Mastering the art of helping U.S. companies export

Doug Barry

“When you’re telling, you’re not selling,” commented a seasoned UPS international sales executive who gathered recently with some of his colleagues at the UPS World Port in Louisville, Kentucky. “Not necessarily,” answered another. “When it comes to selling exporting to a dubious customer, the successful salesperson needs to both listen and talk.”

Exchanges such as this occur several times a year when, for one afternoon during a weeklong training course, UPS salespeople learn from trade specialists from the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS), a unit of the International Trade Administration, about President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative and about the ways USFCS and UPS have partnered to help double U.S. exports and support thousands of jobs. And the effort is not confined to UPS. The USFCS’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and the Trade Information Center deliver the same training to the salespeople of two other partners, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

Multiplier Effect

Now in its fifth year, the USFCS’s outreach program has trained more than 2,000 salespeople from the three partner organizations. And because the international sales forces usually interact with their domestic counterparts (who are increasingly focused on spotting prospective export customers), the multiplier effect is closer to 30,000 salespeople. This makes for a decent-sized army of export enablers.

“The strategy is quite simple,” says Adam Wilczewski, director of the USFCS’s Office of Strategic Partnerships. “Our courier partners pick up and deliver for millions of businesses in the United States. To have their sales forces help deliver the president’s exporting message to U.S. companies every day of the year is huge.”

Wilczewski reasons that the federal government, even if it had a massive trade promotion budget, could never get in front of every business that does or could export. “Training the salespeople is highly cost-effective and it’s a win–win for everyone, especially taxpayers.”

But does this approach work? The UPS international sales executives who attended the recent training session this past March thought so. One attendee, Vanessa Ramirez, who is in charge of UPS’s Northern Colorado territory, said she has a number of customers whose international sales increased when she introduced them to the trade specialists at the Export Assistance Center in Denver, Colorado. “When you’re having the export conversation with the customer, it’s a great help to say, ‘Hey, I have someone from the government who will help you find new customers.’”

Overcoming Resistance

The training sessions ultimately focus on exactly that opening conversation with the customer. First, the salesperson must reach a decision maker without offending the initial company contact, who may be employed in the fulfillment or compliance end of the business.

The next obstacle is identifying the reasons for not exporting or increasing the number of overseas markets. The reasons include fear of not getting paid, uncertainty about what market to choose, not knowing how to go about finding buyers, and insufficient funds to ramp up production.

To help the salespeople parry those objections, a USFCS trainer sets the scene for a role-playing exercise in which the participants alternately take on the roles of customer and salesperson. The exercise shows how challenging it is to break through the initial reluctance of the customer. Through a series of simple “why” questions, the exercise brings this reluctance to the surface, and the salespeople are equipped with responses to help the customers question their preconceived (often negative) notions about exporting.

The training session ends with applause for the role-playing actors and a generally upbeat feeling that this public–private partnership is going to contribute in a big way to the growth of U.S. exports.

Doug Barry, Director of Marketing and Communications for the U.S. Commercial Service
Copyright 2011, Author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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