Managing Export Customers

Managing Export Customers

To really succeed in exporting, a company needs to be proactive.

It may seem strange to think about ‘managing’ our customers, after all they don’t work for us, and we can’t tell them what to do. But good management is about leadership, motivating and encouraging, and this is a crucial role for the export manager.

Exporting companies have differing routes to markets, and their customers take different forms. Some exporters sell directly to their ultimate customers or end users. This is still a method of business that is only practiced by a minority, but with the growth of e-commerce, more businesses are finding that they can reach their customers themselves without need of intermediaries such as agents or distributors. This direct method of business appeals particularly to businesses with niche products or services, particularly where a personal relationship with the ultimate customer is important. Direct selling is also effective for many service companies, where they are delivering bespoke services.

For exporters of ‘mainstream’ products where the main method of reaching end users is through distributors, the exporter doesn’t usually have direct contact with the end user. In this situation, the key challenge for the exporter is to manage the distributor.

The relationship with the distributor is often a challenging one. The exporter and the distributor usually have the same aim, to sell product and make a profit, but their approaches may often be at variance. It’s by no means unusual for a distributor to seek to keep the exporter at arm’s length from their customers. If not handled sensitively, the position of the distributor can seem a bit precarious, and there may be a fear that the exporter will seek to cut the distributor out and sell directly. So the first task of the exporter is often to build a relationship of trust, and of course, to maintain it.

A good export manager will take time to understand the distributor’s business, to appreciate what their particular challenges are, what other products they sell, how they operate and the resources they have. A lack of an open relationship with the distributor can be a major hindrance to growth.

The export manager needs to lead by example, perhaps by demonstrating their trust by being open about the company’s own aspirations and challenges. The aim is to encourage the distributor to show the same openness to the exporter. If the distributor is experiencing challenges in building business, it’s more likely to be resolved if the distributor can be honest about them and seek suggestions.

I find that it helps to contact distributors regularly with news, ideas, stories of what has been happening in other markets, and to invite their feedback on what has been happening in their market. Particularly with a new distributor, there is every likelihood that the first part of the journey might not go as smoothly as expected. Introducing a new product to a market is an uncertain activity with unpredictable results, and things that have worked in one market might not be so effective in another. So it’s inevitable that there will be a period of trial and error with the products in the first couple of years or so. Even if things are going well, the export manager should want to hear honest feedback, and if none of it is in any way negative, should perhaps begin to be concerned that they are not getting the full picture.

To build a strong relationship, it’s essential to visit often and make the visits productive. Even in an age where we can have conference calls on a tablet or even a smartphone at a moment’s notice, there is still all the difference in the world between meeting face to face and talking online. A visit to the customer allows the exporter to get to know other members of the team, perhaps to put a face to the voice of the receptionist who always takes your calls, and meat the sales team and office staff who have the most day to day contact with your products and end users. It’s good to get to know the finance and admin staff too, as this will make it easier to resolve issues in the future.

When visiting a distributor, allow plenty of time for each meeting, especially in the early days. Get to know your distributor, their interests and motivations. Do be sensitive that you are not encroaching on their time too much, but never give the impression that you don’t have time for them. If they like sport, suggest going to a match together, and perhaps invite them back to your country for a key fixture. If you enjoy a common pursuit such as running, do it together. The better you get to know your distributor, the more open the lines of communication will be.

Take the lead on monitoring and managing performance. If you manage to get to meet the sales team, remember to ask specifically how each member is getting on with the products, if they feel confident in presenting them or if they need support.

More and more people are maintaining their business relationships through social media, both through business minded services such as Linked In as well as through Facebook and Twitter. Find out how your distributor is most comfortable keeping in touch, and look out for anything they may find difficult. For example, many people will seem very confident in speaking English, but what may not be obvious is that their ability to read and write English may not be so fluent. If they prefer to talk, remember that and don’t be surprised if an important email goes unanswered.

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

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