Put your sales force in charge of international sales

Fail in foreign trade

Businesses close to the border in particular often make this mistake: in order to save costs, their own German sales representatives quickly travel to the neighbouring country to sell company products. Professor Peter Anterist, CEO of InterGest, the global trust company, describes a case that ends unsuccessfully and must end unsuccessfully.

Oh, how beautiful it is in Switzerland! The mountains are impressive, the chocolate is divine, and Swiss German has a sympathetic sound to it. And that’s not all – the citizens of this Alpine nation also have plenty of money and are enthusiastic consumers.

So what could be more natural for a company in Southern Germany to conquer at least German-speaking Switzerland, and to sell the universally beloved products made by Pfleiderer GmbH there as well?

Mr. Pfleiderer Junior is the third generation of his family to manufacture high-quality fitted kitchens near Lake Constance, on the Swiss border. His kitchens – high quality from German producers – are very popular but expensive, which makes them practically perfect for the Swiss market.

Until now, no major sales activities had been geared toward Switzerland but the fact could not be ignored that more and more Swiss consumers wanted Pfleiderer kitchens and were beginning to travel to Germany and order the kitchens there. It was a lucrative business with strong growth potential.

Mr. Pfleiderer decided to get down to brass tacks, and he imagined supplying all of Switzerland with his high-quality kitchens in the immediate future. He already had a tax representative in the country, because he needed one for his kitchen installation activities. The next step, namely founding his own Swiss branch, could therefore be done fairly easily by the same local tax advisor.

For cost reasons, Mr. Pfleiderer decided not to have a showroom at first; instead, sales would take place through local trade fairs and exhibitions, as well as a direct sales approach he had designed himself according to the “Vorwerk” model, which he used very successfully in Germany. His skilled, well-trained salespeople just had to gain access to the potential customer’s house or apartment, and then they could build a virtual kitchen for the amazed customer on the spot, using his proprietary computer simulation program. Once they had gotten that far, an order was usually within reach.

Another advantage was that, thanks to fairly high profit margins, he was able to live well on just a few orders.

Now he planned to transfer this approach to Switzerland, and there was no reason to expect anything less than a complete success.

For the most part, the catalogue was left unchanged; the prices were simply shown in Swiss francs, and the German sales employees were given a bit of intercultural training by Mr. Pfleiderer’s wife, who loves going to Switzerland for shopping trips and has a great rapport with the Swiss.

Now the individual German sales representatives were assigned certain regions, creating a manageable, broad triangle between Basel, St. Gallen and Lucerne.

Fully motivated, everyone went to work. The first order was placed within a week, and another one followed after three weeks, but when nothing else was forthcoming, the upbeat mood gradually started to fade.

During the sales team’s first crisis meeting with the company management, the main problem became clear: the sales representatives were simply not being let into their Swiss neighbours’ homes. The Swiss did answer the door when someone rang the bell, but by the time they heard the somewhat awkward attempt at the Swiss greeting, “Gruezi,” they were kindly but firmly closing the door to the folks from Pfleiderer GmbH.

The team now did everything they could to change the situation – they even considered a language course in Swiss German. But it was all for naught. They couldn’t sell kitchens with this approach, and the many hours of fruitless sales attempts and the many kilo- metres driven on Swiss roads were beginning to wear on the budget.

The management of Pfleiderer GmbH falsely assumed that the German sales approach could be transferred directly to Switzerland, and with German sales representatives to boot. We often see German companies, particularly near the border, making the serious mistake of confusing two very different things. One is the popularity of German products in other countries, and the other is the popularity (or lack thereof) of Germans themselves in other countries – two things that could not be more different.

When a German sales representative turned up at the potential Swiss customer’s front door, he had already lost the battle. Swiss people weren’t about to let in this foreign sales agent who couldn’t even say “Gruezi” without an accent – and why should they? When people are already sceptical and reserved with their own countrymen, imagine how it will be for foreigners! If Mr. Pfleiderer had only bothered to invest in hiring and training Swiss employees, he probably would have been successful.

Incidentally, this problem is not restricted to the Germans and the Swiss. There is a saying that neatly sums up the relationship between the Germans and the French as well:
The Germans like the French but don’t take them seriously. The French in turn take the Germans seriously but don’t like them.