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International Sales: Navigating Challenges and Finding Success

Eric Zahrai

April 1, 2023


Expanding sales internationally can be an exciting opportunity for growth, but it comes with its own set of challenges. From language and cultural barriers to unrealistic expectations from HQ, there are many obstacles that can hinder success. In this blog, we will explore some of the biggest challenges faced by international sales teams and how to address them.

  • Overcoming Language and Cultural Barriers

Europe, for example, is a diverse continent, with the European Union representing 24 countries, each with its own unique culture and language. To travel from Paris to Copenhagen by car takes 12 hours, crossing three countries (Belgium, Germany, and Luxemburg) with their own languages, rules, regulations and culture. The distances can be short but the differences between the countries are significant. It can be tough to navigate these differences and to ensure effective communication with potential customers.

To overcome these barriers, it's essential to invest time in learning about the culture and languageof the country(ies) you are targeting ahead of your trip. While English is the business lingua franca in many countries, if you really want to know what is going on in the side discussions, you need to speak the language or have someone on your team who can help you. If necessary, consider working with a translator or hiring staff / consultant from the local area to help bridge the gap.

  • Getting Support from HQ and Regional Offices

It can be challenging to get the support you need from HQ and the country offices (if you have them) when expanding internationally. HQ doesn’t always fully understand the complexity of doing business in a new market and has unrealistic expectations about the sales cycles. The regional or country office might be nervous or suspicious of a visitor from HQ.

To be successful in international sales, you must build trust on both ends and show both entities how your efforts will help them win and achieve their mutual goals. For HQ, you must demonstrate that you are aligned with the company goals and that you are moving forward with accountability and drive for results. For the country office, you need to build trust so that they see you as an advocate, helping them understand what is needed from HQ and, most importantly, helping them convey to HQ the successes and challenges that they are experiencing in their market.

  • Travel Habits for Success

International salespeople are often globetrotters, traveling for weeks at a time. This can lead to loneliness, lack of balance, and ultimately to burnout. To avoid this situation, it's important to plan your trips carefully, giving yourself enough time to adjust to a new time zone, climate, food, etc. Avoid squeezing in too many things in your schedule. If you are traveling by plane, plan for the unexpected. You never know if there will be a travel delay or an unplanned situation. Try to arrive one day prior to your meetings so that you can use that day to adjust your time clock and to finalize any of your preparations by reconfirming things like logistics, attendees, and presentations.

Make sure to include downtime during your stay — and make it work to your advantage personally and professionally. One example is a US sales manager who often traveled to Europe for business. She would plan for a 2-3 hour break to visit a historic landmark, museum or special event in the city she was visiting. Showing interest in learning about the place and the people, and giving her something to share with in-country contacts, was important to her. It also allowed her to manage stress and replenish her energy. To succeed, you need to take care of yourself by finding time and striving to maintain a healthy routine of eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and staying connected to your family and home office.

  • Necessary Skill Sets

To thrive in international sales, you need to possess specific skill sets.Listening skills and the ability to ask questions to get to know your international customers and colleagues are crucial, as is adapting to new cultures and being open to trying novel things. Remember that you are the “stranger in a strange land.” Patiently show your genuine interest in learning about others so that you can build trust with them. When they are ready to talk business they will let you know. How you communicate your message depends on the sophistication, culture and style of your customers. Hopefully, you have researched this before your trip and have made the necessary adjustment to your message and presentation approach.

International sales can move at a different pace; you might need to be more patient or, conversely, more persistent. Being self motivated, flexible and adaptable, with the ability to work with ambiguity, are key. You need to be confident in your ability to learn and navigate the different sales cycles in each market, knowing that HQ views you as the market “expert.” Remember that in all countries, responsiveness and prompt follow up pays off every time.

  • Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on international sales. Because of travel restrictions, lockdowns, and budget cuts, most organizations domestically and internationally learned that they could accomplish a great deal by relying on virtual communications to run their business. With established global customers, virtual meetings have allowed for more frequent interactions and greater participationfrom key stakeholders to help advance the relationship and partnerships. Virtual events and conferences have also become more prevalent, providing an opportunity to connect with a larger audience in a shorter time and at less cost.

With international travel coming back, expectations are that international sales people will not travel as much as they did prior to Covid and will continue to rely on improving virtual communications to manage existing business. In-person travel will be more targeted and strategic in order to accomplish specific goals that require personal connection and non-verbal cues, such as building relationships, understanding the lay of the land, pitching a proposal, and expanding into new markets.

In conclusion, selling internationally comes with challenges. Addressing language and cultural barriers, building trust with HQ and country offices, adopting successful travel habits, and possessing and developing necessary skill sets are important to thrive in international sales. The pandemic has had an significant impact on working globally, leading to an increased reliance on virtual communications. While in-person travel is returning, it will be more targeted and strategic. It is important to adapt to these changes and find new ways to succeed in international sales.