A Kenyan distributor recently wrote to me asking for advice to build an in-country distributor business. He was interested in representing more products in the Kenyan market and wanted to find the right suppliers for his business. That is a great topic especially given both the opportunities associated with reselling globally-branded products and the risks of working with new supplier partners. Here is my advice:
Specialize by Client Profile and Seek Related Products
I remember traveling once in Italy and visiting Pisa with its famous vertically-challenged tower. The sky filled with clouds and all at once a heavy shower drenched every tourist in sight, sending everyone running for cover. The nearby Ethiopian entrepreneurs tucked away their packs of postcards just in time and switched to selling umbrellas covered with images of famous Italian sites. I still have my emergency Pisa umbrella purchased that day. These Ethiopians knew their target market: tourists like me. Our changing needs were their new opportunities.
This is true for business-to-business markets as well. All companies look for resources to help them find smart solutions to their challenges. Whether your clients are hospitals, schools, young tech companies or any other profile, learn what they need through conversations in order to identify the types of products you should be representing. If your company wants to expand to serve more diverse sets of clients, consider adding staff or even teams to address this new market rather than spread resources too thin across a disconnected base.
Define Your Geography
Distributors normally cover a specific region. In a large country, this may be a handful of states or provinces or even as small as a metropolitan area if the local product demand is high. But in some areas of the world, a distributor may be able to cover a much larger area because clients are located far from each other. In the case of Africa, a distributor with headquarters in Nairobi may hire employees or contractors in neighboring countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania to help him sell products in those countries. But whatever the size of the distributor’s covered territory, it is vitally important that they are able to support sales throughout the whole area with local language, on-site visits, etc.
Focus on Business Relationships Over Transactions
As a reseller for an international product, your business depends on both your relationships with both your suppliers in another country as well as the relationships with your clients. Transaction-based sales assume that you do not care if you do business with this client again. Relationship-based selling includes:
- Building Trust. It takes time to earn a client or supplier’s trust. One of the most important components of trust-building is consistently delivering on what you say you will do.
- Building Reputation. Your reputation is how others would describe you and your business. Do they see you as someone who delivers product on time? Do you work hard to find new potential clients? Do you contact target accounts regularly to find out their needs? A good reputation always leads to referrals to new suppliers and clients. It is a key long-term investment.
- Caring about both suppliers and clients’ success. Long-term relationships as a distributor and supplier always should focus on how to help your suppliers and clients succeed. If you serve the hospital market, then how do your clients define success? What keeps them from being more successful in your market? Even if you can’t solve a problem like the need for investors, a lack of qualified medical staff or new government health regulations, it shows great concern and understanding to acknowledge challenges they face and to be looking for ways to help them be successful.
Find Suppliers You Can Trust Now and Later
Start on the right footing by carefully choosing companies and products you want to represent. Have a clear explanation about how each supplier and their products fits with the rest of your product offering to your clients.
Build international supplier networks with those you feel you can trust. Even the best product fit must also be met with a trustworthy staff. Does the supplier take time to talk with you? Do the company employees follow through with what they say and do?
Before signing on as a distributor, be sure to check a company’s reputation in both their country and yours. A third party investigator can verify this for you. Also, you can ask to talk with other distributors currently working with the company.
International distributors is a popular option for growing companies to reach new markets. It is equally beneficial for those companies in the overseas markets wanting to represent new offerings. As a distributor you will want to focus on a specific client profile and geographic region. Focusing on identifying and building business relationships with overseas suppliers is more important than those early sales. Only work with those you can trust!