The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC)’s annual international trade survey estimates that the UK will miss the government’s target of hitting £1tn worth of exports by 2020 by 14 years. But it advises that untapping services exports’ potential would be a way to accelerate the timeline.

While the overall UK trade deficit in 2014 stood at £34bn, the services sector recorded its highest trade surplus to date at £86bn – equivalent to 5% of GDP. The BCC survey showed that only 23% of services firms currently export, and a further 17% have either previously traded internationally or are looking to do so in the next two years. By comparison, 53% of manufacturers surveyed currently export their goods, and an additional 13% have done so previously or plan to do so again.

The UK currently ranks as the second-largest exporter of services in the world behind the US, but the BCC survey highlighted the need for government action to open up markets, and the need for UK businesses to increase the skills range of their workforce in order to be competitive internationally. The greatest barriers to exporting among services firms were differences in regulations and standards (27%) and language or cultural differences (26%).

“For some time we’ve been saying that we need a radical change in how we support export businesses. That we are set to miss the export target by 14 years tells us that the radical shift needed has not happened. We cannot continue doing the same things, yet dream of different results,” says John Longworth, BCC director general. “The government must take these figures seriously and help exporters to catch up. Our businesses have the potential to meet the target. They need ongoing support and access to finance to help them thrive on the world stage,” he warns.

Services firms have a broad worldwide reach. In 2014, the value of the UK’s trade surplus in services to non-EU countries was £70bn, compared with a £16bn trade surplus with the EU. According to the BCC survey, only two European countries make the top 10 of ‘hot spots’ for services. The countries UK services firms are most interested in exporting to over the next five years are: the United States (32%), Germany (30%), France (29%), China (24%), the United Arab Emirates (24%), Brazil (20%), South Africa (20%), Malaysia (17%), India (17%) and Mexico (13%).

The BCC has proposed a number of measures to assist first-time exporters and to help existing exporters target new international markets, including: making foreign language learning compulsory from age seven to 16; enabling access to a world-class digital infrastructure by leading the world in the development of 5G technology; driving the completion and enforcement of the EU Single Market in goods, services and e-commerce; continuing efforts to bring UK Export Finance up to par with the world’s best export finance agencies and to develop a global business-to-business network of British Chambers and business groups – linking British firms with customers and opportunities for growth in the fastest-growing overseas markets.

The BCC’s annual international trade survey gathered information from nearly 2,500 businesses during Q1 2015.