As promised in our post two weeks ago on improving distributor performance, we wanted to provide some information on life science distributor selection. After all, part of getting the best performance from your distributors is selecting the right ones in the first place.
The first and most obvious thing that gets considered when selecting a distributor is geographic fit and territory coverage. Just because a distributor serves a whole country or region doesn’t mean that they have good coverage of the territory. For example, some distributors perform inside sales to the entire territory but only have outside reps for some of the territory. Many times there is a trade-off between coverage and specialization and / or coverage and focus. The companies with more complete coverage, more reps, a greater reach, and a more powerful brand are often the largest companies which almost always have very large and broad product offerings. A company like VWR has hundreds of reps globally, but are those reps really going to be thinking about selling your product line, or will it just get lost in a sea of life science equipment and consumables? Also, remember that distributor territories don’t have to be synonymous with “countries” – you can have more than one distributor in a country and still maintain exclusivity, you just need to subdivide the country into smaller territories. Companies approaching large countries like China or the United States seem to forget this and instead get caught up in an often non-ideal situation of having one company be the sole representation for a large country.
So you know your territory, but do you know who has the capability to sell your product within that territory? For more technical products, you may need a distributor who has the experience and educational credentials to effectively sell such equipment – especially if you don’t have an office in roughly the same time zone to provide on-demand sales support. Will your equipment require demonstrations or installations? Better choose a distributor with a solid outside sales force, or at least one who is willing to travel to get the job done. You’re also likely to be faced with a choice of working with distributors who sell competing products and therefore are familiar with your market and applications and may have a reputation for selling products like yours, or working with a distributor with no competing products and therefore only has your products to offer as a solution. There is no simple answer for this – it needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
- Are certain products generating most of their revenues? If so, which ones? They may offer a wider variety of products than they actually sell. If they have a few key products that generate most of their revenues, they may be hesitant to divert effort into selling other products. Be sure that your product line doesn’t become a “me too” in their offering.
- Does this distributor really want to sell your products? This may be the most important question, and the answer can be based on many factors including all those which we have already discussed. Even if a distributor seems like a great fit, if they’re not motivated to sell your products, they are likely to perform well below expectations. If a distributor is willing to take on your line but isn’t motivated to sell your products, should you work with them anyway? The easy answer is “no”, but this ignores one key question: could you make them motivated? There are tactics, including contractual terms and distributor management techniques, to do so.
- Would there be a significant imbalance of power in the relationship? I always hesitate to recommend a much larger and more powerful distributor to my clients unless they are very motivated to sell their line and show it in the terms of the distribution agreement or they have a close contact in a relevant position at the larger company. If there is an imbalance, chances are that they’ll feel free asking you to give and give, but won’t feel obliged to return any favors.
- Do you even need to work through a distributor? Could a partnership with another manufacturer, probably one selling complimentary products, serve you even better?
Regardless of the topic at hand or the region in question, there are good distributors and bad distributors. Some distributors will embellish their capabilities and you have to do your homework to make sure that they have the capabilities they state and that they’ll fulfill their promises. Don’t hesitate to ask to speak to a potential distributor contacts at other suppliers, or even reach out to other suppliers on your own in order to get feedback on their performance and / or validate their claims.
If you life science company sells through distributors, the performance of those distributors will be a large part of the success or failure of your company. By identifying and forming relationships with distributors who have the necessary capabilities and are committed to a mutually beneficial relationship, you’ll be well on your way to growing your international sales.