Leadership in Export - Motivating Agents & Distributors

Leadership in Export – Motivating Agents and Distributors

Choosing the right distributor or agent is one half of the key to succeeding in a market. The other half is getting them to achieve their potential.

It can’t be overstated just how important the representative in a market is in international trade. A capable and motivated agent or distributor can often achieve more in a small market than a less motivated representative can do in a larger one. The most crucial task of an export sales manager is to get the best out of his representatives.

Unlike most other managers however, the Export Sales Manager has two particular challenges:

·         The representatives are far away

·         The representatives are not actually employed by the company

This means that some of the most common methods of motivating the team are not really available. To counteract this, the Export Sales Manager needs to work in different ways.

In international trade, a successful relationship is based on a strong mutual understanding. For the exporter, the business is usually their world. But for the distributor or agent, they will usually have other interests, typically selling other products. If we don’t motivate the distributor, the will usually find more than enough to do anyway.

So the exporter needs to be proactive. In a sense, the distributor or agent is a customer like any other. The exporter needs to take plenty of time to listen to the distributor, understand their business and their goals. They also need to build a dispassionate picture of the representative’s business, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and understand how their products fit in the portfolio.

It takes patience and persistence to get to know the representative. The exporter can learn a lot by offering ideas and perhaps sharing experiences of other distributors in different markets. The first thing the exporter needs to achieve is to give the representative confidence, both in the products and in their ability to sell them. The exporter needs to communicate a sense of determination.

Only when the representative is committed to working with the product can the discussion turn to detail. Once there is a sense of trust between the parties, there can be honest discussion about the challenges and obstacles to achieving success. The exporter needs to be able to identify issues and offer solutions. For example, do the sales force have the technical ability to sell the product? Have they also been convinced of the product’s value? The exporter may offer to train the sales force, or other key individuals.

The exporter needs to engender a sense of urgency. In the early days of the relationship, the exporter may do well to feed the new representative with a constant stream of ideas and suggestions. If another distributor has success at an exhibition, generating new leads, then tell the new guy all about it. I find that it’s very effective to encourage distributors to talk to each other. Most are only too happy to try and help a new recruit. The exporter can gently push and cajole the new representative by identifying events such as shows or conferences, suggest advertising or the use of social media, or look for news stories about potential customers that might be worth following up.

During this early phase, the exporter should never let the representative forget him. Even friendly communications such as wishing them a happy birthday or congratulating them when their football team do well can serve to remind the representative that they haven’t been forgotten.

The exporter should look for opportunities to go the extra mile. It can help to be generous with product samples and promotional gifts for customers. The exporter needs to show the representative that they are valued.

The exporter needs to know when the distributor has key activities related to the product. If there is to be a product launch or feature at an event, the exporter should try to be there. Failing that, the exporter should send a good luck message and contact the representative straight after the event and find out how it went.

The exporter should be setting high expectations. Although formal targets can sometimes frighten a new distributor, the exporter can do well to express their personal expectations, based on past experience. “Our distributor in Italy managed to do half a million pounds in his first full year. That was fantastic, but I honestly think that if we really work at it, we might do even better here.” And then the exporter needs to justify that belief. So although no formal target has been set, there has been a friendly discussion of a theoretical target. The exporter shouldn’t let it go, even if it begins to look unattainable. Check on the sales progress regularly, if it’s good, congratulate them and suggest ways of achieving more. If it’s disappointing, work to keep them positive, keep a sympathetic outlook and be ready to offer new ideas.

When the representative comes to the exporter with ideas, they should bel warmly welcomed, at least initially, even if the exporter has doubts about them. Success comes from creating a proactive, self-driven representative, and this is a sign that they are on the way. Discuss all ideas with an open mind. If the exporter really thinks they are not going to work, he needs to say so clearly, but in that case he also needs to offer alternatives. Take care never to dampen the enthusiasm of a new representative.

When the representative is enjoying the fruits of success and believing in the business, keep the conversation going with more ideas. Listen to any complaints or issues they have, and follow them up. Above all, show the representative that they are dealing with a partner they can trust, someone who values them and keeps their word.

Article written by Tim Hiscock - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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