18: Providing follow-up support
Support is about open communication lines
Your export order has been delivered! Now you need to find out if everything is acceptable to the buyer. Your first step is to contact the buyer and ask him if he is satisfied with the order. It is recommended that you call the buyer a few times in the first month. Now don't call too often that he/she becomes frustrated with your attention, but just enough times to let the buyer know that you are interested and concerned about the order. We suggest perhaps two or three times. Thereafter, you can phone the buyer again when you think that they are getting to the end of their sales period in order to learn how the sales went. Open communication lines are key to success in providing follow-up support!
Don't ignore problems
If there are problems, don't try and ignore them. It is at this point where you can cement your long-term relationship with the buyer. Provide whatever help you can to ensure that the product(s) work(s) and that the buyer will be happy with the order. Exactly, what this will involve will depend to some extent what type of product you are dealing with. Consumer products probably require less effort and perhaps your agreement to take back or refund any products that have clearly failed, will suffice. You can suggest that such refunds will be deducted from your next order to encourage the buyer to purchase from you again.
Industrial products require more attention to servicing
Industrial products will probably require far greater involvement on your part and may even require your flying out to a customer to get your product working properly. Do whatever it takes to keep the buyer satisfied, as this will almost certainly translate into more sales. It is also a learn exercise for you and you should take what have learn and plough it back into a redesign and remanufacturing effort that will hopefully result in an even better product for the future. Exporters that try and duck and dive this responsibility, will not remain in exporting very long.
Do not just accept complaints without question
It is also important that you do not just accept any complaint without exception, as the problem may have arisen do to a mistake on the part of the buyer or end user. When you talk with the buyer, try and find out how and why the product failed. It may be, for example, that the product is being used for a purpose that it was not intended (snow plough manufacturers found that their snow ploughs were being used to clear sand in Saudi Arabia). If it is not your firm's fault, then suggest to the buyer that you will replace the product at cost price (as matter of good will). Be wary of buyers that are out to abuse your goodwill; be realistic, positive and cordial in your approach to any problems that arise.
Look out for new opportunities
At the same time, if you find your product being used fro a different purpose than for which it was intended, do not become angry or frustrated - this is an opportunity for your company. Perhaps you should re-examine your product design and see how you can change or improve the product to do the job for which it is being used, better.
You need to keep abreast of service standards being provided to end users
Servicing your products overseas is not just about maintaining good relations with the buyer. It is about building a brand image for your firm and its products in your foreign target market. This is especially true in instances where the buying organisation agrees to service the product as part of their responsibility. If the buyer (or any firm they allocate the servicing component to) fails to do a good job, then your product will develop a poor image in the marketplace and this may affect future sales. For this reason, you need to keep abreast of the servicing that the buyer (or their agent) provides to end users and to act on any shortcomings you uncover. Training, the provision of spares and advice may be necessary to help the buyer/servicing agent do a better job. One suggestion is that you provide a mechanism for the end-user to provide feedback (and complaints) about the product via either direct mail, e-mail or your website (or all three).
Users of products have certain performance expectations in mind when they buy products and will generally consider companies more favourably that provide some form of promise of performance as part of their 'sales package'. This is exactly what a product warranty is - it is a promise to the user of that product that it can perform in a particular way and under given circumstances. It also serves as instructions to the end user about what to do when the product fails to meet these performance standards or fails within a specific period of time. A warranty is therefore a powerful component of your firm's product and sales promotion strategy - with it you will get more sales; without it you will get far fewer sales.
Product warranties also carry the risk of dragging your firm into liability issues. It is essential therefore that you obtain professional advice on the product warranties you intend offering. For one thing, a particular phrase or standard that is accepted as a norm in South Africa, may not be viewed in the same way in a foreign country. The best solution - if you intend offering the warranty yourself - is to get legal advice from a legal firm within the target market. Alternatively, you can negotiate with the buyer that they take responsibility for warranty issues, but expect to have to offer a discount for them to do this. They will also expect assistance from your firm to do this (but at least they serve as the first port of call in the case of a serious defect). Bear in mind, that you will loose some degree of control over this very important component of your total product offering. What is more, no warranty will protect you against an inherently unsafe or poor design or poor manufacturing processes. Being able to back up your product warranty is an important factor to consider when selecting a foreign business partner.
Buyers will often focus on the issue of warranties as a negotiation point because they are concerned about what will happen if the product fails. You will almost certainly have to come to the fore with an acceptable warranty strategy when you try to sell abroad.
Make sure that the end user has an avenue to follow if the product fails. Product warranties can also serve as an effective promotional tool. In addition, by getting the end user to register as a legitimate purchaser and user of the product, you can in the future market direct to the end user and so build up a demand in the target market outside of the influence of your importer.
Adequate spare parts
Another issue that you will need to consider (and negotiate with your buyer) is the question of how many spare parts to keep in stock for the servicing of faulty products and who will pay for this. This is a more important issue in the case of industrial products versus consumer products, but many consumer products (fridges, TVs, etc.) also require regular servicing. If there are not enough spare parts in stock, then customers may be frustrated by the delays they experience when having their products (that they purchased from you) serviced. You may therefore want to discuss and negotiate a spare parts policy with the buyer at the same time you negotiate your export deal with him/her. An extensive spare parts service can serve as a powerful sales promotion tool in these foreign target markets. Indeed, being able to keep spare parts is another important factor to consider when deciding on a foreign partner.