Many companies are thinking about their plans for next year and one of the best options for expansion is to look outside your own borders. But how should you go about structuring an international sales team when you’re new to exports?
There are several factors that you need to consider up front if you want to start hiring an international sales team. In the end, there’s no single right answer about how to do this, but there are a number of factors that you should consider.
Table of Contents
Think about your sales process
If you’re looking to start out in export next year, then one of the first points that you need to consider is how your sales process is structured.
On the one hand, some people will tell you that you should ideally have a separate dedicated sales process for each of your markets.
Realistically speaking, though, that isn’t likely to be a viable option for most companies, especially if you’re just starting out. So what you’re more likely to have is a standardised process, where the main cornerstones remain the same across all of your sales markets, but where you then make local adjustments.
At the end of the day, what you want is to have a process that you are able to reproduce effectively in more than one market and also to scale up. Probably at this stage of your export development, then distributors are going to be a part of this process, and consequently, it’s really important to define who is responsible for each step.
Get it down “on paper” (or in Miro) but main thing is to take the time to analyse what you believe your ideal sales process would be for international markets, and think about who should be responsible for each step through to the product reaching the end user. That includes of course your channel sales partners as well as your in-house team – think of this as one continuum.
Which roles will have which responsibilities?
If you’re new to exporting, then this can be quite hard to to decide. Sometimes, there are a number of steps that you could consider whether you want to do them in house yourself or outsource them to an expert, or whether you want to entrust the task to your distribution partner, or perhaps even to an agent. That could include things like coordinating marketing or registration processes for example.
However at the end of the day, each international sales team needs to have at least certain key roles fulfilled. It doesn’t really matter what the job title of that person is, for this for the sake of this exercise, but what matters is the responsibility and tasks that they will carry out.
Obviously, you need to think very carefully though depending on which country you’re based in, as to what will be the title of the various positions? And perhaps also, what will be their hierarchical level in your organisation, as this can sometimes change from one country to the next. What is usual? After all you need to attract the right kind of candidates but also know that their job title will help them gain respect and trust with your partners.
So it also depends on whether your area sales managers are based in the same country as your head office, and they travel to the regions they’re responsible for, or whether they are locally based somewhere in their region.
Head of International Sales
Head of International Sales, Head of Export, Head of Global Sales…. whatever you call this position, you need to have a person to whom the International Sales Team reports to. This might be the same person who is also responsible for domestic sales, but who now receives additional responsibility. Or it could be a separate position if there’s enough international business within the organisation.
You don’t need to appoint an additional manager at this stage of your development, but you need to make sure that the person covering the responsibility is clear about what international expansion projects mean for the business and how to go about them. (Otherwise, you need to bring in external support in the form of consultants).
Regardless of the title, this is the person who’s going to be responsible for the international sales strategy, who’s responsible for allocating resources and dividing them up across the markets, making decisions about which markets to enter, coordinating events, and especially managing the performance of the area sales managers and ensuring that appropriate lead indicators are in place for their KPIs. Effectively, this is the person who will be structuring an international sales team for you.
I would argue that in the medium term, this should be a different person to the Head of Sales for your home market. The mindset required for export is different and you need someone who at times will fight the corner of the international distributors instead of blindly giving priority to domestic business.
“The Front Line” – International Business Development Manager
International area sales manager, export area sales manager, international business development manager: three names for one and the same role. Or you could also add export sales representatives although that seems to be a little outdated these days.
Usually, this is the core of your international sales team & they need a range of skills in addition to those of a purely domestic sales rep. Consequently, the position is often a mid-career one, or at least not a first job. Don’t forget that these people can be based in your office location or closer to the markets they are serving.
As the international sales managers are the ones who are going to be doing the business in country, they’re going to be your first line of communication to the distributors and transport the strategy into the world. Consequently, it’s really important when you’re looking for new area managers that you hire first and foremost for intercultural competence & understanding of how to do business in region X. And ideally, they should also have at least some experience of working in channel sales or with international distributors.
The reason for this is that they are the people who first and foremost need to establish trust and build relationships in your future export markets. Understanding the product is a secondary competence and something that can be learned and trained. That isn’t something that they need to bring inherently with them. However, if they don’t bring the skills to deal with people across a range of cultures, then chances are they’re not going to be the right person to grow your business.
They need to appreciate that trust is built differently across the world. For example, if you compare Japan and the USA, it takes much longer to build trust in Japan whereas in the US it is often enough for you to be in a certain situation or a position and you will receive trust by virtue of that role.
This is one point that a salesperson may struggle with when they move into the international field if they were responsible for domestic sales in the past, and is used to your company having a certain reputation . This is because firstly, your brand name and your reputation are not as well known, abroad as they are in your own home market. But also secondly, because in your home market that salesperson is receiving a level of trust based on that brand reputation and when they go into a foreign market then they first need to build the level of trust. And only then can they start to build the brand reputation.
It’s really important to have cultural sensitivity as you can destroy trust and a brand name faster than you can imagine, if you don’t handle the relationships to your distributors in the right way.
“The Back Office”: Admin and Business Intelligence
Think about who will actually be the person to do the back office support for your new area sales managers as this particular role needs someone who’ll stay calm whatever happens.
Often an area manager will require some level of back office support for preparing visits and organising details whilst they’re actually out on the road.
The back office support person will also be the one that gets the call when something goes drastically wrong, when flights are missed or when something needs to be urgently rescheduled or critical documents need to be mailed across.
It’s often the International Business Development Manager themselves who has to take care of sourcing, analysing and actioning data but that’s not always an ideal solution. You don’t want a situation where so much time is spent obtaining and checking data that the analysis and implementation of the appropriate actions is then ignored.
This is worth outsourcing either to an in-house specialist or an external company if possible. That way the sales team can focus on taking action on the insights derived from the data.
Your Distribution Partner
When you’re setting up your international sales team, think about which tasks you want your distributor to take over. It’s not as obvious as it may seem: some suppliers see their responsibility ended as soon as the goods are delivered and paid for, whilst others want to control everything down to the last details.
On a purely practical level, it makes sense for your importer to take over certain tasks and perhaps part of the local marketing. It makes sense though for you to keep an eye on what’s being done in your name, especially if you have health critical products. You don’t want to find partners making false claims about the benefits of your products…or spending money in ways that can get you into hot water.
Additionally, you might want to be present at certain key negotiations with clients both to add your gravitas to the meeting but also to keep a finger on the pulse of the market.
Whatever you decide, it needs to be transparent from the start with both your team members and your distribution partners.
Where will the International Sales Team be based?
Whilst it’s probably a given that your head of international sales will be based in the country of your home office, that isn’t necessarily the case for your team.
There are pros and cons of having the team in the same country as your head office, and also of having regional sales managers who are based closer to their markets.
In home market and fly to & fro
If your sales managers are based in the country of your head office, then obviously they should have a good understanding of your internal company culture. It’s probably easier for them to understand this because they’re likely to be confronted with it on a more frequent basis. And because they are at least living in a country which has the same culture as the one that you as a company are embedded in.
Probably it also means that it’s easier to get them involved in internal meetings, if you need them for discussions.
In the sales region
On the other hand, having regional managers who are actually based in the region that they’re responsible for can be a huge benefit.
Firstly, they can be in their markets with much less loss of time and at a far lower cost than if you’re sending somebody from overseas. Secondly, depending on what their original nationality is, they presumably have a better understanding of the cultural nuances of the region in which they’re working. This might not always be the case, if you actually employ an expat from your own country who happens to be based in the markets that you’re dealing with.
In many cases, if we talking about this kind of sales manager role, which is a kind of mid career type of role, then it will probably be a local person that you’re going to employ, especially if you’re looking to pay local rather than expat wages.
If you’re going to employ somebody who is local to the region that they’re taking care of, you have to think about the cultural fit, which obviously isn’t something you can generalise about. You don’t want to come into additional conflict with your distribution partners because of the nationality of your sales manager. For example, employing a Taiwanese sales manager to take care of the Chinese market as a European or US company is probably not a clever move.
They can also be cultural clashes between other nationalities within a region. So it sometimes will be easier for you to implement your company agenda if your sales managers are based at head office.
Own Staff or Outsourced?
Your sales team don’t always have to be employed by your company directly though: there’s always the option of an outsourced fractional sales team (effectively working with a consultant) who offers this kind of service.
This kind of fractional sales support can be organised on a project based on a retainer based contract and is often used at the start of an expansion into a region where there’s not enough revenue to justify a full time equivalent employee as yet.
If you’re interested in this kind of service, please reach out to me as this is something which I also offer as well as coaching for sales members who have little knowledge of a region or of export in general.
Make sure that you budget enough for your international expansion plans for the coming year. That includes salary costs, also retainer fees for any consultants as well as commissions and other non wage based fees associated with having a sales team.
Remember that communication with a team who are travelling internationally will be considerably more expensive than with the domestic sales team. At the very least you need to budget for world wide data in order to be able to talk and exchange emails or messages as and when required without being dependent on airport or hotel WiFi, which often has extremely weak security.
Think carefully about the amount that you need to budget for travel costs – this is the largest expense after wages when you’re hiring an international sales team.
Even in these days of hybrid meetings, online video calls, etc. there is still a huge need for face to face meetings. In many countries, this is the fastest way to build trust and establish strong enough relationships in order to build your brand at speed.
That doesn’t just mean that you need to think about the cost of flights and hotels but you also need to consider the kind of incidental costs which are easily forgotten, such as the cost of the time of your sales manager, depending on the legal situation in the country from which he has been paid. Does he receive a per diem for being away from his usual place of work?
Do you need to pay a large amount for international data roaming? Or can you arrange a data subscription through a service such as Solis? And what about other incidental costs which come with international travel?
Make sure that you also plan some puffer because if somebody is travelling around the region, things are bound to come up that were unexpected and you may lose a day or so here or there. It’s also important to be upfront with your team about the amount of travel which you are expecting them to do, and for which events and as well as how many weekends they can expect to be away.
Training and Coaching
I wasn’t sure whether to put the point about training and coaching under the heading of budgeting as obviously, you need to budget a certain amount for any additional courses that your team may require. However, the main point that I want to make here is that if you are the person who will be coordinating the international sales team, then you need to budget the time within your schedule in order to coach the new team member in the way that you want them to work for the company.
If you don’t establish the routines at the beginning and make it very clear how the company culture works, and which values need to be transported externally to the clients, then you will never recover that time later.
The value of training and coaching shouldn’t be underestimated especially in international sales when traditional salesmen often believe that they’ve already heard and seen it all. Or that they know all there is to know about selling. However, selling internationally is not the same as selling in a domestic situation, especially in channel sales which requires a far higher level of emotional intelligence and empathy.
Structuring an International Sales Team Correctly from the Beginning is Worth the Effort
It’s really worth making sure that you set up your sales team in the best way right from the start. Any & all work that you invest upfront (like with any other kind of strategic planning), will come back to you tenfold at a later point in time.
You need to think in advance about which additional functions besides obviously sales, the international sales team need to be able to fulfil. So for example, if they are mainly HQ based then perhaps you need them occasionally to be involved in company projects. That means you may need somebody who has certain skills or you may need somebody who has strong CRM experience or analytics skills in order for them to be the international sales rep on certain company wide initiatives.
Do you need to hire someone who has all the skills and experience already? (Who may help you to a fast start, but perhaps not stay long). Or should you focus on a person “hungry for the job” but without experience? I’ve had good experience with both options at different times, depending on whether I had the bandwidth to do the training required for a less experienced team member.
And most importantly, you need to ask yourself the question whether you actually need your own international sales team right from the beginning, or whether it’s enough to have somebody who is the coordinator internally be that a head of sales or another function and to outsource that function to an external company who offers this as a service.
This isn’t the right solution for everybody, but it can be a good first step – there’s no right or wrong answer to the question about structuring an international sales team though. You have to do what’s right for your company based on your experience and the other knowledge and competence in the existing team.
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