April 21, 2022

Growing Sales Teams Overseas? A.D.A.P.T.

When it comes to growing globally there is an old saying that a business should standardize wherever it can and localize wherever it must. Below is a simple, but important framework teams can use to help you get there. While this approach can be used across any line of business, I have focused on sales teams in this example.

With remote work and digitalization of business accelerating, deciding what to standardize versus localize can make the difference between conquering markets and going home empty handed.

Selling is now a global game.

Even back in 2019, 57 % of the S&Ps 500 information technology sector earned a majority of its revenues from outside the U.S. For many industries and companies, building an effective global sales team is a core business need. Yet frequently sales organizations entering new markets find that what works back in their home country doesn’t work elsewhere. In sales, skills such as relationship building, questioning strategies and product messaging can vary across regions.

When training sales teams, what gets standardized and what adjusts locally? A good place to start is: globalize your sales process, localize your sales methodology.  

Let’s define a process versus a methodology and why this is so important for global organizations.

A sales process is a series of steps a salesperson follows to turn prospects into clients. It is the what-to-do part of selling. Usually, a sales process is transferable across regions. A 6-step sales process, for example, usually works the same way in Boston as it does in Bangalore and Beijing. Having every salesperson use the same process makes communication easier, more scalable and helps diagnose pipeline problems faster across teams.

A sales methodology is the framework of how a salesperson approaches each stage of a sales process. This is the how-to-do-it part of selling. Methodologies include specific communication skills, sales techniques, and tools to help salespeople qualify, negotiate and close deals.

Several widely used sales methodologies include: The Challenger Sale, SPIN Selling, The Sandler System and Solution Selling. Most methodologies have been created in western markets, where communication is direct, and hierarchies are flat. The problem is that most people on this planet, do not work under these assumptions. While all of these methodologies can, and are, used around the globe, they can cause problems if not rolled out correctly.

For example, a methodology emphasizing that a salesperson ask direct and challenging questions to prospects may not work the same way where communication styles are more nuanced and seniority levels more established. Asking sales-related questions in the direct-speaking Netherlands usually sounds a lot different than in Japan where communication is more indirect. How does the training material adjust?

In another example, a well-known technology company found they had to radically change their sales messaging that worked in North America when they expanded the same product into South East Asia. In the US, their message was “your company can be the first to use our solution and this will differentiate you from your competitors.”

That message fell flat in Singapore and nearby markets. What worked instead was closer to, “all of your competitors are beginning to use this technology so don’t get left behind.” Why the 180-degree messaging shift? In this case, the US market was more open to try new technologies whereas other markets tend to be more cautious preferring messaging focused on past proofs rather than future potential. The company spent half a year pushing out an ineffective message before making the change.

Different markets may also require adjustments to how salespeople are trained.

Situations where, say a US sales trainer or team of trainers, travel to unfamiliar markets typically train the methodology the same way they would in their home market. In many parts of the world that are more indirect communicators, where people do not speak up as frequently in groups and confrontation avoidance is frequent, audiences will not challenge the local relevancy for the methodology being introduced. Trainers find they are teaching a room of polite, but silent salespeople who smile and nod but who will never use any of the tools they have just been taught. Misaligned training programs waste time and money and worst of all, sales numbers stagnate.

Ironically, the benefits a methodology bring to a sales organization can become liabilities when expanding into new regions if these adaptations are not considered.

It is common for businesses to implement a standard methodology globally without investigating local variations. When the rollout does not show consistent results, a typical reaction is to allow regions to choose their own methodologies. But this causes new problems because using multiple methodologies makes global team cohesion more difficult and results in inconsistent sales pipeline reporting if country teams are using different standards. Communication across regions get strained when teams are not using a common sales terminology.

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This is not to say methodologies don’t work globally. They can work but they must adapt. Just as using an electronic device in a foreign country often requires an adapter, the same goes for sales methodologies.

What to do? Organizations should choose one methodology and, like an electronic device, add an adaptor to ensure it works effectively in local markets.

Follow this framework to ADAPT:

Analyze – The two best ways to analyze a new (or foreign) market is through primary and secondary research. Secondary research includes using cross-cultural data to get a high-level understanding of how working styles vary across the globe. Behavioural scholars including Erin Meyer, Csaba Toth, and global marketing leaders such as Nataly Kelly are great resources for understanding and applying cross cultural behavioural data. Primary research includes taking the time to speak with local employees, partners and customers to better understand the best sales practices needed to succeed in their home markets.

Diagnose – Walk through the chosen methodology to identify areas that require adjustment. Using the market research, run the sales methodology through a diagnostic to look for any areas that may cause misalignment. Specifically consider messaging effectiveness, building connections and rapport, scheduling meetings and timeframes, questioning strategies and negotiation techniques.

Adjust– This is where specific changes to the methodology are made. Consider working with local counterparts or regional experts make these adjustments. If you are on your own in a new market, pay close attention to the behaviours around you and find local friends and advisors to develop necessary messaging and communication changes.  

People – Clearly communicating these adjustments to all relevant people is critical. Not only do the local salespeople and partners need to know about this adjusted methodology but so does anyone involved in regional or global accounts. Extra time should be included to communicate why these changes are being made. This is an excellent opportunity for teams to learn about foreign markets and how their business is navigating diverse markets.

Test – In sales, things rarely go as planned. When dealing with regional and cultural variations there are always exceptions and misunderstandings and sometimes adjustments go wrong. Test everything to make sure the sales methodology has been calibrated to be as effective as possible.

When considering a commercial methodology where outside trainers will teach your teams, find out how they handle global rollouts. Do they have local trainers or will the ship them in from other regions? What are their thoughts on local adjustments and flexibility? Get specific. Find out core tools they teach and ask how these are adjusted across different markets. Also, if possible, have your overseas team leaders interview the trainers beforehand. If a sales training company says their methodology works the same across all markets, find a new sales training company.

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