Lessons learnt from 20 years in European Sales Development, a personal journey
I do not often talk about my personal journey in international business and what drove me to found Exportia in in Australia in 2006. This blog is quite personal for a change.
My world of export started with driving 10,000 km a month and through to doing a Paris/Frankfurt–Sydney flight once per month. That’s my export career in a snapshot. I started in this extraordinary industry 20 years ago and in that time, I’ve learnt a great deal. And that’s what I’m going to share in this article, but I also what I share in my books.
During my first job in France, I worked for a small business based in the East part of France. The reasons I was hired is that I spoke fluent German and managed in Italian, in addition to English. The other reason was I was 22 and eager to work in export. At the time, to my parents’ horror, I did refuse a job offer from a large French multinational just because it was only France based.
I took a job for a small business because they wanted to develop a new source of revenue: they had a couple of contracts with large Swiss and German watchmakers, that made them very dependent. So, they wanted to sell their products to retail to diversify their client base. My job role was created to do just that: developing a retailer network throughout Europe. A dream job for me.
It was an intensive exercise, going throughout Europe, and finding large retailers in major cities to get them to buy that range. I did discover the European luxury market, having clients on Place Vendome in Paris and in the likes of Berlin, Duesseldorf, Milan, London, Madrid and Copenhagen and even New York City.
What I sold was luxury leather watch straps made out of alligator, ostrich, calf and all kinds.
At the time, I would be one day at the office and the rest of the week in my car just driving from city to city hunting for luxury jewellers. That is where the 10,000 kms per month reached very fast.
I did learn so much professionally during that time, and I learnt a lot about myself as well.
Clearly, the luxury sector was not for me. I did like the work at the factory where you see ‘artisan’ work and the excellence of their know-how. It’s beautiful to see a genuine hand-made quality. I enjoyed that. What I did not enjoy was the fluff around that. At trade shows it was all too glamorous and snobbish for some of it. I can’t explain why, but I am a person who is unimpressed by wealth.
I also clearly knew a sales role was just fitting perfectly, I did enjoy the negotiation. I am motivated by closing the sale. So, I clearly was where I should, in sales.
Professionally, I discovered that I loved to work for a small business. I was directly reporting to the CEO. This business had had some rough times, and the workers at the factory and at the office, were feeling insecure. I quickly realised that every sale I made had a direct impact on these workers. A few times when I went to the factory, one of the ‘petites-mains’ (which means one of the lady hand-sewing the leather straps) caught me and told me how happy they were to see orders from so many different countries popping-up since I was there. I felt so pumped. It was such a great reward to see the direct impact of my work.
I remember once when I was in Germany about to see clients in Duesseldorf and I was calling my boss, to update her on how I went. In the background, I could hear the accountant saying: ‘Where is Christelle? Near Duesseldorf? We have a client that did not pay us 3 years ago.’ She gave me the amount and off I went to collect the money. And I actually did get the money. That’s the joy of small business. You just do what needs to be done.
The other thing I learnt was that in small businesses things can change very rapidly. I was hired by an amazing CEO. The way he ran the business was very corporate, the business was very well managed. He was very smart, rational and calm. It was great, for a young MBA graduate like myself, as I could grasp and absorb all the other facets of the business.
When he left for another career move, I was clearly disappointed that I could no longer learn from him. And the two new owners were wealthy, but for me they really did not match that level of intelligence. And that was it I decided to quit.
Small business is a fast-moving environment, the quality of the management team is really critical. That’s something I quickly learnt from that first experience.
That’s when I decided I should work for a large multinational to see what it’s like. Given I did graduate with an Australian MBA, and wanted to go back to Australia one day, I checked on the Australian immigration website to see what type of sales. And I saw IT Sales Manager on the list. And I clicked, yes that is what I wanted to do: sell technical things and IT really sounded like fun.
IBM was hiring, I applied and got the job. I was in charge with the sales of very large mainframe servers for large banking and insurance companies. That was a big shift. I learnt about enterprise selling.
Watching an American mammoth doing business in France was sometimes hilarious I have to say. One of my clients was one of the largest French banks, mainly owned by the French farmers. Needless to say, the original English-American slides, would almost get you kicked out of the room. I met some of the best sales professionals I had ever met. Many of them are retired now, and for a few of them I still catch-up with on occasions.
The IBM solution selling method was very powerful, I did enjoy that one-year training with reps from all over Europe. Again, I was amazed by the implementation of an American method for the Danes, the French, the German, the Spanish and the Italians. It was fascinating.
This is where I learnt, about finding your customer’s pain and trying to find solutions for them not only in your own product portfolio but think outside the square and detecting opportunities for my colleagues in other business units. At the time, IBM was trying to solve several issues: their sales team was ageing, mainly composed of engineers and their sales team did mainly sell to IT departments and not to the entire business. IBM was trying to operate the solution selling shift to also improve communication between their different divisions and maximise opportunities for the business as a whole. Every salesperson should be an opportunity spotter for the rest of the company.
To give you an understanding of the environment I worked in, I was 23 and all my clients and colleagues were 50 and over, almost all males, with only very few exceptions. I have never felt ostracised. Being a very inquisitive person, I did get all the answers to my questions about how IT works from server, to data, through to back-ups, disaster recover to software, maintenance, service and financing! That is where I learnt, not to be shy to ask questions to technical experts about what they do. I understood they usually love what they do and are very happy to share!
What amazed me as well, was that such a large business as IBM did regularly work with small businesses for couple of reasons. The first reason is that IBM did seek expert knowledge from highly specialised trainers to train their sales team. This large multinational did recognise it needed external help from specialists to get exactly what they needed. And these experts were often found in small businesses. The other time I saw this was when they decided that their own sales team would focus on very large accounts and their smaller accounts would be looked after by a network of business partners (the equivalent of distributors in the IT sector). It was a recognition of the fact that IBM was very inefficient when looking after small businesses and these accounts would be way better looked after by a smaller, more agile company. That was a revelation for me: multinationals offer great opportunities for small businesses.
I am a French national, as some of you would have guessed. I migrated to Australia in 2006. After a wonderful experience at IBM, I still loved small business and export. I also still loved travelling. With my partner at the time, we decided to migrate to Australia, and surprise surprise with my IBM experience and my Australian MBA I met the Australian migration criteria perfectly. I know: nothing like good planning and perseverance.
With all these lessons learnt, I decided that my move to Australia was a great opportunity to work again for small business and internationally. Now was the right time to start a business as well. I had nothing to lose. No possessions, hardly knew anyone in Australia, and no one in Adelaide where we moved, perfect timing.
And this is how Exportia, my business came about in 2006. Some business books would tell you, when you start a business you should not create a job for yourself. Well, that is exactly what I did. I created a job for myself.
Initially I started to help Adelaide based businesses, mainly in B2B, wanting a footprint in Europe. And now, many millions of euros in sales generated over the past 14 years, for businesses Australia-wide, I have created a Four-Step methodology on how we take small businesses to their first million Euros in Sales and beyond. My aim is to break the mystery of exporting and provide a clear and simple methodology for businesses to successfully launch their product or solution in Europe. I am obsessed with making as many small businesses as possible succeed and scale their business internationally.
During these 20 years in export and always in sales, I found that businesses that came to us at Exportia often were stuck because they took the wrong path in Europe, for example they’d chosen the wrong European country to start with. Some of them had signed very constraining agreements with a distributor that did not generate any sales. Others had hired someone in Europe, but it did not bring any sales. And these three examples are just a few. But they show that just not having the access to the right information, can contribute to making the wrong decisions.
And this is why I shared our full Four-step methodology in my second book, in my second book ‘The Four Steps to generate your first million Euros in sales’.
This book is here to avoid your business to make these common mistakes when entering Europe and to give you the right information and tools to succeed and accelerate your sales in Europe. This is exactly why I have developed a now proven 4-Step Export methodology to take small businesses to their first million Euros and beyond.
My second book is already available from most bookshops in Australia and via online retailers as well such as Amazon and Booktopia. The book will be officially launched toward middle of 2020. If you would like to pre-book a copy of this book, or be on our guest list for the book launch send me an email to register your interest at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christelle turned her back to a successful career as a sales representative in the corporate world in Europe. When she moved to Australia in 2006, she started Exportia to share the wealth of her Europe-wide sales experiences for a small business as an export manager and as a sales representative at IBM in Paris.
“Having taken dozens of Australian businesses to Europe, I personally know the difficulty for a small business to significantly grow their sales in the European market. It is a very diverse market and small businesses often don’t know where to start. Small business owners are often caught up with running their business and with their domestic market to be able to allocate enough time to the European market. Lowering the risk for small businesses and guiding them to maximise the export sales results are what drives us at Exportia.”
Christelle has also encapsulated her learning into a book called “Ready Tech Go! – A definitive guide to exporting Australian technology to Europe”. French native speaker, fluent in German and English, with Basic Italian and Hindi.