Q: How will you create an impact of information technology in your organization and do international business?
A: In 1998 the United States exported $105 billion less in goods and services than our international trading partners were selling to us. With the latest summarized trade data in for 1999, those numbers will most likely crest the deficit past the $200 billion mark. Since the total United States economy is closing in on $8 trillion annually, there are some economists who contend that we can easily absorb these unending mega-outflows of U.S. dollars without any adverse impact on our nation as a whole. Whether or not this view is really credible is too complex a subject to address here. Instead, let us look at the bountiful foreign trade Opportunities available to U.S. manufacturers who stay awake to the potential of Information Technology (IT) and the manufacturers' representatives who use IT to find and sell to international customers. In order to do this, we have to start with the very perception that manufacturers have regarding manufacturers' representative attributes. A recent survey of United States manufacturers asked what they thought were the most important attributes an agent must possess to succeed. "Technical product knowledge" was most valuable while "Internet marketing capabilities," even in mid1999, came in with only I percent of the vote. With the advantages of IT for the manufacturer, the agent and the foreign buyer, advocacy and praise of comprehensive technical product knowledge is misplaced and takes us in the wrong direction. Surveys such as the one cited here not only reflect the current sentiments of the people, but also perpetuate similarities and traits that make it easier for us to identify those people and companies that we want to be commercially associated with. It is no wonder that most manufacturers are unaware of this fact - what little literature there is on the subject is not readily available. Thus, with a principal's preconceptions fixed in a pre-IT world, they do not grasp the convergence of IT with rep agencies that combine this technology and international experience. As a result, they will have a difficult time working from the same set of assumptions about how to conduct business internationally. IT is a miraculous tool. As Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer, posthumously demonstrated, evolving knowledge inevitably trumps conventional thought. And keep in mind that this is the same type of conventional thinking that is producing our gargantuan trade deficits. The current conceit might be that the world economy will always revolve around the United States and we can remain satiated indefinitely with just our home marketplace. Knowing that this thinking is not sustainable should help in forcing us to reappraise those things that can facilitate more exports of domestic products to our international partners. In the continental United States, the logistics of a manufacturers' representative calling on customers to explain their line (s) of products in their limited geographic area mostly precludes the need for Internet marketing. But internationally, when one factors in eight to 16 time zone differences on multiple continents, IT inverts the above scoring of attributes. Mindful of the obvious impracticality of traveling in person to see multiple customers in far-flung locales, I have formed some guidelines concerning what lines to take on and how to interact with manufacturers: - Category Creators - Take on lines from companies that are making unique products. These lines, if they are highly differentiated and easy to understand through your client's Web site, give your foreign customer an immediate marketing advantage in his country and make unnecessary the need for a high degree of technical product knowledge. - Joint Selling - If you must take on a unique but highly technical product, make sure you work out an ongoing technical assistance arrangement with your...
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