Flag of India in a stack of coins.(series)

With a population of 1.2 billion, a growing middle class and an economy growing at over 7% annually, India should be high on your list of potential export markets. But India is also one of the most challenging markets in the world, so how should you go about selling your products there?

Like most SMEs entering a foreign market, your initial foray will require the help of an independent sales agent. Choosing the right agent will be the most important decision you will make in India or in any overseas market, so take your time and make a carefully considered decision.

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Agents range in size from one-person operations to companies with hundreds of employees representing dozens of products. In a country as big as India larger agents will have multiple sales offices in order to cover the whole country. In India this might include Delhi in the north, Mumbai or Pune in the west, and Bangalore or Chennai in the south. Large agents may already have contact with your prospective customers, so they can easily introduce your products to the market. Such sales representatives also have the resources to support your customers, perform service, and maybe even do local marketing.

Despite these benefits, I chose to work with a very small agent located in Bangalore when I first entered the Indian market. Why? Because I didn’t have any sales in India yet, and knew that it might take a few years to gain reference customers. I needed an agent who would be willing to give me a large chunk of his time in order establish a customer base and build a reputation. I recognized that I could not promise sufficient commission revenues to a large agent to get their attention and a corresponding degree of effort while building up the Indian market.

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Using a one-man outfit meant I had to subsidize the agent as he flew around the country to introduce us to potential customers. But he quickly became a committed expert in our products despite the relatively small number of short-term opportunities. At a large agent with many sales offices no single person would have been able to understand our products and niche market to the same degree as our solo man of the ground did.

In North America businesses tend to focus on the product and the specific transaction at hand. In India—as in all of Asia and much of the world—it’s critical to build personal relationships with customers in advance of building sales. Building a business relationship really means building trust, so that when a customer eventually presents an opportunity they will trust you with their business.

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At Definitive Growth Strategies I am often asked, “What is my role in developing sales in an overseas market and what is the role of the representative?” Ideally you work together as a team. If your customer only deals with your representative then he will never build a relationship with your company in Canada. This is dangerous in many ways. For one, you are hostage to your current representative—changing agents can result in a giant leap backwards.

It’s also important that the customer trusts both you and your representative. He’s buying your product and must be aware that representatives come and go, so he wants to make sure that your Canadian company will be there to support him regardless of what happens to the local agent.

MORE TRUST: 3 Low-Cost Ways to Getting Big Companies to Trust You »

This is especially true in India, where there is significant distrust of local agents and businesses often prefer to deal with “head office” when possible. Customers might try to bypass your local Indian representative when it comes to financial negotiations or other contractual matters. That means you will have to spend time in India visiting potential customers in conjunction with your rep.

You might resent the 24 hours of travel time and 9.5-hour time difference, but your Indian customers will show their appreciation by giving you their business. Once your reputation in India is built you can allow your representative to take on a larger role, freeing up your time to grow sales in other promising international markets.

Corey Miller is the principal at Definitive Growth Strategies, a consulting firm that helps transition North American B2B manufacturing companies into global competitors. Prior to that he ran a successful high tech company in the auto industry for over 20 years. He can be contacted here.

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