It’s amazing how many companies do a basic sizing exercise to determine a country’s market opportunity, decide to invest in it, and then leave their local in-market teams figure out everything else from there. At a lot of companies, this is where “international strategy” begins and ends. But committing to a market means more than just the initial investment decision. It’s more than just carving out sales quotas and hiring reps. It’s more than simply knowing how to hire great talent. And it’s also more than just generating leads in a given country.
Naysayers will counter, “But isn’t it all about finding the right leads and getting them to buy? If you can do that, why not just stick with it? Why overcomplicate?” True, that is how you grow any business, and on the most basic level, how you grow into a new market. Up to a certain point.
But if you take this approach for very long, you’ll eventually hit major road blocks, and your growth in a market will slow down before you’ve even come close to fully achieving all you could. And in fact, you’ll be spreading your company’s resources and energy too thin, instead of focusing deeply on a smaller number of markets that you truly understand well.
Seek First to Understand Your Customer, One Country at a Time
Customers in each country have different needs, different preferences, and different purchasing behaviors. Even if the people you’re selling to all have essentially the same role and title, many things change from one country to the next. Consider that even if you just look at two countries who speak the same language and are in near proximity to each other they have many differences.
Let’s take the United States and Canada as an example:
- The news they consume is different
- Their professional networks are different
- The brands they know and trust are different
- Their local laws are different
- Their national holidays are different
- Their international trade partners are different
- The local trends they follow are different
- Their views on data privacy are different
- Their language use is different
- Their culture is different
- Their currency is different
- Their distribution channels are different
- Their units of measure are different
- The top websites that rank for search terms locally are different…
And the list goes on and on. Bottom line, customers in the US and Canada are not as similar as you think.
Country matters, because understanding your local customer matters.
The reason I suggest a country-first approach, as opposed to a language-first approach, is because there are already plenty of differences by country to take into account. A language is simply too broad of a grouping to be useful, because it will often cover multiple countries. Language, and a local variant of it, is most often a subset of a culture. And for most people, culture is more strongly correlated to national identity — country — than to anything else a marketer, data scientist, or an international strategist can think of. The languages you select should be dictated by the countries you choose, and never vice versa. People are bonded together legally and physically by the geographic and social confines of a nation when they all live in, or were born in, the same place.
Don’t Short-Change Your Customer Research
One common mistake I see companies making when going into new markets is that they skip the local market research stage. Or, they do inwardly-focused research, mostly diving deeply into their own data, but they avoid taking any customer-focused research seriously. They seem to think they can just “clone” their strategy in other markets, without stopping to truly ask what the customer wants or needs.
When you stop to think about any approach that is focused heavily on company data, it’s the opposite of customer-focused. Trusting that the internal data will give you answers presumes that your company’s data actually outweighs the customer’s voice. There’s an implicit bias in leaning too much into your own data. If you trust your own data too blindly, and you don’t supplement it with any local customer research, you’re likely to assume that you’re getting most things right in that country.
In reality, even if a given metric looks bad, the scope of what’s needed to change it will vary dramatically from one country to another. So, you can’t assume that the countries with the best performance metrics are “the best” for your business to target. That’s a misleading, lagging indicator. It only tells you how well you perform based on what you are doing today, mistakes and all! Your internal metrics are by no means the be all, end all.
The Customer’s Voice Is Crying Out to You from Behind Your Internal Metrics
Here are some examples of why, if you just look at metrics and never talk to your customers in different markets, you’ll misinterpret your internal data.
Example #1: Customers in this market ask for too many discounts.
You might assume that there is something wrong with this market because they won’t pay the same price that your customers in other markets do. Perhaps it even plays into stereotypes that you might hold about the market, as someone who isn’t deeply familiar with it.
The customer is signaling that your pricing is not appropriate for the value you are bringing in their market. Remember the exchange of value. Is your product overkill for what they need? Have you considered purchasing power parity when setting your prices? Are you charging the same price that you charge in every other market?
If so, there’s nothing wrong with this market. There’s something wrong with your local pricing strategy.
Example #2: The freemium monetization rate in this market is too low.
Again, you might at first blame the market or the country, but this is likely a signal that you don’t have local pricing. Another very common scenario is that once they see what currency you offer, they might decide the exchange of value isn’t really worth it for them after all.
For example, if you’re selling in US$ and the customer is from one of many countries, they will have to pay a local government tax on top of the purchase price, of up to 20%. So, your price (to them) just went up, all because you don’t support their local currency. You haven’t accounted for the differences in the exchange of value.
When your metrics from a given country look bad, don’t blame the market, but rather, take a hard look in the mirror.
Example #3: The overall close rate is lower for this market.
They need your product. The value makes sense. So why aren’t they going across the finish line?
Maybe you simply haven’t done enough to earn their trust, and therefore, their business. Chances are that your brand is better known in your country of origin. Do you have strong and measurable brand awareness in this country? Did you invest in local case studies and testimonials, local reviews, local press, local social media, and other local proof points that would reinforce and amplify your brand positioning and messaging? Or, are you just sitting on your hands and hoping you don’t have to do this for other markets, even though you did for your home country?
As you can see, far too many companies blame “the market” or “the country.” If you do this, your company needs a dose of humility. Stop blaming the customer for your market entry mistakes. When your metrics from a given country look bad, don’t blame the market, but rather, take a hard look in the mirror.
Then, ask your customers in that country to school you on what you could do better.
Early Wins Can Make Companies Lazy about Listening to the Local Customer
Many companies go into a market, see some great early success, and declare they are winning, even when they’ve only achieved a small amount of market penetration. They think they’ve achieved product-market fit, within months! And the numbers would seem to corroborate the story, at least for a while. They start to get a little cocky.
Why do they do this? I blame the early adopters for spoiling them. 😉
Early adopters make up a portion of every market. They are usually the first to embrace what you have to offer in any given country. They will trick you and make you think you’re doing great in a given market. They’ll have you believing that *all* companies or customers in a given country behave that way.
You need to understand the needs of your mainstream customer — in each country — if you ever want to achieve lasting success in that market.
Nope! When you get to the Mainstream (majority of the market), things start to get much more difficult. Your execs might ask, “What happened? This market used to be so great for us, and now it’s really getting challenging!” You’ll start to see your sales efforts slow down, your retention might take a hit, and competitors you never had to worry about are suddenly coming up in every local sales engagement.
The reason why this happens is that when you start to hit those walls in any market, you know you’re moving into the mainstream. So now you’re at the point where you *really* need to get to know your customer more than ever. The mainstream customer, not the early adopter, is more representative of the majority of customers in this country. You need to understand the needs of your mainstream customer in each country if you ever want to achieve lasting success in that market.
Know Your Buyer Personas and How They Change by Country
Too many companies develop buyer personas for global use, but they make the mistake of crafting them exclusively, or primarily, based on what they know about buyers in a single country — their home market.
Your personas in other countries will no doubt have plenty in common with personas in your home market. After all, they probably have similar goals and similar roles. But the way they think, learn, assign value to and make decisions about your product are likely going to be different.
How different? There’s only one way to find out.
Talk to the customer! Develop your personas for each country using the same process you used for your home market.
Don’t have customers in this market yet? Interview and survey your target customers. Talk to as many of them as you can. Understand their differences by vertical segment, by company side, and by role as well.
If you do have customers in the market, also talk to any partners and any employees who already work in that market. They are your best spokespeople if for some reason you can’t talk to the customer. Ideally, they should be *from* the target country, not just people who sell into that market or who haven’t lived there directly.
Remember, any brand that truly wants to succeed in a given market listens closely not just to what their company wants to say, but what the customer wants and needs to hear. What you say in one country might not resonate in the next. So put your ear close to the ground — in the country of your customer — and truly make an effort to understand your product and your business from their local perspective. Not yours.