Acquiring and servicing customers based overseas has always presented a huge challenge, not least because of the difficulties associated with language, culture and, most crucially, local laws and their interpretation. Time was when exporters would routinely fly out a team to call on prospective or existing clients face-to-face. Apart from being regarded as respectful, personal contact was the accepted way to establish mutual trust and understanding.
The pandemic has changed all that. Moreover, it is likely that the way in which we are currently forced to interface with overseas clients under lockdown rules will become permanent and the ‘new normal’.
It is true that modern communications technology (e.g., Zoom meetings) has helped to fill the gap, but only up to a point. While travel restrictions remain in force, local agents have started to play a far more important role – not simply to maintain valuable customer contact, but to enable suppliers to operate at all in certain markets. This is especially true in the oil, gas, petrochemical and energy sectors where major Middle Eastern governments – like Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi – have introduced value-added levies (e.g., ICV and IKTA) to ensure that more of the wealth stays at home to support the local economy. The money raised typically goes towards funding quality job creation and training for the local population.
For external suppliers to understand and successfully navigate the new rules, experienced local agents have become not so much useful as indispensable. And this is likely to remain the case even when/if COVID-19 is history.
Agents are no longer people who simply collect a commission for representing a foreign supplier; indeed, they are arguably the ones who now have the most valuable commercial relationships. Top professional agents are technically qualified, hard-working and keen to identify and exploit new business opportunities; they are more than capable of adding an extra dimension. In short, they are more business partners than simply local representatives.
UnitBirwelco has enjoyed considerable success in regions like the Middle and Far East, but only because we have taken the trouble to research the market and made the effort to identify, cultivate and support the best people with whom we wish to collaborate. Maintaining sales is a high priority for any business but, ultimately, success comes from building valued relationships. In these testing times, personal trust is more important than ever. But, if it is to work, you need to adapt to the new order and put in the effort.