At the beginning of the year, most international business development professionals start out with lofty goals and plans to “crush” their targets. All too often though, I see them caught up in the minutiae of day to day and they are more passenger than driver of their annual results…How can you get ahead of the game?

Be the Driver, not a Passenger

What can you do at the start of the year to get off to a great start, without being a complete “I have to hustle 24/7” kind of person? It’s all too easy to fall into a gentle start to a new year, and lose sight of the fact that the actions you take today will be driving your results in 6-9 months time in your international markets so there’s really no time to lose. On the other hand, you don’t want to feel like the slave driver towards your distributors…

You need to be in the driving seat though, and not a passenger. The analogy of a tesserarius (the guy setting the pace and maintaining the rhythm by playing a drum on a roman naval slave galley) is also apt in the sense that the function is similar – not in the slave aspect obviously. However he played crucial role in coordinating the rowers and ensuring efficient propulsion of the ship. The rhythmic drumming helped synchronise the rowing movements of the slaves, optimising the ship’s speed and manoeuverability. As an international business development manager, that is also your function in your sales area – to make sure that the business is moving in the right direction at the right speed whilst remaining nimble enough to adapt to circumstances.

The driving analogy is more fitting in the 21st century though, even though the heyday of sales professionals obsessing about their cars is past.

Why is it so hard?

It can be tough though in Q1, especially if you’re working with Asian markets.

Firstly, you have Q4 as a stressful period when you need to hit your goals, get all those deliveries out of the door (especially if you work in food and beverages!) before the Customs close for Christmas or containers treble in price… Also if you are working with Asia, you have to time containers so that they arrive before the new year (if you need the stock to sell at that time). Probably you’re also in the finishing hectic of your annual budgets and you might not have time to really reflect on what actions you need to take or changes you need to make to get the year off to a great start.

You come back after Christmas, potentially now in a mental space to do that reflection, but there are day to day issues that need to be dealt with and of course you need to get off the starting blocks as far as sales are concerned. Your mindset is going to be key!

Why is the driver theme so important for international business development managers?

The driver is a metaphor for taking control, taking intentional action, being responsible. It’s important to recognise though that you don’t have control over everything. If you were driving in a car you also don’t have control of everything. You do have control over how you are responding. You are controlling yourself, how you steer the vehicle, how you set your speed, braking and accelerating, how you define your direction, how you respond and react to certain individual circumstances.

Maybe spend some time thinking about how you can take this driving theme and apply it to your specific situation. I’m going to be looking at 8 aspects that you could consider in more detail.

How can you drive your vision and goals?

If you are a head of export in any food and beverage company, then chances are that you have a vision for how you want 2024 to look. And that vision should be in alignment with the greater strategy and vision of the company that you’re working with. However, just because you have a vision for how the year should pan out, it doesn’t mean that you really know the route to get there. It’s just that you have this kind of North Star that you’re heading for.

What you now need to do is to make sure that you can bring your team and distribution partners on board to make it clear to them really, what it is that you are looking to achieve in the year ahead, even if the specifics of the details are not yet clear. That sounds very high level & abstract but in many cases, you’re looking to really showcase your values. When you work with export partners it can be very difficult to actually get people to understand the greater vision, more than simply the numbers, and both sides, looking to be mutually profitable.

This north star can help you to drive forward in a positive and meaningful manner towards an ideal destination. Consider how you can drive your vision forward?

Driving Growth & Profitability

When we look at growth and profitability, chances are that most companies are going to be expecting you to increase both in the year ahead. However, in a tough market, like we’ve got at the moment where a lot of consumers are still cautious about their spending, whether that be in Asia or in Europe in other markets, then that is easier said than done. Of course, there are also a lot of costs challenges on the production side.

That also means that probably your profit and loss is becoming more and more challenging so your individual profit centres for each country market that you’re working with need to be looked at very very carefully to see how you can best manage. Of course probably you’ve done this, at least in part during your planning and budgeting process. But you might actually need now to look in detail about any changes that you need to make.

Lots of companies that I’ve spoken to recently have been looking to literally cut back all of their costs down to the bone, which is okay on the one hand and of course you should always look for reasonable cost savings. However, you do also need to make sure that you can progress in the most effective way possible. And just cutting costs is rarely the best way to do that.

You might be good on the p&l in theory, but chances are in the end, cutting back on marketing and travel costs in export is going to impact negatively on the sales which in turn will impact the bottom line. So think about how you can most effectively use all of the resources that you have. And think about the longer term not just the short term impact of those so that you really get the best value for any investments that you’re going to make. It doesn’t matter if those are in your team and their training, in your marketing activities, or also in the activities that you do together with your distribution partners.

Whilst it’s great to save costs where you can, remember that growing sales and profits will probably require more than that. So be prepared to think out of the box and work closely with your partners to come up with solutions.

Driving Experience

Usually when we talk about experience in food and beverages, we’re talking about customer experience or CX. Of course, it’s always critical to be considering the customer’s goals as we head into a new year. Thinking about actually how can you be empathetic towards the customer? What are the specific challenges of the situation that they find themselves in? Do they have a cost of living crisis. Are they facing challenges around lifestyle, or around jobs or insecurity.

Consider how your experience can lean into this in a meaningful way. How can you truly help customers out or what are other important experiences that you can drive as well as positive touch points for your colleagues, your frontline, for your peers and leaders in your leadership team, or suppliers or supporters? How can you drive positive experiences?

driving experience for all stakeholders by international business development professionals
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

As I’ve touched on above, it’s not simply your end consumer who you need to consider. What is the experience of your team of international business development professionals of working in your company and in their markets specifically? Are they feeling under pressure to perform & worried about their job security? Or do they feel concerned about the geopolitical or economic situation in their markets right now?

Last but not least, how is the sentiment amongst your distribution partners? Are they satisfied with the experience of working together with your brand, or do you need to make extra efforts in the year to come to motivate them to put you as their focus? Are they optimistic about the year to come in the geopolitical and retail environment that they face?

Drive the Data

Data is all around us and crucially important, although it’s often seen as quite wishy washy in some export markets. Consider how you can truly turn the data you have into meaningful insights. Make sure that those insights are then translated into meaningful actions derived from them. Actions that adjust in future for the better. If we don’t adjust the future for the better then the whole value of data has been missed. How are you going to drive data delivered positive value?

Remember that in your export markets this may involve a lot of assumptions and extrapolations based on partial information, but do the best you can with what’s available. It’s worth investing some of your resources here into automating systems for capturing data from the markets and analysing it as chances are that your distribution partners are only doing this in a superficial way too in many cases.

How can you drive innovation in the coming 12 months?

You can’t just continue to roll out same old tactics and approaches that you perhaps have done for years and years and expect them to always have the same results. Retail in different countries continues to move forward from a competitive angle, from a customer and customer behaviour point of view, and lots of different aspects but in different ways and at differing speeds in different regions. This adds a layer of complexity to the work you need to do as you don’t have a homogenous group of consumers that you need to serve but many groups of ever changing needs.

If you are the export manager of a food and beverage brand, chances are that the decision around using certain types of new technology is not in your hands. However what I would recommend you do is make sure that all of your distribution partners are using a CRM system that you can use to aggregate insights (even if this means investing in some API (interface) programming), and think about systematising the sharing of best practices.

Don’t underestimate the effect of taking a marketing campaign that worked a treat in Turkey and “localising it” for the Bangladesh market. It’s important that you don’t allow your distribution partners to slip into the negative mindset of “oh that wouldn’t work here, X is a completely different market”. Yes, that’s true…but that is exactly where often the innovation comes in. What do you have to do to make an idea work in your target market? How does it need to be adapted? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel – just give it new tyres for the conditions in the market…

Drive Flexibility

It’s important to be not narrow minded as I’Ve mentioned above. There are a variety of ways that you can reach your goals, your vision. If you set out in your car to drive on holiday you probably face roadblocks or congestion, but you don’t let that put you off heading to your destination.

In export you rarely make straightforward progress, so it’s always important to be able to be flexible and pivot your strategies and approaches as required. This kind of agility can be hard to implement because of the number of stakeholders who all have their own interests but you have to take control of what you can.

Think about Driving Collaboration

When you work with various teams across time zones and cultures you will always find confusion between goals, lack of resources, culture conflicts. So how are you going to drive better teamwork, cross functional working and better collaboration in this market? (And probably you need a slightly different approach in all your markets). To foster collaboration in a team, in a department, within an organisation and especially externally with your distributors as well?

Don’t forget your end consumers either. Where does it make sense to involve your customers in strategic and tactical processes or marketing activities? How can you make this the year where collaboration truly fulfils your company’s long term aspirations?

Driving Leadership

If you are in charge of the export markets, then as the driver you need to be a responsible driver, taking care of the passengers who are trusting you to be the driver. They’re trusting you to understand where you’re going or what the best direction is, so help them to understand where you’re going. Passengers are trusting you to find the right path and also, explain what that path is like for them. You need as a leader to understand the levels of transparency and communication that the individual players in your teams and amongst your distribution partners need.

International Business Development is also about Driving Sales

It’s so easy to be the passenger especially at the beginning of the year where it feels that your Asian clients are about to start winding down for their Spring Festival Festivities. If you let other people take the lead though (whether that’s other people within your organisation or whether that’s letting your competitors take the lead) then it’s easy to lose sight of your targets and your chances of achieving them.

Driving the sales means really having a clear plan of what activities you and each member of the team (including at your distributors’) will carry out during the year ahead. If you don’t take action now, but wait until everyone is out of their holiday mood then you’ve already lost Q1 to your competitors. That doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, but it does mean you need to steadily move forward in order to achieve your goals. Take the lead – be the pilot of the results rather than sitting back and taking a back seat role. Yes, it’s more complex when you’re working across multiple markets, but that’s why you’re not in domestic sales isn’t it?

Consider how your mindset at the start of the year can influence the results in the year ahead. Of course you can’t control everything, but working on the things you can control and being the one to seize the initiative can make the difference between mediocre and stellar results.

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