Found in Translation
Savvy companies selling internationally always focus on translation.
The kinds of translation that you might think of most often include language
translation – both during the marketing phase as well as right through
to contract documents, delivery of goods or services, and the invoice
itself. And, speaking of invoices, business owners certainly pay attention
to the procedures they set up for currency translation when being paid
by foreign buyers.
But especially when we’re marketing to our American neighbours,
and everyone is speaking English, it’s all too easy to overlook
the most important kind of translation: something I’ll call problem
translation. If your marketing team is talking “features”
and your prospect is listening for solutions to his problems, your presentation
of cutting edge technology and innovative approaches will roll right past
How do you get into your customer’s groove? You can live it, buy
it, or learn it.
This isn’t a problem unique to exporters; it affects all of us,
whether we’re selling at home or abroad. However, consider the challenge
of marketing to America’s largest buyer and toughest customer –
the US government. Many small Canadian firms offer highly specialized
niche technologies that represent considerable improvement in price, performance,
and value, over what the US government is buying right now.
They know the solution won’t sell itself, but the company’s
bench strength is in the lab. They have few resources beyond their development
teams to make calls on prospects. The most articulate engineer who can
manage to dress presentably gets sent out to do a marketing job. That’s
not always a disaster, especially when the product or solution requires
a technical sell, and engineers need to talk to engineers.
Sometimes, that’s a job for the company founder. John Maris, President
of Marinvent from St. Bruno, Quebec met recently with representatives
of some of the US military’s top prime contractors. His company
provides human factors engineering and simulation services for aerospace,
and has won awards for their alliance with Jeppesen, a Boeing company,
for producing the electronic aviation charts used by airlines around the
John has a low key style and the kind of calm, cool, laser-sharp focus
that is unsurprising for a former commander of one of Canada’s CP-140
Aurora squadrons – aircraft that hunt for submarines. He was nervous
about his marketing abilities, and had invited me to observe the meeting
and offer comments on how he might improve his efforts.
The business development professionals from the world’s biggest
names in the defence industry were expecting a marketing pitch, and not
much of one, from this small Canadian company they had never heard of.
But early in the meeting, when John mentioned his background in military
aviation, his interlocutors brightened to find themselves talking to a
fellow pilot who had flown the same type of aircraft as they had. I watched
the Americans hunch up close and heard the discussion move into high technical
John relaxed and was soon impressing his new friends with a demonstration
of capabilities that addressed requirements he knew they had been unable
to meet. The meeting launched excellent relationships, not least because
everyone spoke the same language – not only of technology and problems,
but also, better yet, of mutual respect for a common background in military
Marinvent’s experience is unusual. Few Canadian companies selling
to US government employ or are run by former customers of military or
homeland security solutions. The search for these talented employees pays
Cartenav, a small company in Bedford, Nova Scotia, markets vessel monitoring
systems to the US government. “Our sales agent, a retired Canadian
navy captain, has US military contacts that he develops into leads for
us,” explains Michel Lechman, Vice President of Operations.
As Canada’s home labour market has relatively few military veterans
with both an engineering background and marketing savvy, how else can
you find “industrial translators” to bridge the language gap
between your development team and your client? Canadian companies also
carefully interview and hire retired US military officers who genuinely
enjoy marketing and whose successful military careers leave them well-connected
with former colleagues in both US industry and government. Some are advisors
who open doors and make introductions for the Canadian firm’s marketing
team; others handle business development and sales.
If your advisors and marketing team don’t include former military
officers, don’t despair. Take a lesson from NGrain, now a75-person
military training company headquartered in Vancouver. Founded in 2000,
the company was recently named one of the top 20 Canadian defence companies,
and is counted among the top 100 military training suppliers to the United
How did they do it? Great technology wasn’t enough. “We also
had to learn to talk in their language, not ours,” explains Gabe
Batstone, Vice President, Business Development & Professional Services.
He recounts describing their solution to a senior US military officer
as offering “improved comprehension.”
“He said ‘Son, what’s that mean?’ We put away
our marketing brains, asked our clients what they wanted to hear, and
shut up and listened. We had to turn our language and solutions into solving
their problems with their metrics.”
So how well do you walk your talk? I wondered. “Tell me in one
sentence what NGrain does,” I asked Gabe. His answer was immediate.
“Our interactive 3D maintenance training aids allow people who
maintain and repair military equipment to accelerate learning in complex
equipment and enable first-time-right repairs and optimize operational
readiness at a lower cost.”
Live it, buy it, or learn it, but find a way to speak your customer’s