What Makes a Great International Partner?

What Makes a Great International Partner?
19 May 2011 John Moore

For any company looking to export, it helps to have a GREAT partner, but just how do you find one? This is the challenge facing any business looking to trade internationally.

So is there a magic formula to finding the right partner? No is the short answer. You can, however, tip the odds in your favour by a planned and rigorous approach to finding one. For what it is worth, here is Exponential Training’s approach to entering a new market.

Step 1: Building a Business Case for Entry into the Market

Whilst it goes without saying, doing your homework and market research is a must. Time and money spent at this stage will result in savings later in the process. I always choose to undertake the initial research myself. I know it is possible to commission an Overseas Market Information Service (OMIS) report from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), but without doing my own research, I am never sure what questions I need answering, so I do it myself. This provides a good understanding of the market, the key players, critical issues and an idea on how to proceed.

Building your network and connecting with the right people is a must right from the start – exporting is a team business. My team consists of people in Exponential and many others including: Chris Foster (my UKTI Trade Advisor); Amanda Selvaratnam (The Training Gateway; personnel based in the local export market); key contacts in the local market (local stakeholders and partners) and my family as they need to be supportive and understanding.

Step 2: The First Market Visit

At some point, you need to visit the market. This is a critical step in the process as it enables you to test your product concept and get real reaction and informed opinions. Do be mindful that many people you meet, especially potential partners might be enthusiastic and willing to be your partner as they have nothing to lose by saying, “I’m interested and think this is exactly what we need”.

Where possible, I recommend going on a UKTI Trade Mission. The key is not to rely on anyone else to set up meetings for you so I do this myself. I am amazed when other delegates on the trade mission, have not set up their meetings prior to the visit.

I try to overbook my itinerary for two reasons: firstly, rarely do all of the meetings take place as planned; secondly, if I have travelled twelve hours economy class to the market, then I want to maximise my time there. One tip I do recommend is to leave the evenings free when planning your agenda. This is not so you can join the other trade mission delegates for a night out. It is so you can hold second meetings with key people you have met during your visit or to set up additional meetings with people you met during the trade mission official functions. It also allows you time to write up and collate your notes and business cards whilst they are fresh in your mind (if you wait until you get back to your office, you will forget important details such as who was it that gave you their business card – it is very easy to get people mixed up as you meet so many).

Step 3: More Market Research

Why more research? Well having been to market, you now have some answers, but more often than not you have more questions. This is the time to commission an OMIS or as I prefer an Overseas Market Research Scheme (OMRS) report. What is the difference? The OMIS relies on UKTI personnel in the local market to undertake the research for you. The OMRS gives you the opportunity to undertake the research yourself (or to commission a specialist market research agency) as well as enabling you to visit the market again.

For me this step helps me to refine the ideal partner profile given the previously acquired market knowledge. I set up meetings with potential partners, stakeholder organisations, government agencies and QUANGOs, professional institutes and employer bodies. Armed with a battery of questions, I meet with people and quiz them as much as possible and where possible, ask for introductions to people they think I should meet.

Although the purpose is not to select a partner at this stage, I have found that if I have done my homework right in Step 1, I might already have met the organisation that will eventually become the partner.

Step 4: More Market Visits

Is this really necessary? No, not if you believe in fairies and lead a charmed life! I find it amazing when talking to some trade mission delegates that they seriously believe they only need to visit the market once or twice and everything will work out. This does not appear to be the case for Exponential nor is it the case for the dozens of businesses I have met that have been successful in new markets.

In looking for the right partner in Singapore, I have visited the market five times in one year. In South Africa it was a similar story over a period of two years. Do I keep going out to market because I like the country? Is it because I like flying economy class for 12 – 13 hours and arriving feeling like a folded up deck chair? No, it is because the right partner is critical to your success.

Just as Rome was not built in a day, nor is a great partnership. Getting the right partner is about much more than whether can they take your product to market and make you some money. It is about building a strong relationship based upon a share vision, mutual understanding and respect and making sure they will cherish you precious brand and reputation.

Step 5: Checking the Chemistry

Call it due diligence if you wish, but getting to know the people with whom you are going to be trusting with your company’s reputation takes time. By spending time with them, you can gauge their level of commitment to your company and products; you can observe the way they operate and see if their values and ethos are compatible.

Step 6: Backing Your Partner

Having found and appointed your partner, you need to support them. The partner agreement is easy part – helping them to make things happen is the hard part. What does this mean? It means being part of their product launch plans; helping them to plan their marketing and promotions; training their team; introducing them to your contacts; helping them to open doors; attending events and exhibitions; supplying marketing collateral and being their supporter and critical friend. Following through on commitments to them is as important for you as is them following through on their commitments to you.

Exporting is challenging and certainly not an easy option for doing business. Patience and persistence is required as time lines seem to stretch. There are a lot of hours spent in airports and on planes; you may have to kiss a lot of frogs along the way and you may have to eat dinners containing ingredients of which you have never heard, but the rewards can be many. I have met lots of interesting people, visited places I never thought I would and experienced cultures not as a tourist, but as a local.

If you are thinking of exporting, my advice is go for it, but plan, plan and plan some more.

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.

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