- Properly setting expectations
- Developing a bank of resources
- Studying local market norms
- Deciding upon a foreign national or expatriate as country manager
- Developing a champion customer
- Wisely selecting sales channel partners
- Preparing itself for fraud and scandal
- Incorporating lessons from competitors into its expansion plan
When a company begins discussion about creating a sales presence in a foreign market, each member of the executive team probably has a different view of the reason for expanding internationally. Growth may be the purpose for sales. Manufacturing may prize greater capacity utilization of existing plant. Finance welcomes the opportunity to reduce financial risk from a broader array of revenue sources. Engineering may seek the opportunity to create an alliance with a foreign customer or competitor. If the expansion project is to succeed, the executive team must develop and agree to a shared purpose.
Various groups must buy into the foreign market expansion, since those groups will be required to provide resources for the project. Ensure that all groups are prepared to offer resources. More important, confirm that all groups actually buy into the project. For best results, ensure that each group responsible for applying resources in the foreign market actually feels as though it owns its respective piece of the project.
Lessons about the foreign market come from many sources. If the executive team gathers lessons of competitors, the expansion plan that it prepares can avoid many of the most common and frequently repeated mistakes made by American companies. Suppliers already operating in the market have a number of errors made and solutions taken. Gather as many of those stories as possible. Compile those tales before marching into the new market in order to avoid many of the simplest errors. Not making blunders can save precious management time and scarce corporate resources.
Many groups at headquarters must provide resources when creating a sales presence in a foreign market. Identify the resources each group will provide to the foreign market effort. Ensure that all groups providing resources include costs associated with the resources in the budget. Top management must not only proclaim support for foreign expansion, but it must demonstrate that support frequently. One method of demonstrating top management support for the new foreign sales subsidiary is to have the head of the foreign team present to various forums when he or she comes to headquarters for periodic visits. Another is to ensure that members of the executive team visit the subsidiary when traveling abroad.
When a company begins to plan its move into a foreign market, it can draw resources from several quarters. Divide resources into two broad groups: data and network. First, use data to build the expansion plan. How large is the market and how fast is it growing? Does the marketplace use distributors, reps, or dealers? How eagerly do customers accept new entrants? How do we contact and interview potential channel partners?
Second, develop a network. When an American firm enters a new market, it begins with no established network. Develop and constantly nurture the network. The objective of the network is to have someone to call when faced with a dilemma, unforeseen challenge, or scandal. Industry trade associations are a good source of resources. Association staff and member companies both domestically and in the foreign market can provide insight to the foreign sales operation in its start-up phase.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has a presence in every American embassy around the world. One major purpose of the DOC abroad is to help American companies sell into foreign markets. DOC can provide data on the size and composition of the foreign market. It gathers data on the manufacturing capabilities of indigenous competitors, and the presence and plans of fellow American companies. It organizes trade missions and trade fairs. The DOC staff can help arrange introductions to customers, potential sales partners, and staff of other American companies in the market.
Early steps when establishing a presence abroad include initiating relationships with a bank, accountant, and attorney. While creating these relationships, be sure to develop the human side as well as the functional side of those relationships. Meet the executives of the bank. Include them in your network. In some markets, bankers can arrange introductions to customers that otherwise would be difficult or take an unbearably long time to set up. Attorneys will certainly assist your company by filing all the necessary documents with which your company can legally operate in the foreign market. However, they can also answer a myriad of questions you may have during the start-up phase. Those answers and guidance can only come about if you take the time to develop a personal relationship.
As you go about interviewing various manufacturers' representatives, distributors, or dealers, consider including both the partners you select and those you reject in your long-term network. If you interview ten distributors and select two, your network will be more valuable in the future, if you solicit advice from all ten, as opposed to only the two with which you establish a formal relationship. A distributor with which you have no formal partnership is likely to provide you with more and different information about your company, channel partners, and new market than a distributor that is obligated to protect its franchise.
Reps, distributors and dealers in foreign markets often form associations. Developing and nurturing relationships here can afford your company access to information unavailable elsewhere. Through such an association, you will have easy access to most other reps, distributors and dealers. That access becomes very important when you must make a change among your channel partners.
An American Chamber of Commerce operates in most foreign markets. Two examples are the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina and the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria. In smaller markets, the chamber may operate primarily as a social organization. In larger markets, you will discover a sophisticated network of committees that address many industry sectors. Since the chamber is composed of all industries in which American companies operate, it represents a particularly good radar system with which to spot changes occurring in the market.
Irrespective of whether your company plans to relocate a manager from headquarters or hire a local country manager, establishing a relationship with one or two executive recruiters is very wise. A recruiter, particularly one of international scope, is very familiar with problems that arise in American companies. Such a resource can help should you choose to recruit a foreign national as country manager. That resource can also provide counsel regarding dozens of issues as they arise.
All markets have unique characteristics and few are identical to the American market. Prior to entering a foreign market, a supplier must study and develop an understanding of the norms in the market. Understand how the new foreign market differs from the American market. Do direct sales teams sell goods or services? Do sales flow through distributors or manufacturers' representatives? If reps or distributors are used, is it customary to use a sole distributor, or multiple distributors? Do most competitors use a sole rep or multiple reps?
The majority of companies enjoy payment on invoices within 30-to-45 days of shipment of goods in the USA. Achieving 45 days sales outstanding (DSO) may be a manageable objective in the American market, but probably not in many foreign markets. It is important to understand the DSO standard in the foreign market, and to measure the sales subsidiary against local norms.
Management in the Foreign Market
An early decision in the foreign subsidiary is selection of the country or office manager. Does the industry usually staff the top post with an expatriate from headquarters, or hire a foreign national in the local market? Both solutions work and both have problems. An expatriate from headquarters can quickly instill confidence in the subsidiary among staff at headquarters. However, an expatriate will need time to learn customs unique to the local market. During the learning curve, an expatriate will make errors. Some may be costly. An expatriate experienced with the company culture can train foreign staff about how the company operates.
Hiring a foreign national for the top job is the alternative to an expatriate. A well-qualified local manager brings knowledge of customers and market customs to the subsidiary. Since a local GM has neither relationships with the company's executive team nor knowledge of the product line, it is important to have a newly hired manager spend time at headquarters soon after joining the company.
A great asset in any market, foreign or domestic, is a champion customer. By establishing a special relationship with a specially selected customer, the champion customer becomes more important than just a buyer of goods or services. Select a customer for its strategic value. Establish a special relationship through a number of methods. A supplier can agree to manufacture semi-custom or full-custom product for the champion customer.
One technique is to form a joint team to develop a particular product available only to the champion customer. The exclusivity could apply to a finite period before offering the product to the general market. If supply of product may be tight in the future, a supplier can offer a champion customer preferred lead times.
When establishing a relationship with a champion customer, it is important to ensure that the customer fully understand the comprehensive intent of the supplier. Since a supplier cannot offer a special relationship to several customers, it's important that the customer understand the special features offered by the supplier and what the supplier seeks in exchange from the customer in the short and long term. A management matrix must be mapped out, whereby during a one-year period, engineers of the supplier meet with engineers of the customer; directors meet with directors; president and executive staff meet with president and executive staff. When a supplier develops a champion customer in a foreign market, that customer becomes part of the supplier's foreign network. Once a relationship is established, a supplier can feel comfortable going to that customer for help and advice when problems arise. Advice from a champion customer is reliable because the customer understands that it is receiving greater service than that provided by most other suppliers.
Once a supplier creates and constantly nurtures a champion customer, do not forget to identify an executive contact at both the supplier and customer. This pair becomes the supplier and customer team captains. Problems sometimes take too long to solve. When this happens, involvement of the team captains can elicit a more timely response.
After deciding to enter a foreign market, determine the shape of the sales organization. Opening with a direct sales organization is probably the most difficult, expensive and risky alternative. Opening with sales channel partners is generally less difficult, less costly, and poses less risk. Sales channel partners include manufacturers' representatives, distributors, and dealers. Prior to interviewing sales channel partners, develop criteria for selection. The most frequent cause for changing representatives or distributors is inadequate due diligence when evaluating alternative candidates. Since the company entering a foreign market is only beginning to learn about that market, it is important to keep options open. Avoid exclusive arrangements. Ensure that you have the opportunity to modify the geography, customer list, and terms of the distributor or representative agreements in which you engage. Always be sure that you have the opportunity to terminate those agreements for cause and for convenience. Sales channel contracts should be reviewed by someone with commercial experience in the new market as well as by a local attorney.
The first year in any new market is a huge learning experience. At the end of the first year, the executive team and the local GM are likely to look back and determine that they could have made some better decisions. If, during an introspective moment at the end of the first year, it is determined that one or more sales channel partners was a poor decision, you will need the flexibility to make adjustments in the sales channel. By demanding flexibility in sales channel contracts, and avoiding exclusivity with a particular partner, you will have the opportunity to adjust your sales channel.
Fraud and Scandal
Fraud and scandal are real possibilities in foreign markets. It is important to develop a perspective about fraud and scandal before opening the foreign office. It is almost impossible to prevent something going wrong in a foreign subsidiary. Although discovery of fraud or scandal does not permanently destroy a supplier's reputation, a slow or poor response to a problem once discovered is unforgivable and unnecessary. A company must have the outline of a procedure to follow once a problem surfaces. When a supplier uncovers a problem, customers and competitors pay attention to how the supplier handles the problem. The marketplace admires and respects speedy and professional handling of a problem. A slow or slovenly approach to fixing the problem becomes part of the subsidiary's legacy, can dampen the company's reputation, and can impede the company's ability to grow.
Less seasoned management sometimes take too long to prepare a solution when fraud or scandal surfaces. There may be an attempt to hide the problem from the outside world. Such an exercise is foolish. It is almost impossible to keep the news of the problem from leaking into the market once discovered. Experience mandates that the best action is to implement corrective action as quickly as possible. The speed of correction becomes part of the foreign subsidiary's legacy.
Competitors Abroad as Allies
Suppliers rarely offer to help direct competitors in the American market. However, when selling in foreign markets, GMs at subsidiaries of American suppliers often recognize each other more collegially. Although there is little communication between American competitors in the USA, GMs managing foreign sales subsidiaries in Timbuktu likely have a cordial relationship. Those GMs are probably members of the American Club and the American Chamber of Commerce. Both attend monthly meetings of one or more trade associations and are members of the local network. When problems or questions about running the subsidiary arise, there is little stigma attached to asking for help from competitors. Fellow GMs of American subsidiaries can operate as part of a general manager's extended network. However, in order to take advantage of that resource, remember to constantly nurture, develop, and expand the network.
The decision to enter a foreign market is significant for any American company. Entry is expensive and mistakes made during the entry process are even more costly. Ensure that the entire executive team buys into foreign expansion. Continuously build and develop a foreign network. Learn and understand the customs of the foreign market. Correct all problems quickly. Develop a champion customer and take advantage of its wisdom. Create and nurture a corporate memory. The lessons learned during the early years of a foreign presence are extremely valuable and ultimately become part of the legacy and company culture. Retaining those lessons shrinks the opportunity to repeat problems in the future.
Submitted by contributing analyst, Glen Balzer, New Era Consulting.