Tips on developing overseas markets

From 2002 to 2010, I held 3 different roles that directly involved managing and growing sales activity through a network of independent retails, agents, clients and importers scattered across various countries in Europe, USA and Russia. It gave me the opportunity to develop skills in the area of people management, distribution management, market development, sales strategy and key account management.

I learnt on the job and gosh do I wish I had a mentor, but I didn’t. Today, I would like to share some heartfelt suggestions that may not be as obvious to those that have little experience with international markets.

Each market lives in its own cycle

I suggest you develop a good sense of the big picture as well as understanding of the unique local context of that specific market. While a ‘market’ in this account refers to a country, the same principles apply for a micro-market such as a specific suburb within a metro area. Look beyond your own industry and commercial interests. Be genuinely interested in what happens within each market’s border and tap into your local team to quickly absorb the unique facets that make up the local cultural, political and economical structures…they will love sharing their opinions because usually they feel passionate about their country.

For example, in 2005 NuKorc (one of the largest producers of plastic wine closures in the world, who relocated me to Australia) had set their eyes on the Italian market, the largest wine producing country in the world. With distinct advantages from a technical performance perspective, their closure system did not stand the test from a cultural perception point of view. Italians were not mentally open to alternative closure systems because cork was what they had been using for literally thousands of years. We did develop the market, but a lot slower than what my Australian colleagues had anticipated. It took a lot of efforts in trying to convince wineries to test this alternative and a cheaper price was a big driver.

So I encourage you to learn and experience different market contexts with authentic curiosity both on your own and through your team, so that you can create realistic expectations but also find opportunities unique to such markets.

Cycles repeat themselves, somewhere else

To the point above, what I have observed is that while each market may be in its own cycle, eventually trends get around. When that happens, with your previous experience you can start running very useful parallels that aid in developing the business and avoid mistakes.

For example, now settled in Europe (2008) and with offices in Barcelona, NuKorc was eyeing the then-emerging Chinese wine market. When I travelled to China and spoke to the locals, I could see history was about to repeat itself. That really helped in building fair expectations and implementing some of the tactics we had already implemented in Europe a few years earlier. When we received the first order of only 50,000 wine closures (instead of 2 million), we were really happy!

I have been able to see that trends eventually catch up across various industries and South Australia in many respects is well behind. I think this a great advantage! People like me, who have spent much of their life travelling, working and living overseas can take the experience back to south Australia and use it to the advantage of local companies. We know what’s coming and have probably already dealt with it somewhere else!

Your local team will appreciate you wanting to learn

…and understand more about their culture and way of living, which in turn expedites relationship building. They will respect you for your effort and the desire to make a genuine connection with the local reality. Your team will be inclined to entrust you with their own business intelligence and will work harder for you.

I was mostly working with independent agents and retailers that would represent various non-competing manufacturers, so it was crucial to get them on my page, to invest their time on my business and products over the others. I believe that what made the difference, apart from revenue (earned and potential), was the non-financial value provided by the relationship. We prefer to work with people we have a connection with and from whom we can learn and that is true all around the world.

Chatting in English to my Chinese clients…even if they didn’t speak the language!

You have to be present in the market

You have to spend time with your distribution and sales team to get to know them, guide them, motivate them, train them about the products, visiting clients together, learning about individual micro-realities and commercial aspirations, developing targeted solutions as a team, showing the mother company’s presence and support and so on.  Email, phone or skype aren’t going to be enough. So invest on spending time away from home on field trips.

During my sales management days, I was spending 70% of my time overseas somewhere. I saw the world, developed long-lasting or rewarding relationships, acquired a true customer-centric approach and expanded my network globally. But I also missed out on friends celebrations, family gatherings and boyfriends! It takes an independent and entrepreneurial personality to be a good sales team manager but in my opinion this is not an option, it’s a must.

Sales stars still need you

As we know, part of the sales manager role is to develop people, both the average salesperson and the star. How you develop each member of your team would differ based on individual requirements but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the better salespeople don’t need you. Don’t abandon them! Yes, they may be fully autonomous and confident, however we all need direction and support in life, even the best CEOs. Sales stars still appreciate your guidance and interest in their activities, want to feel part of the family while preserving their freedom to operate.

Be flexible with your established company policies

While it is crucial in my opinion to have established protocols and boundaries within the organization, do consider that each market (as discussed before) also presents unique challenges. Evaluate “outside-the-box” requests from local agents or sales people with the intent to find a solution where everyone wins, rather than being too focused on set rules. It links back to the local context, but it also shows that you trust your off-shore people and you are there to remove barriers rather than implementing rules.

Developing a market, locally or internationally, presents many challenges but it is also (to me) very rewarding. It sparks the conqueror in us! However, I have learnt that the best way to achieve that includes immersing yourself in the local context, and working side by side with your local distribution team to overcome contextual voids as quickly as possible. While this may sound obvious to some, I have seen organizations and managers being more worried about expense budgets and time away from the office and missing the point on why it is so important to invest time IN the market.