In expanding a business globally, understanding local markets and cultures is crucial. Effective management of international channel sales and partnerships requires a skilled manager who can balance various demands and maintain a wide range of skills.

About Fred

Over the last 22 years Brindis Founder Fred Copestake has travelled round the world 14 times visiting 36 countries and working with over 10,000 salespeople.

Fred Copestake - partnering skills in international channel sales

He has identified the things that really make a difference in modern selling and put them in his books ‘Selling Through Partnering Skills’ and ‘Hybrid Selling’. These ideas form the basis of his work with sales professionals involved in complex B2B sales to develop their approach and ensure it is up to date and has maximum impact.

He believes that people can get better through learning and sharing, and that with better collaboration we can really make a difference.

Fred is also the host of the Sales Today podcast.

Fred started out in pneumatic components literally straight out of uni, and had a stint at Corona selling beer amongst other things, but always in international business. His passion is for companies who actually manufacture “stuff”, and if you’ve read many of my blog posts, you’ll know that this often means that the international sales are run via a channel partner model.

‘Partnering Intelligence’ can be described as a set of skills that help translate bold promises into true value. As such it is something that is extremely useful in today’s world of professional sales.

Fred Copestake

Customers define value

This is something that brands especially often choose to ignore. What the customers perceive as being the value of your brand in one market, may be completely different in another – beauty is in the eye of the beholder remember…

The key for an international business development manager is then to find out what the consumers in that market see as beneficial and work towards delivering those outcomes together with their international channel sales partners. This has to be a flexible concept varying by market.

Lots of companies try to dictate exactly how the messaging should be structured, and that’s ok as a starting point, but you can’t impose that on a foreign market (or your domestic one either).

Brand owners! Your distributor is not your “customer”

A lot of companies also forget is that the channel sales partner is not their customer. At the end of the day, their customer is the person who is the final end consumer who buys your product. So, realistically speaking, I have a channel sales partner: We’re on the same side. Of course, he has his own interests that he is wanting to pursue with our business connection. But at the end of the day, we’re both looking to increase sales to the customers, whoever they might be depending on the industry.

Both the manufacturer and the distribution partner have to be flexible in thinking about how to sell the products so as to offer value to the consumers. You have to give the international channel sales partner the tools that they need in order to be successful – it’s not enough to send them a price list and a brochure and just say “off you go”.

You need to make sure they know how to present your brand, how to ask questions, how to work with customers, understand what that value is for them, and know how to build the necessary relationships giving them the best opportunity to be successful.

If you as a principal are the one who offers the sales team of your international distributors the means to be more successful (& earn more money) then they will give more focus and attention to your products, as well as selling with more enthusiasm.

Being “partner ready” and giving them the best opportunity to be successful, that’s one of the smartest things we can do in channel sales

Fred Copestake

These deepening of relationships with your distributors and their sales teams helps both of you to more long term success in those markets.

The EXTRA Framework

During his time with the Corona (beer) Training Academy, Fred developed an acronym for helping channel partners when he was delivering training
E for Earnings – sales teams (& their companies) have to know exactly how to earn from your products
X for Excitement – you need the enthusiasm of a motivated team as practically all markets are red oceans these days
T for Training – seemingly obvious but often ignored beyond the basics of the products
R for Results – of course these are important
A for Achievements – these can be incentivised in all kinds of small ways, both in terms of money or gifts but also being made to feel valued

In companies like Corona, the country managers were always travelling their regions, getting in time together with their partners and building those relationships.

I’ve heard from many companies in the last two years who’ve told me “before covid, we had this great partner in [pick your country]. And since that time, they seem to have gone off a bit and I don’t know whether it’s because they’ve had a change in their teams or whatever it is”. When you actually dig down into it, they’re not investing in the personal relationships. They’re not investing in their foundation of actually doing great business. They’re only looking at the transactional side of the business and wondering then why things are not moving forward in quite the same way that they used to.

Hot tip from me: saving drastically all the money from travel budgets and thinking you can replace everything with Teams or online transactions doesn’t pay off long term in product based businesses usually. Visiting a channel partner in person makes them feel valued and important as well as helping to build trust. It also shows them that the market is important for you as a company.

Developing PQ, Partnering Skills

PQ is the partnering equivalent of IQ and EQ. That means it’s a measurable (learnable) set of skills that define how well you are able to build relationships as well as understanding the necessary organisational and cultural changes needed to make sales work smoothly.

PQ is made up of 6 attributes:

– Ability to trust. Do you give customers your trust, or do they have to earn it? This is probably the most important skill. Without this, you cannot truly partner with your customers, nor they with you. Of course there’s a cultural element with this too – how do you win trust in a certain region?
– Comfort with change. Are you at ease with not only altering the existing state of affairs but also with modifying your own accustomed routines or habits? You need to understand the reactions of different people to change – humans naturally don’t like it in most cases
– Comfort with interdependence. Are you able to accept and thrive within a framework where reliance on others is necessary? This includes being open to allowing your partners to fulfill their responsibilities, even if their approach differs from your own preferences or methods.
– Transparency and feedback. Can you easily disclose and articulate your needs, as well as express your appreciation or disappointment? (This can be a really sensitive topic with international channel sales partners)
– Win-win orientation. Do you employ a problem-solving approach that creates wins for both partners? (This can be really difficult in some cultures eg. Vietnam where negotiations are often seen as a win-lose scenario)
– Future orientation. Do you look to the future rather than the past in evaluating your business relationships? Do you make your decisions based on what you want to achieve.

This starts at the top, so if you are looking for a new distributor then you need to consider whether you are living this before you start looking for the right partner in a foreign market.

Being prepared in your own organisation is a key part of being partner ready

That means understanding how much preparation you need to be doing for market entry, and appreciating how much localisation will be necessary to make your product attractive in that market.

When you are searching for a partner, do you have the whole system of what you offer prepared to demonstrate to them?

  • this is how we sell our products
  • this is the kind of training you can expect from us
  • this is the kind of marketing support you can expect
  • etc. (ie. this is what it would be like working with with us)

Of course the distributor has to be just as invested in the partnership in order for it to work well. If they always have a thousand reasons why something that works in 100 other countries is completely impossible in their country (assuming you’re not proposing something illegal or immoral here) then that is definitely a red flag.

Be in it for the long game with international channel sales partners

If you’re not in a market already, it’s better to wait and keep looking for your ideal partner that to start working with someone where the relationship doesn’t feel quite right. That will save you a lot of nerves and money in the long run.

If possible, wait until you can find the right partner or at least a partner who’s 75% the right partner, rather than going in with somebody who you can see from the beginning will be really transactional and doesn’t fit well with your company values and way of selling.

Relationships take time

Sounds cliched but it’s true that business is done between people rather than companies, so if something isn’t working for you then it can be very difficult to turn it around. If the country manager – distributor relationship isn’t working that can be virtually impossible to correct, so you have to focus on getting things as right as possible from the beginning.

If a distributor is suddenly not delivering the results you would expect, then you need to look into why that’s the case. People have lives outside of their companies and things happen. If a company owner has an issue in their personal life, that may temporarily affect their performance. If the same company owner has a new best friend who is your biggest competitor or simply another brand that he wants to invest his time and mooney in then you have a different problem. Having close enough relationships with your international business partners will help you make the diagnosis and decisions.

International Business Development Managers have to have a broad skills base

Working as a country manager with channel sales partners requires one of the broadest skill sets of any job out there because you are the main point of contact between that company and your employer. You have to know about every single aspect of the business as well as managing the relationships, and that’s no easy task. (You can read more on this in my previous post on this topic).

That is why partnering skills are such a key competence to master – these along with a solid grounding in sales skills will help you to be successful. Fred suggests another acronym to help with this: VALUE

V for validation. This is especially important in export markets where the cost of acquiring business can be really high compared to at home. Is this the right opportunity for you?
A for align. Are you doing the right research and asking the right questions?
L is for leverage. Use what you’ve learnt to have an intelligent conversation and ask additional questions to get to know any potential partner better
U is for underpin. You need to make a proposal and business plan that will be a win-win for both sides for long term mutual profit
E is for evolve. This is especially true in export where signing the initial agreement is just one step along the way – it’s just the start of your business collaboration.

Train your extended sales team

If you are thinking about setting up a systematic “Academy” structure so that you can offer solid sales training to the teams of your distributors (additional value proposition for yourselves when recruiting & retaining distributors, not to mention the benefits to your sales), then you should reach out to Fred to learn more about how he could help you. Of course, he also can train your whole team as well as your indirect or extended sales team at your distribution partners.

Full Video Discussion

You can contact Fred here (see also the link for the PQ score quiz which is mentioned in the video):

Some key takeaways

In expanding a business globally, understanding local markets and cultures is crucial. Effective management of international sales and partnerships requires a skilled manager who can balance various demands and maintain a wide range of skills. Building trust is essential for successful sales partnerships. By tailoring sales approaches to customers’ definitions of value and providing incentives to channel partners, businesses can build strong partnerships and overcome resistance to change.

All change is difficult, but having good partnering & communication skills paired with empathy and cultural EQ can help move things forward. For a company to be truly global, it needs a culture and mindset to match this international aspiration, not just a couple of pallets shipped across borders.

  • Assess your own company’s readiness before expanding internationally through new partnerships
  • Evaluate potential new partners based on demonstrated partnership skills and cultural fit
  • Consider investing more in personal relationships with partners to build long-term commitment
  • Develop tools and training to help channel partners sell value effectively in their markets

In other words, always remember to keep the people at the forefront – relationships and partners are key, especially for smaller and medium sized companies.

Thinking that working with a consultant would accelerate your international expansion?

If you’d like to learn more about working with me for support on your internationalisation projects or personal export knowledge, you can book a 30 minute international clarity call here.

If you haven’t already signed up for my free e-book about how to select which international market to enter next, you can do so here, or using the form below.

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If you are interested in working with distribution partners in your export markets, you might find these posts also interesting:


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