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Putting customers first: Navigating an international business post-Brexit

Putting customers first: Navigating an international business post-Brexit

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Citrefine International is a British company, founded over 25 years ago. It is a leading, trusted and reliable partner to insect repellent manufacturers and brands, and produces a naturally sourced, plant-based active substance for insect repellent products. As well as working with international suppliers, Citrefine has a global customer base, including companies across the EU. Jacqueline Watson, Citrefine’s Managing Director, discusses successful strategies for navigating the operational changes caused by Brexit and key learnings for businesses going forward.

As the Managing Director of a British company that works with both suppliers and customers from around the world, when the result from the European Union (EU) referendum was announced on June 23, 2016, my reaction was shock. Our initial concern, like many other businesses operating between the UK and EU, was around how we could reassure, and minimise the impact on, our customers and our own business.

As the dust – and exchange rate – slowly settled, we knew that leaving the EU wasn’t going to happen overnight and that we would have time to plan, ensure we had resources in place to deal with the additional administrative work and, importantly, communicate the changes to our international network of customers. From the day of the announcement, through to confirmation of the leaving date, confident, clear communication with our customers was critical to navigating Brexit. This strategy is of equal, if not greater, importance for businesses as we move forward.

Strong resource ensures confidence

In order to communicate confidently to our customers that the Brexit transition would be a smooth one and reassure them that we had the resource in place to cover any obstacles that came our way, we had to first put plans in place to ensure we could deliver on this promise. One of the biggest costs of Brexit to businesses, including ours, has been time. At the beginning, our senior leadership team dedicated significant time and energy to working out what the next steps should be. To make sure that our customers felt confident in us, we did this well in advance and, although there was uncertainty, we knew we had the resource in place to manage and overcome the inevitable hurdles.

By planning our resource effectively, from the very beginning, we were able to confidently reassure our customers we would minimise the impact of Brexit on their businesses. Additional staff can be costly, but ensuring you have the capacity in place for big operational and administrative challenges is essential, whether you are navigating Brexit, COVID-19 or any other unpredictable challenge. Deciding whether to hire a new team member or increase an existing employee’s hours or risk losing business through lack of resource is an easy decision to make.

Transparency, always

In October 2020, it became clear that everything would change on January 1, 2021. And so, it was imperative that we were proactive and transparent with our customers and managed their expectations. Anticipating that there would be issues with supply immediately after the leaving date, we contacted all of our customers in October advising them that, if they wanted stock by January or February, they should order it well before Christmas and, ideally, have it delivered before Christmas too. Our business approach has always been customer-centric and, although dictating ordering times may not seem as though we were ‘putting the customer first’, this realistic approach, and clear communication, ensured that there were limited delays on orders. Our customers received their stock in plenty of time and the expectations for on-time delivery were managed and our relationships with customers remain strong.

Anticipate questions, give answers before they are asked

When dealing with challenges like Brexit, we believe that proactively keeping in touch with customers, before they contact you, is essential in maintaining good business relationships. We took the onus off our customers during a stressful time and, in November 2020, we wrote to them again with a list of what they would need to do when importing stock from the UK into the EU. We even went one step further and provided them with links to the websites they needed to visit in order to action post-Brexit business requirements.

Although this resulted in a lot of additional work up-front, it meant that when changes took place, our customers were prepared. Many customers, particularly the larger organisations we supply, were, of course, already on top of things and had robust processes in place, but our communication was appreciated, particularly our proactive and transparent advice, which confirmed our knowledge and position in the industry. Our communication has been appreciated by customers and is another way of building trust and giving customers confidence that we can handle even the most unpredictable hurdles. Wim Decraemere, Managing Partner Limaru NV, our EU distributor, said: “Thanks to Citrefine’s anticipatory attitude and thorough focus on the preparedness and resilience of its business activity, it was able to guarantee a smooth transition to the post-Brexit era for all its customers. For Limaru as European distribution partner of Citrefine, it is reassuring that Citrefine rely on a strong strategic plan and it boasts confidence that no problem will be too big on our way to further success.”

Managing difficult conversations

Another lesson Brexit has provided for many businesses is in how to manage when unpredictable costs are inflicted. When do you take the hit and when do you pass them on to the customer? Around January and February, the cost of distribution tripled – a cost that was no-one’s fault but which needed to be covered. Though a difficult situation, through open conversations with our customers, we were able to come to an agreement about how to deal with the extra costs, ensuring no side was unnecessarily burdened in the long run. Having an on-going, open and transparent relationship with our customers enabled us to have these conversations fairly and as equals, further emphasising the importance of adopting a customer-centric approach to business, whichever industry you are in.

Looking ahead

Between COVID-19 and Brexit, it has been a challenging couple of years for all British businesses operating internationally. There may be another hurdle waiting around the corner; although I hope that we are over the worst of the challenges for some time. These trials and tribulations are entirely unpredictable, and no one expects anyone to have all the answers, so don’t pretend you do. At Citrefine, along with every other business in the UK, we had no prior experience of Brexit, but what we could rely on was our expert knowledge of our business and pre-existing strong relationships with our customers as well as our well-resourced and flexible team. These factors enable us to continue to meet and exceed our customers’ and suppliers’ expectations, while achieving our vision of serving the insect repellent market, providing a highly effective product that combines nature’s wisdom with robust scientific testing.

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