Shipping office services, helpline, consultancy and supply chain security

Friday, 26 October 2012

Trade Fairs – Be ready to work hard and have an adventure

Trade Fairs are a key part of the sales activities of many companies that sell overseas.They are really hard work and you have to be prepared for a bit of an adventure along the way. Until fairly recently most of my trade fair experience had been confined to the Medica Trade Fair in  Dusseldorf.  I remember being amazed at the number of exhibition halls and the crowds of people  who descended on the ‘Messe’ each morning.  An event like Medica really does remind you that  business is global and global business is huge. Medica trade fairs were generally good fun and well  organised.  The greatest challenge was trying to squeeze into crowded trains to get back to your  hotel before setting off again to find somewhere to eat in the packed out restaurants. Hardly a serious matter!

Trade Fairs became a bit more of an adventure for me when I attended one in Saudi Arabia in  January 2010. I must admit I was a bit nervous about this trip as I had heard it would be really hard  for me to be in Saudi Arabia without my husband or another male relative to act as chaperone. In  the event it was fine. I made sure I was appropriately attired, covering my hair with a scarf before I  left the plane and donning my abaya on arrival at the hotel. Although wearing the abaya took a bit of  getting used to, it came in handy when our luggage was delayed. My male colleague had to run out  to  a shopping mall to buy a new suit but I was able to wear the clothes I had travelled in under my abaya and no-one was any the wiser!  

My next trade fair experience was in Libya. We travelled there just after Libya and Switzerland had a major fall out which resulted in Schengen nationals being denied entry to Libya. So it was fun and games at Schiphol airport as officials tried to identify travellers from the banned countries to recommend they didn’t continue with their journey. The trade fair was held in a marquee on a university campus which seemed a reasonable arrangement until it started to rain. The carpet got soaked and started to leech some nasty white chemicals which stained our shoes. Boxes of brochures which had been left on the floor ended up wet and had to be discarded.  The toilets were a ten minute walk from the exhibition marquee and lunch could turn up at any time from 1pm to 4pm. The final straw was when we arrived one morning to find a tramp asleep on our stand wrapped up in our table cover.  He hastily leapt up and made his escape. We could only wonder if he had been availing himself of our table cover all week and had only been caught out as he had overslept  that particular morning!

Trade fairs are hard work and you need a lot of stamina to get through them. Most of us are not used to standing for hours on end or speaking for long periods. Sore feet and sore throats are an  occupational hazard.  That’s why a little light relief in the form of a soggy carpet or a cheeky tramp  are always welcome.

Anne Murphy

Friday, 19 October 2012


Appointing an international distributor can be a tricky business. Most business sectors in most countries have only a few main players therefore finding a new distributor can be a real challenge, especially for companies who are new to a market. And once you have found a good distributor, it is important to hold on to them.

Next week a former distributor of mine, and now good friend, is visiting Manchester from his home city of Prague. There are many reasons why I will remember Mira’s work for me in the Czech Republic, but there was one thing that convinced me his was the right company to be working with. I had inherited a hotch-potch of good, bad, and underperforming distributors from a predecessor, and Mira’s business fell into the ‘not sure’ category. He had not been our distributor for very long, and he also distributed for a competitive brand so I was not sure how that would work. The Czech Republic was not a priority market, but Mira was a trier, and he won a few reasonable sized orders that kept me from looking for an alternative.

One day he phoned me to give advanced warning that he might have difficulty in settling his invoices for a few months. He had not been paid by one of his major customers and his cash flow had been hit hard. Dodgy, you might think! Well that did cross my mind, and his announcement would leave us exposed to the tune of about £10,000. What impressed me is that he immediately suggested a payback period, with interest if necessary. I can’t recall the detail, but we reached an agreement on the outstanding invoices, and actually Mira was able to settle all of them well within the agreed timescale. That relationship lasted for six years, and he became an important distributor. That was an example of a reactive way to support a distributor. I had to take a view or risk losing what business I had in the Czech Republic. There are so many ways in which you can actively support your selling partners, and here are two more examples:

I visited a complaint at Turkcell just outside Istanbul where an open plan 2,000 square metre floor had been fitted with our carpet tiles. All the tiles had been fitted in the same direction apart from one, which stood out like a sore thumb smack in the middle of a large open area! Worse, the installers had used the wrong adhesive to save cost, permanent adhesive rather than release adhesive, so I couldn’t lift the tile and turn it in the right direction. Thus an unpleasant argument ensued where I had the installer bang to rights for not bothering to read the instructions in every box of twenty tiles that we had translated into Turkish. Turkcell accepted my version of events, which left the installer with a rather red face, and I left that installation wondering how we could avoid a repetition.

A few months later we were invited by our distributor to exhibit with them at the Yapi Exhibition in Istanbul, the country’s largest annual exhibition for construction materials. Their stand was a big one, so as our contribution to costs I offered to bring over one of the UK’s best carpet fitters to install carpet tiles in the design of our distributor’s logo. The other part of the deal was that our distributor had to ensure that all of their installers would attend on the two days before the show started to take a master class in creating fabulous floor designs from carpet tiles. That whole exercise probably cost our company about £3,000, but we were known thereafter for the quality of both our products and our installers.

The second example comes from my later days of selling carpet tiles. I was collected from my flight at Moscow airport by our distributors and taken straight to the offices to help present our products to BP, who had then just signed their agreement with TNK. We arrived in good time and were joined in the lobby by competitive sales people who were pulling behind them trolley loads of samples. So I asked our distributor, who was clutching a single blue carpet tile, if we had sent our samples ahead. We hadn’t! So the props for my sales pitch were one blue carpet tile, and a dozen specification sheets. There was simply no way we were going to win that business.

You never want to repeat experiences like that so I put on my creative head again, and after some thought and discussion arranged to invite ten of our distributor’s national sales people to Manchester for a two day training session on How to Sell Carpet Tiles to the Commercial Office Sector. The purpose of the training was to stop these excellent sales people from selling carpet tiles as a commodity – “Our blue tile is cheaper than that blue tile”. By the end of the two days (and vodka nights), they had learned to sell the right product for the right purpose and to achieve an overall profit margin higher than if they were to just sell the one type of tile. The interpreter advised me that she had heard one of the delegates say ‘We have never been taught how to sell like this before!” In the following year, that distributor sold nearly £500,000 of our carpet tiles into projects in Russia and Ukraine, a massive improvement in performance.

The Lessons Learned:

1.      Invest time and a sensible amount of money in your key distributors
2.      Be prepared to demonstrate the qualities of your product versus the competition
3.      Be flexible in the way you work with your distributors, and take calculated risks to help them to achieve their sales targets
4.      Don’t go out too often in Manchester with Ivan from Krasnodar or your liver will be pickled.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Some weeks seem longer than others. In this case, it is a story of traffic queues, extreme roadworks, inclement weather, and to be perfectly honest, gross misjudgement of distances between European cities.  It always looks so do-able on a map!

My judgement was probably clouded by the fact that one day I drove back overnight from Frankfurt to Manchester, through the Channel Tunnel in a record 11 hours, helped by the fact that I arrived in perfect time for the next crossing! It created a feeling of invincibility, and a somewhat casual approach to driving distances on the pan-European journeys that immediately followed. I stopped at a service station in Aachen on the way from Frankfurt to Calais, and decided to eat before changing out of my blazer and slacks into jeans and t-shirt. I sauntered up to the self-service counter and pointed politely at the food I wanted to buy.

The serving lady, realising I was struggling with the lingo, started to gesticulate and direct me away from her counter, which felt a bit odd. But then in her best English said “Coach Driver. You go there!” and pointed to a square silver badge on the lapel of my blazer. It was actually the Gaskell Textiles badge, but she took it to be some kind of British coach driver emblem and I was ushered into the drivers’ lounge where I was fed royally, and served extremely quickly, for very little money!  

I had driven the well-worn route from Calais or Rotterdam to either Hamburg and Hannover on several occasions, through north-east France, northern Belgium, across the Netherlands, and on to the German autobahns. I generally filled up with fuel just as I left the Tunnel or disembarked the ferry and that would ensure an uninterrupted trip into Germany. On the occasion in question, I was to drive on to see a carpet manufacturer located in a town in what would previously have been the very western part of the former East Germany. It was much farther than I had imagined.

From memory I was going to visit our distributor Thomas Siewert in Kiel, after a couple of meetings in Hamburg, and then back along the long road back to the Channel Tunnel. We are spoiled in the UK with filling stations every few miles apart from in some of the more remote parts of the country. In eastern Holland at that time, there was a long stretch without a filling station in sight, and to my knowledge, very few settlements along the way. So as I approached the German-Dutch border with my gauge already well into the red, I knew I had to fill up or fizzle out!

And so I turned south off the autobahn to the sleepy and rather dull and linear town of Gronau, where not for the first time I pulled up at the pumps as I am sure I heard my car take its last gasp. More than a little relieved, I filled the tank to the brim and went into pay. My credit card at the time was a NatWest card, which the lady swiped and then said “No good”. Knowing that there was no problem with credit on the card I said “Yes. Good” and beckoned her to try again, then for a third time. I asked her to try an American Express card but she would not accept that.  Then the lady just said “Bank” and pointed down the road.  I got the impression I wasn’t the first British fool to have cut it a little too fine. So I reversed my car into a parking bay and walked in the drizzle in the direction of the bank, which I when I finally reached it after fifteen minutes was closed for lunch and I was drenched. The bank was not just closed for a lunch hour, but for two hours! And there was no hole in the wall!

A little exasperated by now, and with thoughts of a later than desired tunnel crossing, I decided I was going to go back to the filling station and call Thomas Siewert to help me persuade the lady that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my credit card. I handed her the phone with the words “Herr Siewert”, and Thomas asked her to try the card again and it worked first time.  It never happened again because I made sure I filled up whenever my gauge showed a quarter full.