Driving trade online

A federal government Web portal aimed at helping Canadian companies develop or enhance business in foreign markets has received rave reviews in its first year of operation.

The Virtual Trade Commissioner (VTC) portal “was a creative idea that we haven’t tried in government,” said Ken Sunquist, a director general in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

“It’s meant a transformation in the service we offer, it’s meant finding partners we didn’t have before and the result is finding clients we didn’t have before.

“In one year, I’m happy with what we have accomplished.”

Launched in June 2002, the VTC portal provides businesses with information on foreign countries and their markets from Canadian trade commissioners posted in 140 locations around the world. This includes market reports, business leads, news, a list of trade events and even visitor information offering guidance for organizing trips to countries of interest.

Sunquist said DFAIT realized there was a need for a trade commissioner portal about five years ago, when the idea of using the Internet as a business tool started to become a reality.

“We’d done some studies that showed e-business was rapidly being adopted by our clients and was becoming an expected medium of delivery, but we weren’t there,” he said. “We wanted to become part of a modern trend and we knew what our clients wanted.”

Through client surveys and talks with the trade commissioners overseas, DFAIT designed and launched a portal that takes market and country information obtained by its staff – in addition to news gathered by an independent firm – and offered it free of charge to companies that register for access to the VTC.

“What we have found with our workforce abroad…is that they have developed a lot of intelligence, contacts and networks,” Sunquist said. “Our clients need to know where the best opportunities are, how they can get into the marketplace and who the competition is. Now the technology is there that allows us to get that information to them.”

Though the portal has enjoyed success, Sunquist said it would not have been possible without the support of political leaders and portal partners – including Industry Canada and the provincial governments. DFAIT’s own employees are also responsible for the portal’s success, Sunquist added.

“We had to make sure our employees were committed to this. It clearly is adding to their workload. All of a sudden companies across Canada, not just our tried and true partners, are approaching us. So you have to have commitment from the employees.”

Sunquist said the portal has allowed DFAIT to position the federal government as a leader in export development. Since the VTC portal was launched, there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of clients who are new to DFAIT.

The portal also allows trade commissioners to work as knowledge brokers who can help a company enhance business instead of logistics workers who were often bogged down answering questions about the best hotels to stay at and what trade events were available. Now that information is online.

Another benefit to DFAIT is that the client information gleaned from interaction with companies through the portal allows the department to find out where priorities lie and how they can position themselves to better serve their clients.

“With a little bit of time and experience behind us, we’ll be able to start moving our resources around,” Sunquist said. “If no one is interested in Market X, for example, then why have we got an office and people there when the majority of the companies want to see us somewhere else? The clients are interested in knowing we’ve got the right resources in the right places. It’s an efficiency matter for us.”

For more information visit:

– The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade at www.infoexport.gc.ca

Blair McQuillan ( bmcquillan@itworldcanada.com) is assistant editor of CIO Governments’ Review.