sooner or later you're going to start asking how to service international customers from other countries. Eventually, those customers are going to be quite some distance away. They're going to expect the same service level agreements that you deliver to your native customers too - that's understandable.
How are you going to fulfil those SLAs, though? How will you get around some of the significant obstacles that come with the distance? How do you battle the problems that communicating across different time zones presents?
Efficiently working across multiple time zones isn't easy.
What makes working across time zones all the trickier is that many organisations don't account for the difficulties when establishing client bases across the world. Language, currencies, cultural differences. These are all issues that get considered, debated and - generally - overcome. But the problem of trying to offer high levels of customer service and fix bugs and errors for clients tearing their hair out while you and your colleagues are safely tucked up in bed five thousand miles away? It's often overlooked.
So let's see to that challenge here and explore some ways to battle the critical difficulties caused by trying to work across several time zones. Here are a few top tips and suggestions:
Understand your time zones
It might be tempting just to scribble a few hour differences on a Post-It Note or try to remember that ‘Moscow is about nine or ten hours ahead'. But that would be severely underestimating the importance of mastering time zones. You need to do your due diligence. Research, understand and then relay the significance of this new knowledge to everyone else in the business. Memorise the relevant time differences, memorise the initials and acronyms -become an expert.
Use apps to your advantage
There are plenty of online time zone tools that show you exact times across the world. Some apps have toggle functions that allow you quickly and easily find suitable times to arrange calls and meetings that will suit everyone. Another way to use online tools to your advantage is to get everyone on board to use ‘asynchronous' workflow management systems that promote people picking up messages and working on tasks at their convenience.
Here are some of our favourite tools for managing timezones
Team members can add their location and set their work hours so that you can see who is online and when. Spacetime.am also lets you schedule meetings and will automatically change the time, so the receiver will see it in their own time zone.
Every Time Zone makes it easy to visualize what time it is in, like the name says, every time zone in the world. The clever slider tool lets you see how a time in one place corresponds to everywhere else. This is very handy if you have two or more time zones to coordinate.
The World Clock Meeting Planner from Timeanddate.com lets users plug in a day and their location, allowing the tool to generate different times that might work for meetings. It then color-codes them into working hours, non-working hours and sleep hours.
Establish a watertight and consistent rota
When you need to offer support over different time zones to run your business, rota planning becomes perhaps the most important admin task there is. The rota would ensure that your business is able to respond to international customers, with the right number of qualified staff in the right place at the right time. There should be a mix of experienced and junior employees on site at any given time, with enough hands on deck to manage the expected workload.
Try not to chop and change who is working on certain days and at certain hours. Set up a working rota that means that someone is always at the end of a call or email. Consistency is vital - your customers might be thousands of miles away, but some level of familiarity can be achieved by having them know the whereabouts of specific account managers or support staff.
Try to meet up as much as possible
It won't be possible to get much face time when you're on a different continent. But where possible - make it happen. Fly over and meet your clients face-to-face. Try to have someone over at their office as much as the budget allows. Weekly meetings won't be achievable, but even a small amount of effort once a year will be appreciated by your customer.
Communicate in small groups
Trying to arrange a conference call for nine people when there's a time difference of some six, seven or eight hours? It's not happening, is it? But group together small numbers of key players for calls and video meetings and it's much more achievable. Calls can be recorded and sent out to other stakeholders and information can be shared in local meetings afterwards.
Watch out for Daylight Savings
When the clocks go backwards or forwards for Daylight Savings in the country you reside in, you get plenty of warning. Everyone talks about it. But what about when times zips forwards or backwards in the UK? Or Germany? You're unlikely to hear about it. Research the dates you need to remember. Set Calendar reminders. Accurately note whether the clock goes forwards or backwards. An hour late to a conference call might not seem a deal breaker, but it could speak volumes about your suitability as a far-flung provider to your customer.
These are all pretty good ideas, and they all have their merits. But there's only really one ideal solution to the problems that arise from trying to service international customers in a vastly different time zone. You need actually to be in that time zone. This answer is as practical as it is simple. We're not saying that you should entirely relocate your operation. We're saying you need to establish a base in that time zone (or as near as possible).
If you're running a successful North American firm and you're amassing European customers, sure, some of the tips here in this blog can help. But these tools and ideas can only go so far. To indeed offer the kind of service you want to be able to provide and that your customers deserve - you need to get over there. If you don't, you may end up paying what business experts and consultants McKinsey call ‘The Globalisation Penalty'.
"High-performing global companies consistently score lower than more locally-focused ones," said McKinsey. Proving a local presence gives customers a local service. Set up an office near them and you're now not-so-distant new customers will appreciate it. Having a local presence can only be a good thing for your bottom line.
We'd recommend you seriously consider Ireland as your destination. There are some significant benefits to locating to Ireland, and we can walk you through the various options. To find out more about Ireland as a Euro-base - download our e-Book below.