Finding export customers is not as difficult as you might think. Actually, the hard part is qualifying trade leads for exporters and creating sustainable business partnerships. By conducting a few key searches and following a few tried-and-true strategies, you'll be able to find quality export trade leads for your products and keep them as regular customers.

Determine Target Countries

Research and identify two or three target countries where you want to develop business trade leads. In the U.S., the best countries to target initially are usually Mexico and Canada due to NAFTA. Small and focused is the best way to manage export growth and ensure customer service as well as successful export opportunities. You may find it helpful to look for an free import-export website list online that identifies countries with promising leads.

Attend Trade Shows

Attend trade shows for your industry in the U.S. and overseas. Focus on trade shows in countries where you want to develop your business. Large trade shows attract international participation, so you will find yourself making contacts from all over the world in one place.

Reach Out to U.S. Embassies

Contact U.S. embassies located in countries where you want to find trade leads for exporters. Request a list of companies that might be a good fit for your products from the commercial officer. This is usually made available at no cost, but occasionally you may be asked to pay a fee.

U.S. Embassy Commercial Sections also create and sell in-depth industry analyses and manufacturing reports that may be helpful. Some of these reports are available online for free. Search the trade leads database at for opportunities.

Consider Other Government Sources

Use the U.S. government's Gold Key matching service to visit overseas markets, generate trade leads and arrange meetings with potential customers. You can take advantage of this service by contacting your nearest Export Assistance Center. provides a search link.

Contact your state trade office to see what international business initiatives it offers. Some states even maintain economic development offices overseas. Tap into whatever services it provides to locate trade leads.

Update Your Website

Update your website with an international liaison for interested companies to contact. Translate your website and marketing materials into at least Spanish and French. Add other languages as you grow. This will make you visible to Internet searches conducted in different languages.

Follow Up With Potential Customers

Promptly follow up with any potential export customers. Have a communication plan in place and translated marketing materials ready. It's also a good idea to get your house in order. Develop customer-service goals, order processes and timelines for export customers. Good suppliers have good customers, so strive to provide excellent service to your international accounts. The export business has a very different process flow than domestic business. Failing to anticipate its demands will cause problems.

Prepare for Export Opportunities

Prepare for your export customers by selecting a freight forwarder and determining a pricing, credit and legal strategy regarding distribution of your products. You will lose business if potential customers have to wait too long to get pricing and to get set up as customers in your system.

Export customers are famous for ordering products in unusual quantities, so it's not unheard of for an overseas customer to order the equivalent of a one-year production supply for domestic business or pick obscure models. Prepare for this by discussing requirements with export customers so you are not surprised. Export customers do not always understand how to forecast inventory and may benefit from some mentoring from their suppliers.

Qualify Trade Leads

Qualify trade leads by evaluating their professionalism, their ability to prepay their first order, the size of their company and length of time in business. Also, check to see if there is a D&B (Dun & Bradstreet) rating on new customers, but don't expect to find one, as many overseas companies are not listed.

Don't sell on open-credit terms until you know customers really well. Avoid letters of credit until you've obtained training to prevent fraud and discrepancy fees. Check the U.S. Denied Persons List and U.S. Embargo List to ensure your customer has not been banned from purchasing U.S. goods.