When I started in the international trade business as a manufacturers’ representative/trader over a decade ago, I was full of optimism. As time passed, however, I realized that this optimism was not an efficient enough base from which to experience and navigate trade barriers, political instability, corruption, currency fluctuations, cartels or the different religions, languages and traditions of foreign countries. These challenges are formidable enough, but when I added in those from the U.S. side, I came up with some necessary precepts to guide me on my way:

  • U.S. manufacturers are overly satisfied with the lucrative domestic market.
  • There exists a lack of flexibility in creating products for foreign markets.
  • For U.S. companies, there has historically been an imperative for immediate results in overseas markets.
  • There is an absence in the U.S. business culture for creating sales networks overseas.
  • Great product does not necessarily equate to great companies to be associated with.
  • Controlling human behavior is not a part of my job description.
  • Trying to explain cross-cultural behavior is part of my job description.

With these thoughts to guide me, I saw great opportunity at two points of convergence: U.S. companies are making the most innovative products in the world and if foreign buyers were aware of them, they would like to buy them; U.S. government statistics are telling a story that less than 12 percent of U.S. companies are exporting their products.

Knowing these facts and being able to do something about them, are two different matter. Identifying a trend, sourcing the manufacturer and then signing a rep agreement with a manufacturer are not enough. An integral part of building an international group of master importers/distributors is that one has to display an affinity and understanding for the habits and mores of your customers. Having lived in Asia for two years 

“I have tried to sensitize American companies to the nuances that they may think are irrelevant, but which for my customers are heartfelt maxims.”

and conducted business there for over 10 years, I possessed a strong background in not just my contacts but in cultural knowledge that makes my foreign customers feel they can trust me. This attribute has served me well when I see American businessmen trample on what for Asian people are shared assumptions on how to conduct themselves and how to conduct business.

I have tried to sensitize American companies to the nuances that they may think are irrelevant, but which for my customers are heartfelt maxims. On the whole, we Americans are not renowned for our ability or willingness to assimilate the beliefs of others. The best that I can sometimes hope for is to at least get my principals on this side of the water to feign understanding. That is sometimes the difference between keeping a sales program alive or seeing animosity undo all the work that my principals and I had put in.

However, the reality is still that regardless of whatever insights I possess, I am here and my customers are 6,000 – 10,000 miles away from me. And, my job is to sell products. The selling of product A to company B over lunch or at the company headquarters here in the U.S. is obviously not going to work except on those occasions when we are in each other’s counties. So what I done is to take product A and try to see what kind of value can be added across country borders to the combined client/SPAP Company/customer efforts. I have done that through the media and I have used the following to gain exposure for my clients, which in turn helps my customers:

  • Free publicity for my clients with blurbs in trade magazines
  • Direct Response Television (DRTV)/Home shopping/Infomercials
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
  • News conferences
  • Private trade/media shows
  • Triangulate communication among client/representative/customer with shared e-mails
  • On a case-by-case basis, work with my sub-agents in the foreign country

In today’s electronic age, when customers are half a world away, a rep must become an impresario of information of the different media that late 20th century commerce uses. Some of my principals can see t he value of added exposure. Others don’t or think they can do it themselves. The media are always looking for interesting stories and products. It is a lost opportunity for those manufacturers who do not see the value in such exposure.

Once a distributor is found and marketing by the master importer/distributor begins, I have found that my overseas customers are more than happy to receive information and contacts that they may not possess. But how to do it? There are several ways:

  • Read widely and pass on trends to the customer. It is always interesting to note how germane this information from the U.S. market is to the marketing efforts by my overseas customers in their markets.
  • Read with government and business leaders from the foreign market who are in the U.S. on trade junkets.
  • Most importantly, work with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) and individual U.S. state trade offices in foreign countries to let them know what products from the United States are available.

Offer edited U.S. government publications on focused foreign market reports to your master importers/distributors. This information is readily available if you know where to look, and your customer gets an immediate leg up on his competition.

  • Search the Internet for business confederations that are developing between foreign countries. Many times these confederations include a grouping of U.S. companies that could very well need to buy the U.S. products.
  • Where applicable, steer clients to get registered with foreign governments in order to be able to make bids on government tenders.

“The media are always looking for interesting stories and products.”

  • Above all, show your gratitude to the government employees. Write to their superiors to let them know how instrumental and creative they were in opening the door wider for U.S. products.

In summation, it is the old universe where a manufacturers’ representative went knocking on doors with samples in hand. The new universe of international representation demands new skills and initiative to replace those that have become obsolete because of the distance and dynamics of international trade.

With the Internet, products can be shown to a new customer in color, via cyberspace in minutes, not weeks. When customers are 6,000 to 10,000 miles away, it is incumbent upon the representative to use current technology and initiative to complement the creative abilities he already has to supplement the efforts of the overseas customers who are importing the product line. In order to stay relevant in business on multiple continents, cross-cultural awareness and technology allows the representative to retain presence and influence with his customers many time zones away.

Copyright 1998 © Jeff Henderson All rights reserved.