A Shrinking World Is an Opportunity to Expand the Rep’s Line Card — Part 1

by Sid Ragona, Ph.D., Ragona Scientific, LLC

Representing overseas principals can be a very enriching and rewarding experience. It involves all of the skills associated with representing a domestic principal plus some additional skills that one needs to be sensitive to​​ before signing up with an overseas principal.

I have close to two decades of experience representing overseas companies and during that time, I have made many lifelong friends. I have always been fascinated and most times pleasantly surprised by the many subtle differences between representing domestic and principals from different countries. While there are differences between different countries and continents, I have distilled my list down to six general differences that one must take into account. The first three are soft differences that one needs to be aware of and the last three are hard differences that must be understood.

First the three soft skills: vacation schedules, geography and language.

1. Vacation Schedule

To the North American representative it seems that overseas and especially European companies are forever on holiday; however, this only really happens in the summer, fall, winter and spring. Additionally, holiday periods are also longer. This can be quite frustrating, especially if one is unaware of the holiday schedule and requires time-sensitive information. The best and only practical method of dealing with this is to find out ahead of time when the holidays are and who the alternative contact is. Otherwise, you will likely receive an away email that states that person is on vacation for the next month and will not be checking emails and therefore you should contact info@companyname. It is worth bearing in mind that the person responsible for checking the info@companyname may also be on vacation. Thus, knowledge and a backup plan will alleviate most of the pain associated with holidays.

2. U.S. Geography

“The U.S. is big, really big — maps are deceiving” (actual quote from one of my principals). The U.S. is really big is the correct observation. This realization only became apparent to one of my overseas principals on a seven-hour drive between customer sites and we were still in the same state. Often overseas companies don’t fully comprehend the size and spread of our assigned territory. This is particularly important when one needs to communicate an activity report in addition to a forecast report. In many cases, our geography prevents us from simply calling in on a customer as often as would be expected in Europe or Asia. Thus, it is to the savvy rep’s advantage to not only communicate some degree of activity but to include some of the distances traveled. Otherwise, what in actual fact might be a week-long road trip in the U.S. may be interpreted by the overseas principal as a one-to-two-day trip between sites next to each other. Along with the geography issue are the secondary issues of climate and time. Thus, finding a way to communicate these is also helpful. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication, and it’s the rep’s job to explain the playing field we compete on.

3. Language

Just because we are all using English it does not mean we are communicating. One of the more fascinating aspects of representing overseas principals is the subtle (sometimes not so subtle) differences in understanding. Despite the fact everyone might be using English as the business language, it does not mean everyone understands the words in the same way. The biggest frustration for most principals using English as a second language is that English is such a rich language with multiple words for the same thing, so the question is which words to use and when. An example of this was brought to my attention by a German sales manager; the words “maybe” or “perhaps” — which one to use, since they mean the same thing? The subtleties here can often speak volumes about the professional nature and educational levels of the communication. Native English speakers know which words to use instinctively for effect, whereas for non-native English speakers, this can simply be a source of incomprehensibility. Being sensitive to this helps but more than that, offering face-to-face conversation (in person, or video) with a short email of what you believed was agreed upon and asking if they are in agreement is an effective path to reducing misunderstandings.

There are of course many other soft differences that could be covered, ranging from how to present a business card and accept one in return, to how to hold a knife and fork at a company dinner; however, sensitivity to the 3 listed above should easily remove around 90 percent of unnecessary frustration and result in a very rewarding experience.

In Part 2 we will cover some of the “Hard Skills,” in particular, contracts, shipping terms, and harmonized tariff codes.

Sid Ragona, Ph.D., founded Ragona Scientific, LLC, in 2006, and the company has been a MANA member since 2009. Ragona Scientific specializes in nanotechnology from foreign start-up companies that want to sell into the U.S. and Canada. Since 2020, he has cohosted a radio show and podcast about entrepreneurship entitled Rethinking Business: Success Sauce and Two Pickles (www.successsaucetwopickles.com). Ragona has also been a Certified Score Mentor since 2011 and serves on MANA’s Board of Directors.

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