If you have aspirations to a career in international sales, you’ve probably asked yourself at some point, just what does an international business development manager do? The answer is not simply “swan around the world having a good time” (especially at the moment) – there’s a lot more to it. I have to say though: if you don’t like travel, it’s not ideal for you.
This is certainly a key role in the international sales team and can make or break the success in a market. Whilst the details of the role vary between companies, the basics have remained the same across all the companies I’ve worked in, or considered working in. I would say though, that a huge company like Audi would probably have a different description of the role (also for very technical products).
Table of Contents
A Bridging Function
Perhaps the key point that I’d like to discuss first of all, when answering the question “what does an international business development manager do” is that it’s a bridging function. I must have said this a thousand times to job candidates… Depending on how you look at it, that means you have either the best or the worst of both worlds ?.
An International business development manager (IBDM) is the link between the company he or she represents and the partners. That means she (I’ll use the feminine variant for ease of writing) funnels the data coming in from the market and directs it to the appropriate specialists in the office. She also selects from all the news you have in the company (products, processes, marketing developments) and ensures that the relevant data reaches the business partners.
It’s almost like being a translator. You have to explain to your company why the client demands x or y, and make the partner understand why not everything is desirable or possible from the company’s perspective.
Truly global leaders act as bridge builders, connectors of resources and talent across cultural and political boundaries — relentlessly dedicated to finding new ways of creating value.Angel Cabrera HBR 4/2012
Do you mean I have to do it all myself?
Of course, especially at a mature stage of the business, you probably won’t be the only one in direct contact with the partner, but as IBDM you have the key coordination role. You have to be informed (in advance) of everything that is sent out to the customer. The more important sales to that market become for your company, the more resources will be dedicated internally (usually).
This also means that you are permanently between the expectations of the company and the requirements or expectations of the business partners. Not an easy position to be in. It makes it challenging to find the right person to fill such positions, as the person has to be strong enough to withstand almost constant internal and external pressure. And certainly in the initial stages of the business the International Business Development Manager has to accept that they will be discussion questions in meetings for internal departments back in the office, who may never have the chance to visit the customer.
If you read the job description of an International Business Development Manager, it’s usually full of stiff stock phrases. I found these ones:
Not sure that everyone is much the wiser for all of that, unless you’ve worked in the field before, so let’s break it down a bit.
Jack of All Trades?
It might seem like that, having read the description above. In actual fact, you need a few skills in depth and for the others a working knowledge should suffice. A good IBDM has to know what are the potentially critical points for her clients. Eg. She doesn’t have to be an expert on FOREX, but it is important to understand how the main payment instruments work and how to decide on the right one for each client. After all you need to understand the implications for both your employer but also your clients and to ensure that you get paid the right amount for the contracts. Swings in exchange rates can mean the difference between profitability & making a loss in many industries so it’s import to understand how this works.
Whilst the role of International Business Development Manager is mostly classified as the sales department, it’s certainly not a purely sales role. Yes, you have to know all the aspects of the sales role that any domestic field sales rep will also learn, but there’s also much more to it. That often makes it difficult for a “sales guy” from the domestic team to transfer to international simply because there are so many more aspects to consider.
We’ll start at the top… Yes, this is the core of the role. Your company is depending on you to bring in the revenue. In most cases, that means you don’t only sell to an importer or distribution partner, but you need to make sure that they are equipped to sell your products to the final client or consumer.
That means you need to know:
- What channels to sell your products in
- Physical placement of your product (especially if it is a consumer product) – this may be different to in your home market. Analysing store checks is important
- How to develop (& implement!) sales plans for your products
- What price position your product should have compared to the competitors (this is a whole art & science in itself – I’ll dedicate a whole post to this later this year)
- How to negotiate in your target markets (again, there are PhD dissertations on this…) both at the field sales level and also at C-suite level
- The best way to manage sales teams with a variety of cultural backgrounds
- How to develop effective and efficient sales management processes
Phew,…and that’s only the start.
Do you have to be a specialist here? No, but it does help to have a good grounding. When the customer is demanding to know why the product contains X or doesn’t do Y, it’s helpful to be able to give an answer. As an International Business Development Manager, you’re often “alone” with the client without a team of specialists along for support. So whilst you can call the office for back up from a specialist, it really helps your credibility if you can answer the basic stuff yourself. Not to mention, if you’re working in a completely different time zone to the office you may have to wait for an answer, which can really disrupt the workflow of your meeting.
Especially in the earlier stages of entering a market, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the luxury of taking a product manager with you on visits. (Unless you have a very technical product, in which case the process may be the other way round). That means that you have to analyse and define what the market needs together with the customer. It can result in headaches further down the line if the BDM fudges the phase of establishing what are the necessary specifications. These may be required by either law or by custom (eg. everybody delivers this product inclusive of a brush) but making changes later in the project is often more expensive and time consuming.
I’ve worked with team members as international business development managers before who came with a solid grounding as junior product managers, so that could be a way to start to gather experience. Check out Jooble.org and their remote positions for junior PMs if this is something you’re interested in.
Whatever “marketing” looks like in your industry, it’s probable that you will have a couple of specialists or a whole department back in the office. If you are responsible for a market, together with all of the results (turnover, profit, market share) then it’s essential that you have a contribution here.
When the International Business Development Manager is the person with overall responsibility then you also will have an opinion as to what the market needs in terms of marketing. Again, you might not be a specialist here (although it’s one of the areas where the more knowledge you have, the better). However, “think global, act local” can only be implemented if someone explains well to the global team, how local needs to look in order to be successful.
Over the years, I’ve been asked by the companies I was working for, or by distribution partners, to run all sorts of different trainings. These have been things like:
- Sales training for the sales team
- New product training
- How to run effective meetings
- Dealing with customer complaints
- Analysing sales data
I even did a German class for a Chinese management team once!
This also applies internally, so you may also be asked to train internal teams on specific markets or on how specific sales channels work.
Finance & Payments
You certainly don’t have to be a qualified accountant or FOREX trader in order to work in international sales. It is important to have an understanding though, firstly about which currencies your target markets work with, and how they are influenced. Eg Many Central American countries look to the US dollar. South East Europe is focused more on the EURO zone.
That is one part of the picture. The other main important one is that you need to get paid for the goods you’ve sold. You need to understand HOW you can get your money out of Mozambique on time, and what risk are you exposing the company to with your choice of payment term. This is a far larger topic than dealing with a client in the next province and can get both expensive and ugly really fast if you get this wrong.
Last but by no means least in this section, you need to calculate to ensure that the prices you offer and other conditions will be profitable at the end of the day. That means you need to know all the cost drivers in your supply chain and marketing operation.
Logistics & Operations
Like with the money, you need to be sure that you don’t agree something logistically with the client that physically isn’t possible. (Deliveries by sea from Norway to Vietnam in 15 working days just aren’t going to happen). You need to have a basic understanding of what documentation is NEEDED by the client. What he might just like to have can be a very different story.
Especially with letter of credit payment terms it would be easy to agree to something that negates the security that made you want an L/C in the first place. Or if you have no idea about INCOTERMS, you could end up exposing the company to huge risks and expense through ignorance.
I spent a year working in export admin before I moved into the sales side. Whilst I hated the paperwork in admin, it did give me an appreciation when I started in sales of what problems I might be causing, if I blindly agreed to all the client’s wishes.
This is a point that really has to be taken care of by a specialist. The commercial conditions of any contract, have to come from the business development team though. Also, you probably have the rather thankless task of explaining each clause to the partner. It’s necessary, but tiring, even though it means you know clearly what is agreed.
Like contracts, the details here really have to be left to the specialists. However, depending on the area you’re working in, you probably need a big picture overview. Certain types of product may need to be registered. Then you need to know what changes from your side trigger a re-registration. Products with certain origins may not be allowed to be imported (eg Israel, Iran can be extremely sensitive.) A client of mine in Yemen, once received products with a “made in Israel” marking, after the purchasing department changed the supplier without telling sales. The client was “seriously unhappy” to say the least. We were lucky that the customs didn’t find them (either our outbound – they were wrongly declared because in the sales department we had no information about the change, or inbound to Yemen).
Certain types of products may be on restricted lists (dual-use) if they could feasibly be used to produce armaments. This is a really complicated field.
For business development, a key part of the role is identifying opportunities. You then need to work out how best to go out and capitalise on them. That can mean a lot of desk analysis to work out:
- what are the competition doing
- what are the trends on the market,
- how does the market “tick” compared to your home market?
Market data in export markets is seldom fully reliable – or it may simply not be available at all. I once compared the “total market value” for one of my product groups against our own sales and it was obvious the market was underestimated. If not, I had managed to achieve 300% market share together with my partner!
Do you need to be some kind of excel genius? No, but a certain affinity for numbers is needed.
This is the most important part of the job to my mind. If you asked me “what does an international business development manager do?” my initial answer would be “build relationships that lead to profitable business for the company. Without this ability to connect with people from different cultures, you can’t be successful long term in this position. (In China this kind of relationship is called guanxi.)
For most people working in the profession, it’s also the most satisfying part. You get to exchange ideas with people from other cultures; once you understand why your product fits their needs, then you sell.
Do you need to have language skills (apart from English)? Not necessarily, although they certainly help. Being able to communicate with empathy is WAY more important. Understanding the customs and culture of the market you are working in is vital. I’d also recommend learning about how your partners deal with time obligations, as it can ease negotiations.
It’s possible to do business without good personal connection, but this is seldom successful over time. For this reason it’s essential that you select the right person for the role as International Business Development Manager. It really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”.
Job Satisfaction as an International Business Development Manager
I’d say that
– if you like having a HUGE amount of variety (aka nothing resembling a routine)
– the idea of practically living on planes doesn’t put you off,
then working in international sales can be immensely rewarding. Well, I would say that wouldn’t I? If you’d like an additional perspective, check out my interview with Leo Marra either in blog form or on YouTube.
It’s not a job for people who like to have an 8-5 kind of routine. The hours are irregular and you are (usually) away a lot & it can be exhausting. That means you get to go to lots of cool places, but don’t actually really see anything whilst you’re there. It’s a lot of work, but I couldn’t imagine having done anything else.
You can also find a post about skills to future proof your international business career here.
If this sounds like it could be the next step for you, but you’re not sure how to go about it, why don’t you give me a call? Perhaps I can help you gain the knowledge or clarity you need?
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