Greg Seminara, Export Solutions

Every exporter has countries where their brand performance lags far behind expectations and market potential. This appears as a serious issue when the poor results are in a large strategic country like the USA or China. The first step to fixing the situation is to admit that you have a problem. Too many times , export managers loyally cling to their plan and existing distributor with hope that  “next year will be better”. The likelihood is that sub par trends will continue without intervention. Remember it’s your quota and job that suffer due to lackluster results in a country. Listed below are Export Solutions 10 Tips on  action steps for Under Performing Countries.

1. Look in the Mirror
Chances are that your current brand proposition is wrong for the country.
Your product sales are a reflection on buyer and consumer response to your product range.  An under qualified partner does not help, but is usually just part of the problem. 

2. Research Consumer Habits
Conduct category research to understand why consumers in a foreign country do not appreciate your brand like they do “back home”. Category habits and development vary widely, particularly around food products. Recently, I confirmed several examples where Asian consumers demonstrated little interest in certain western style foods ( although everyone loves candy and snacks!)

3. Investment Level
Many poor performers suffer the classic issue of insufficient funds to invest in  marketing and trade programs. There is a cost of doing business everyone and the investment requirements can be huge in a place like China or the USA. Best bet is to  break down the country into smaller areas and focus on targeted investments with high potential, regional retailers where your brand has a higher probability of success. Avoid the attraction of large , national retailers where you realistically can not support the business. Don’t expect miracles without  basic investments in marketing and trade promotion.

4. Establish and Track  In Store KPI’s
Many exporters focus primarily on monthly shipment numbers.
Shipments represent the ultimate scorecard,but we strongly advocate the implementation of in store metrics. This process starts with major account listing maps, tracking your sku level authorizations for major customers. The second step is to launch and measure in store presence guidelines. How do you judge a good store from a bad store. Ultimately, shipments are a reflection of consumer purchases not inventory sitting in a distributors warehouse.
“What’s measured is treasured”.

5. Spend a Day at Retail with your Distributor Executives
We all spend too much time in comfy meeting rooms sharing powerpoint presentations with optimistic plans. Dedicate time for retail with the Distributor executive team. Visit stores at random, picking an area on the other side of town from the distributors office. Create a store check sheet to capture observations such as shelf space, promotions, and competitive activity. Speak to aisle clerks and store managers to get “street smart” on your product and category performance.

6. Secure Direct Buyer Feedback
Every distributor should maintain excellent trade relations with at least one of his key accounts ( if not all !). Schedule an appointment or a lunch with a friendly buyer to secure his point of view. Try to keep the conversation focused around category dynamics and trends versus just a request for more trade spending. Buyers love to serve as “experts” and may support you if you follow their advice.

7. Distributor Brand Manager
The Distributor Brand Manager serves as our everyday contact and the conduit to distributor resources. Problems may relate to having an experienced brand manager handling too many companies or a junior brand manager, lacking the clout to get things done with the busy sales team. We all like our Brand Managers, as they take our calls and rescue as periodically, However, sometimes it’s just not working and you need a change.

8. Share Best Practices- Adjacent Countries
Every distributor will be quick to point out “How different their country is”.
The reality is that there are more similarities between countries than differences.
Look at an adjacent country or one with common retailers and share lessons learned. This may represent a category review, presentation approach or special sales contest. Invite the brand manager to visit a successful country or attend a meeting where best practices are shared.

9.Face Time in the Trenches
Distributors appreciate export managers willing to contribute to joint resolution of problems. Consider sending a company employee to work for 3-6 months on assignment at the distributor. Visit quarterly or more frequently . Schedule
bi weekly update calls. Better to focus attention on fixing a high potential country
than regular visits to small countries achieving their objectives. “Distributor respects what the principal inspects”.

10. Partner Change
A distributor change is the last resort, but sometimes partners outgrow each other and are no longer a “fit”.  Export Solutions database tracks an average of 60 distributors per country, so you always maintain options. Transition to a new distributor involves business disruption and even a temporary decline in shipments. The good news is that your new distributor will be motivated, committed and anxious to make a positive impression with a fast start.
The key is to manage the process with dignity and open communication, so that the terminated distributor is not surprised by your actions.