A restaurant owner in Hong Kong, who happens to be a hefty shareholder in a St. Louis-based textile company, has been waiting for more than a month for an annual report to come in the mail. Meanwhile, the dean of an elite art school in Bonn, Germany is reluctant to order from a San Francisco art supply catalogue. And finally, an Associated Press photographer based in Belfast, Ireland is about to tell his editor to stop buying equipment from a New York camera vendor because it will only bill him in US dollars.


If you've taken your business to a global level, you understand the common theme here: many international mail recipients are feeling the effects of a lack of local awareness on the part of US companies. At first glance, the hypothetical scenarios described above seem minor, but upon closer inspection, there's a great deal at stake, something akin to the proverbial small pebble rippling effect. In other words, one dissatisfied customer from even the remotest of regions can sway local opinion for or against American companies. If you begin multiplying that individual problem across continents, it's easy to see what might happen loss of market share through the erosion of your hard-earned international customer base. And to think that such a downward spiral could have been avoided through some simple, yet critical techniques.


With so much at stake and multiple variables at play, how do you get a handle on your international mailing efforts and increase global response? First and foremost, you must implement an overall quality control program. System and operational controls ensure the highest standards of quality and quality, no matter what industry you're in, should be the peg upon which you hang your hat. Now, as for the numerous "little" problems fouling global response rates, let's take them one at a time.


Mind Your Mail List

On average, nearly 50% of international, in-house address lists and 60% of outside address lists require address correction. Therefore, constant list vigilance is critical. The most frequent international addressing errors include misspelled street and city names or incorrect postal codes. This can happen through carelessness or through ignorance. In addition, many other problems occur when an international address is "forced" into a standard three or four line domestic format, resulting in inconsistencies, as well as loss of vital information required for delivery. Conforming to local address formats and customs helps your mailpiece make a more favorable first impression upon its recipient.


While advanced computer technology has helped many less-than-perfect address lists regain integrity, the files themselves should be reviewed, reformatted and also cleansed for such things as inconsistent field addresses and worldwide postal system changes. Keeping abreast of foreign postal code changes is a continual process since such changes take place on a regular basis. For example, just over a year ago, Japan underwent a full-scale revision of its postal code system. Make sure that your files are updated because even a small number of changes in just a few countries can eventually lead to infinite problems.


By the same token, customers often overwrite your existing mailing label, which is how many errors can occur. To avoid this, provide space on your reply cards to allow your international customers to rewrite their addresses.


Then there's erroneous address duplication, which is costly in terms of product loss and labor redundancy. All lists should be scanned and checked for duplication to eliminate such unnecessary waste. Investment in a service that cleanses and reformats international address lists should help. This service should also provide you with detailed, customized reports outlining the hot spots in your list, which will help ensure your mailpiece gets to its intended recipient.


Establish A Local Presence

Using local reply mechanisms in your international direct mail can increase response rates substantially. Whether it's due to an increased sense of trust or simply convenience, mail recipients are more likely to reply to an in-country address than a foreign one. Align yourself with a reputable international mail company, and ask if it can offer you intelligent services that allow you to be in many countries via post office box, fax number or voicemail without having to leave your office.


Offer Local Payment Options

Did you know that only 13% of European consumers use credit cards and 50% pay in giros? These are some of the small, yet significant challenges faced by US companies attempting to conduct business overseas. In order to appeal to a greater worldwide audience, you need to be flexible in your invoicing and collection efforts. Today's computer-based and tomorrow's Internet-based solutions can and will offer a variety of local payment options no matter to what area of the world you are selling. The key is for you to make sure you're signing on with a vendor that can provide these multiple payment options, which enable you to sell to virtually anyone in the world.


Plan, Plan, Plan

A well-planned and managed delivery schedule allows time for proper documentation preparation and final delivery specifications. To further improve response rates, implement quality checks. In fact, have test samples mailed to preselected locations in various parts of the world to analyze speed and delivery conditions. And always measure sales, costs and productivity, even if it means asking your carrier to provide you with reports to assist you.


A lot of companies talk about going global, but too few understand the details of what I call "knowing global." You should be able to depend on your international mail company to keep your deliveries from slipping through the cracks between countries. Still, it's important for you to anticipate problems and request solutions if you want to increase global response rates.


Whether your business has you communicating in Great Britain or Bali, steering clear of expensive oversights is the surest way to reach customers and have customers reach back to you. Do you recall the investor in Hong Kong, the art school dean in Germany and the photographer in Ireland? They represent real people, customers and, in some cases, company owners deserving of attentive responses. As an international mailer, it's your job to instill confidence among them, spare them from inconvenience, as well as make sure they don't feel forgotten. Otherwise, it'll be easy for them to forget about you.


David Rose is the director of New Business Development at TNT International Mail, Americas Region. For information, call 800-MAIL-TNT or e-mail marketingna@tnt.com.