Empower Your International Sales Team


Half a lifetime in international selling has presented many different opportunities and challenges, and continues to do so. If anything has changed over the years, it is that the element of surprise is less now than when I first started out. I still get surprised, but not as much. In my role as a consultant I see younger sales people making and learning from similar mistakes to those I have made while at the same time enjoying the buzz that comes with successes and achievements. It is important for their own development that they experience both the achievements and challenges of international trade.

So why am I less surprised by things than when I first started out? Well, it’s all about planning, and although planning itself will not resolve every issue, it certainly leaves you free to focus on the issues when they arise. The younger me was also a good planner, but I like to think I have become better at it! A plan provides direction, organization, objectives and milestones, and it helps to optimise resource. So it can also save you money. 96% of UK SMEs employ fewer than ten people, so resource is always going to be at the forefront for the exporters among them.

Resource can be internal or it can come from external sources. Exporting companies need to be sure of both financial constraints and funding opportunities, the skills and people they have and the skills and people they need, and the tasks that need to be fulfilled in the process either of entering a new market, or implementing (eg) a change in strategy in an existing export market.

Exporters are rightly encouraged to research the markets they are targeting, but that should not be a one-off exercise. In appointing overseas selling partners you will need to understand at first hand how their markets operate, and to continue to gather market intelligence both with and without their assistance. You have to give the impression that you know their market and their customers at least as well as they do.

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Your people out there in the field need all the tools you can provide if they are to make good decisions.Most export managers/directors need to possess general management skills, and you need to enable your selling partners in a similar way. For example, if you do not provide them with good quality, localized sales literature they are probably going to start at a disadvantage – meat and drink to your competitors!

But it goes way beyond marketing material because it is frequently the case that the achievement of the correct standards and technical certification is more costly and time consuming than brochure printing, setting up overseas exhibitions, participating in trade missions etc. (and there does not appear to be as much appetite to help fund it!). There is little point in exhibiting at an overseas trade show without first knowing that your product meets all the necessary local standards – because your competitors will probably already have them.

Good product knowledge is vital. As a young machinery salesman I remember being sent to a UK dowelling factory to try and understand a tooling issue. My usual customers made wooden products but this company adapted our woodworking machinery to make plastic dowel, and they were getting a poor finish. Except nobody told me that! The customer was expecting a resolution that day and I could not provide one.

Conversely, as a more experienced export manager, I visited the site of a major telecommunications company outside Istanbul to look at a complaint that had been raised by the main contractor. Our carpet tiles had been installed on two open plan floors, and on the upper floor there was a complaint about the colouration of one of the central tiles. It was quite funny because it stuck out like a sore thumb! For some reason, their installers had fitted that tile at 90 degrees to the other 2,000, so the light was catching it differently. They had also installed the tiles using a cheap permanent adhesive, not our recommended release adhesive, and that meant I could not simply lift the tile and turn it to the right position.

Part of our forward planning for that very large project was to make sure that every single box of our carpet tiles contained both an English and Turkish version of our installation instructions. The installer had no defence, therefore we were not faced with a rectification bill. However, we had also not provided our selling partners in Istanbul with adequate training to have been able to resolve that simple issue without our involvement, so that was a lesson learned and we put that right within months.

How many times have you heard the expression ‘information is power’? Please ensure that anyone who is selling on your company’s behalf, employed or contracted, is given all the information they need to immediately handle questions and concerns from your customers. “I will phone the office’ or ‘I will find out and get back to you’ lose you credibility. And in the end it will probably cause you to lose out to your competitors!

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