Managing Agents & Distributors - Part One - Motivation Techniques

In this article, we discuss distributors and agents as if they were the same thing. They aren’t of course, but many of the principles of managing such parties are broadly similar.

It has been said that the selection of the right partner is half the battle in achieving export success. If that is so, then the other half may be achieving a successful working relationship with them, and in keeping them motivated.

An export manager who is working with agents and/or distributors has one of the most challenging jobs in management. Their objective is to get the best possible performance from them, and to keep them focussed on the key opportunities. However, the task is made more difficult by the fact that they are not employed by the company and usually have numerous other products to occupy their time. What’s more, they are usually quite a distance away. (We looked at the challenges of managing remote workers in August, much of which is relevant to the management of agents and distributors.) To achieve success, an export manager needs to give highest priority to the relationship with agents and distributors, and to devote a substantial amount of their time to this purpose.

Having appointed a distributor or agent, it is important to have mutually agreed objectives and, more importantly, an action plan. In most circumstances, a new agent or distributor is working in a market that is completely new to the exporter’s products or services, or at least is a new sector or sub-sector. On the rare occasions where a distributor or agent is replacing a representative, there is a very strong challenge in achieving effective handover, not least in ensuring that existing customers are comfortable in buying from the new party.

For the majority of new distributors and agents who are challenged with bringing a new product to market, the exporter needs to play a very proactive role in the initial period. The initial plan needs to be tightly managed and adequately resourced. This should include a very clear plan of how the products are going to be brought to the attention of the target market, which is likely to be a mix of advertising, social media, mailshots, telesales, face to face presentations, trade shows, conferences and other events. All activity needs to cohere to a common message, which may not necessarily be the same message as in other markets.

The task of the export manager is to keep the plan on track. The new distributor or agent should be nurtured like a small child. The export manager must show that they are keeping closely to their commitments in the action plan, and taking it very seriously. Ask the distributor or agent for feedback after each step. Use the process to get to know them and form a constructive working relationship with them. Understand how they like to be contacted as well as what their personal interests and motivations are. If they have a passion outside of work such as supporting a football team, keep an eye on their progress and perhaps contact them just to congratulate or commiserate after an important match.

I find it’s a good idea to be prepared to go the extra mile. When the distributor places an order, consider including some additional product, perhaps for ‘trial samples’ or marketing material if you think they can use it. But keep in mind customs costs and avoid causing them to incur unexpected costs.

Most of all, the export manager needs to be available. Visit the distributor or agent frequently during the first two years. Video calls are a great way to keep in touch on a daily or weekly basis, but there is nothing quite like a face to face meeting and spending time working together. Often a distributor or agent will find that a visit from the supplier can open doors with potential customers that would have been difficult to get through. I have joined a distributor for meetings with key clients or prospects, and found that although the distributor was more than capable of presenting the products, the meeting had more credibility just because someone had travelled from the base to be there.

Keep a close eye on sales progress, and be ready to work to keep the morale going if early performance doesn’t match expectations. Be ready with alternative suggestions and make it clear that, even if the early outcome is not what everyone hoped for, that you are in it for the long-haul and are confident of success.

Above all, ensure that the communication is two way. Listen to their concerns and frustrations (there will be some, and if you aren’t hearing them then they aren’t being totally open with you.) And of course, having listened, be ready to offer solutions. 

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

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