The temptation to jump into selling all over the world is great. China alone beckons with billions – of prospects and yen. But if you have a yen for foreign markets, better get to know the realities before you hop a jet for Hong Kong. Listen to the experiences and advice of sales managers and companies that have been there, done that. Success stories include lessons to learn.
“They thought it would be easy,” says Dave Mattson, CEO of sales-training company Sandler Systems. “Large American companies thought selling globally would be simple and that they would save money by gaining efficiencies. It’s not working out exactly that way.”
Mattson elaborated that companies that have started selling globally within the last decade – typically to tap into the mounting wealth in the developing world (in Brazil, China, etc.) and better serve the new breed of thoroughly global business – have, in fact, often experienced benefits. But they also have encountered epidemic problems across a range of areas: “On the people side, with processes, even with rollouts of tools, there can be surprising problems when a company goes global,” says Mattson.
That said, businesses have learned an immense amount since the first wave of globalization swept American industry a generation ago. And they are doing all this much, much better than, if also differently from, when they started.
There also are powerful reasons to persist with a global strategy despite bumps in the road. Says Jim Haudan, CEO of training company Root Learning, “[By going global], companies have the chance to better understand global issues, allowing them the opportunity to be relevant to the three strategic focuses that drive business today: cost reduction, organic and innovative growth, and expansion into emerging markets.”
In many ways, going global is no longer a choice, even for small and midsize companies. “We have to sell globally; our customers demand it,” says Andrew Rubin, CEO of Cymtec Systems, a small St. Louis-based developer of network-optimization and compliance tools. What Cymtec sells are solutions that help multinationals get more visibility into their far-flung computer networks, but those clients, by definition, are global. And they expect their vendors to be, says Rubin.
“Every key account today is global; that is fact, and it has changed how we sell,” says Modesto Casas, president of sales-consulting firm In Region. “The buyer is in New York, the recommender is in Bangalore, the user is in Kuala Lumpur – and the seller has to deal with all of them.”
Exactly what lessons are companies learning, and how are they better selling globally? Sales leaders from a sampling of businesses are ready with illuminating anecdotes that reveal their lessons learned and challenges faced, and – always – there is acknowledgement of the immensity of the opportunity presented by selling not just to one country, but to the planet.
Learning to Listen
Call this the loudest lesson preached by many global sales teams, especially at small and midsize companies: “Local feet on the street – that is what you need to succeed in selling internationally. You are fooling yourself if you think everything can come out of corporate,” says Scott Calvert, vice president of sales at CodeBaby, a company that helps companies put conversations and interactivity on their Websites.
He adds that the how-to, the mechanics, of selling vary enormously from country to country. “In Australia, our sales come out of face-to-face meetings. In the United States, we close many deals on the phone.”
At Lingo24, a translation service for corporate clients with offices in Scotland, England, the United States, Panama, and Romania, company director Christian Arno says, “We do what fits the culture. That’s what you have to do when selling internationally.”
Some countries – Germany and Japan, for instance – value deliberate relationship building before the sale. Other countries – notably the United States – can dive in with little prelude.
“For us, it is very important to hire locally. We want sales reps who understand the local markets and the local community,” says Arturo Cazares, senior vice president of sales at Silver Peak, a data center optimization company with offices in Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in addition to the United States. The advantage involved in bringing these reps on board: They come with deep personal networks that can speed up acceptance of a company that perhaps the locals have not heard of before. Cazares adds, “Our goal is to expand rapidly. We are opening offices in new countries every three weeks, and it always starts with the hire of an experienced manager with the contacts to build up a sales staff.”
“In selling globally, you learn to accept that every country has its own culture of selling and buying,” says Sean Mulvey, vice president of sales at PeopleCube, a workplace efficiency consulting firm. This impacts hiring, he adds, because in the United States increasingly, phone and WebEx skills are crucial for successful sales reps, while in the United Kingdom, another major PeopleCube market, WebEx is not used, and the sales reps who flourish thrive on in-person presentations. “The selling approach differs much more from country to country than you probably first thought,” he adds, “and this definitely impacts the skills needed by reps in different countries.”
What’s in a Name?
Sometimes, companies come to realize that seemingly small issues are crucial in the pursuit of global sales excellence. Case in point: At consumer-goods powerhouse Newell Rubbermaid, Paul Boitmann, president of global sales operations, has been struggling for two years to impose order and logic on the job titles held by the 1,400 members of his sales team who are scattered throughout 90 countries. And he says the job isn’t over. When he started the process, Boitmann says, there were about 100 job titles, which presented an instant organizational Tower of Babel. Employees did not know who their cross-border peers were, and who knew who was in charge?
Newell Rubbermaid is not unique in this regard. Oftentimes, local sales operations act as independent fiefdoms, and if folks in Bombay want such and such title, who back in corporate cares? But caring has to start as soon as businesses start attempting to run global sales as a single, coherent organization.
And yet in job titles there are egos and plenty of sensitivities. That is why Boitmann has proceeded deliberately. Two years into his campaign, he says, Newell Rubbermaid is still marching toward its goal of around 20 titles, and “that will let us understand what people are doing.”
Eventually, says Boitmann, all directors of sales, for example, will do the same work no matter the country, and performance will be assessed equally across the globe. This will also enable corporate to allocate the resources individuals need to do their jobs, because everybody with the same title will need much the same tool set. “The better we understand what they are doing, the better we can resource them,” says Boitmann, “and the better they will do their jobs.”
Not every company agrees with extending maximum regional latitude in selling, and a big case in point is Marriott International, which sells hotel rooms in some 70 countries.
“It’s crucial: We strive for consistency in how we sell, train, compensate, and hire across the globe,” says David Towns-hend, senior vice president of corporate and international sales at Marriott International. Other companies may allow substantial regional variations in sales management and process, but that is not Marriott’s way as it builds its hotel brand across the planet. Marriott has a sales presence in 90 countries, and even with that range, consistency works, suggests Townshend, because it keeps everybody on the same page.
But Townshend has bigger news than that. Around the planet his team of 300 (100 in the United States, the rest abroad) plus another 100 general sales agents (typically in secondary markets, and they aren’t Marriott employees) are now organized around key accounts, all of which are global businesses (think IBM and Accenture). Geography matters very little – account teams exist to serve their clients, who typically have travel needs that span many countries and continents. “Our intent is to sell the way our customers want to buy,” says Townshend.
Around 300 global accounts have been targeted by Marriott, and Townshend’s goal with each is to snare “the optimal, profitable share of their lodgings business.” He acknowledges that getting a 100 percent share is not a probable outcome; Marriott may have no properties in locations visited by these companies, and occasionally, it may not have vacancies.
Another of Townshend’s global-selling lessons: He actively encourages his top United States-based account execs to travel abroad, meet with Marriott reps in other countries, and even join them on sales calls, especially in regions that may be falling short of fully reflecting the Marriott way of selling. “This kind of person-to-person mentoring can be so useful in building a global team,” says Townshend.
A possible takeaway: The bigger the sales operation, the more it prefers consistency because, at bottom, the company is the brand, and the only way to reflect uniform brand-messaging is to strive for uniform messaging.
The Literal Truth
Process is crucial in selling, but – admit it – among United States top performers, deviation from standard process is common. Yet that may be less so abroad with some companies. Sometimes, in fact, foreign-based reps are even more diligent about following the sales scripts and processes that are generated in the United States. That’s the report from Phil Harris, vice president of global sales at Akibia, a Westborough, MA, IT services company with significant operations in Europe. He elaborates, “Some of our European sales teams have accepted our sales methodologies much more than we have in the United States. They are much more diligent about following the process.”
That is a key observation: In the United States, most sales managers accept at least some improv within a sales script, but what Harris is saying is that it doesn’t always go that way overseas. And smart global sales managers will keep track of this.
Education Is the Thing
At Fairmont Hotels, Mark Sergot, vice president of global sales, has faced two big challenges: The hospitality company has been aggressively expanding globally (particularly in such far-flung places as China and India), but he has also had to stitch together sales reps from three companies – Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissôtel, the latter two integrated into Fairmont as a result of acquisitions – into a coherent unit that services global accounts. Right now, Sergot’s teams number 75, spread across 26 countries, and, he says, the key is education: “We have spent a great deal of time educating our salespeople about who we are, how our brands differ, and how we align with our competitive set. We teach them why a Fairmont is a Fairmont, why a Swissôtel is a Swissôtel, and so forth.” That also means a rep in Toronto will sell a Fairmont to global accounts in much the way a rep in Shanghai or a rep in London will.
Fairmont, says Sergot, continually invests in educating its sales reps, perhaps because the portfolio of properties keeps expanding. “The better they know who and what we are, the better they will sell it,” he says.
Importantly, every hotel also has a local sales team, but there is little stepping on toes. The local teams’ mission is to sell to local and regional accounts, while Sergot’s group focuses on global companies and also large meetings. “This is well understood; the teams have their own sales focus,” Sergot says.
Bringing It All Back Home
The usual thought is that the United States is a font of sales wisdom and therefore most selling innovations in most companies originate in the United States HQ. But UPS may be disproving that, says Jerry Drisaldi, vice president of international business development at UPS, which operates in some 200 countries. In 2010, the company very consciously took a variety of practices that had been perfected in the international group and used them to revolutionize work in the domestic-sales group.
“Internationally, we have been intently focused on results – on knowing and reviewing the key performance metrics and training account executives so that they can consistently perform in accord with plan,” says Drisaldi, who elaborates that the domestic group now practices that same metrics-driven focus.
UPS has long been an international player. It entered Canada in 1975 and Germany in 1976, and initially, relates Drisaldi, it brought its United States-style sales management with it. Then there was a great awakening. Just about everyone in the United States who ships packages has heard of UPS, but in the seventies, overseas brand recognition varied from very little to none. That meant reps had to sell harder and with more focus, and a particular style of selling gradually assumed center stage in UPS international.
And then UPS energized domestic selling by importing lessons learned abroad. “I am very proud of our international organization,” adds Drisaldi.
One other international practice now taking hold in the United States: an abhorrence of meetings for midlevel and senior sales managers. “We don’t want our people tied up in meeting rooms,” says Drisaldi, who explains that necessary information can be passed along electronically when and as managers need to learn it. And that frees up time to more productively manage sales teams for better results.
“We are all about focus and metrics and helping account executives see exactly what they need to be doing,” says Drisaldi, and now UPS domestic-account execs are doing much the same as UPS’s international reps.
21st Century Global Selling
Every company has its own take on selling globally, and what works depends on the culture of the company, what and where it’s selling, and its customers. Some countries remain tough markets for even the most ambitious global sellers. But two realities shine through in just about every case: First, American companies are now genuinely global. There is just no way around it for most businesses. Second, “successful global selling all starts with putting the right people in place and then holding them accountable,” says Dave Kurlan, CEO of sales consultancy The Objective Management Group. “That’s the whole secret of successful global selling.” •