Managing global customers

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Given today’s economic climate, adding real and, most importantly, measurable value for global customers has become even more important. A succession of high profile events, such as the global telecoms crash in 2000, has lead to greater pressure on costs and dramatic changes in demand. For manufacturing in particular, there have been significant shifts as production moved from Western to Eastern Europe, whilst simultaneously growing fast in the Asian region. Some manufacturing, however, has remained in Western Europe and North America – predominantly low volume and ‘high mix demand’.

For businesses handling or seeking to handle global clients, there are great opportunities here to fulfil a wide range of needs.

Agreeing a complex contract worldwide, however, is only the first of several steps to working successfully with customers across multiple countries, cultures and languages. Ensuring that the objectives of any international agreement are met to the satisfaction of all parties requires a significant amount of understanding and dedication on both sides.

The success of a global contract centres on building trust. Winning the hearts and minds of everyone at each touch point within the customer organisation – from those who use the products to the senior management who sign the contracts – is crucial.

This raises the issue of communicating to a global customer organisation. There is much to be said for setting down a firm plan to educate all potential users and stakeholders within the customer organisation on the value of your products and services. If this understanding is not built in a fairly short timeframe, then suppliers risk slow or limited uptake, resulting in a shortfall in sales and client disappointment. In the worst cases, the hard won global contract will not be renewed.

A key part of my role as at Premier Farnell is to deepen our understanding of customers and markets in order to anticipate and satisfy their needs. By working at all levels in my organisation, I can ensure that we also develop strong relationships at all levels with our clients. The end objective to this being lasting, collaborative working relationships.

Experience has also shown us that the most successful global contracts are those where the supplier recognises and understands the importance of all departments involved. This can encompass a surprisingly wide array of divisions, from eCommerce, operations and financial teams, to production, legal and HRs. The key here is flexibility – a supplier must be able to deliver great service to everyone in the organisation.

As a supplier, your flexibility and agility really begin to pay dividends when it comes to handling different markets around the world. The need for sound understanding of local customs, for instance, is a given and the capacity to adapt offerings to suit local markets is vital for success!

To do this, it pays to recruit good people locally, capitalising on their local knowledge and expertise. Also critical in these early stages is placing trusted employees on the ground to lead the relationship through what can be difficult initial months. The ideal candidate for this type of role would be an experienced operations manager – someone with a combination of local knowledge, good language skill and a broad international vision.

For those companies involved in multiple global contracts, grooming staff to handle this type of international role is a worthwhile and farsighted investment. An active policy of overseas secondments and transfers make ideal building blocks, which build knowledge of international markets. The payback, in the mid-to-long term, is a team of experienced managers who can make a fast and positive impact on the ground at a new location, quickly establishing contacts and an understanding of local issues.

So, the global deal is set and local operations have been established. Now, how will it work in practice? A good many companies claim to work on a global basis, but actually fall short of this under closer scrutiny. True global coverage means so much more than having manufacturing or sales operations in multiple countries, or having a website which, theoretically, makes a business accessible to everyone, everywhere.

We have recognised the need to offer many different channels to service our international clients in the way which best suits them, from traditional paper catalogue to electronic equivalents, such as website or eMarketplace purchasing and CD-ROM catalogues. A global company will also trade in different currencies and different languages, including special sites developed for specific customer.

This does, naturally, involve a commitment from the supplier to back these developments with constant improvement and innovation in terms of services and technological capabilities. This type of investment in meeting international needs can reap great rewards and we now have more than 200 successful e-procurement partnerships across the world with some very large organisations. In addition, we have expanded our business into Mexico, Italy, Austria and China over the past two years, in order to be where our customers need us.

‘Think global, act local’ has become the well-known mantra for business, but companies are in danger of forgetting what this actually means. Operating with a customer globally involves a myriad of demands, which vary across locations and cultures, to present a complex web of considerations. Global contracts run the risk of becoming just a piece of paper, rather than a working reality, if businesses do not recognise the issues that they face and commit fully to the steps required to deal with them. The rewards for doing so are great.

Robert Rospedzihowski is global accounts director at Premier Farnell, a global marketer and distributor of electronic, maintenance, repair and operations and specialist products and services.

Tel: 0870 129 8608.

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