31 January 2022

What does an International Business Development Manager do?

🌍 If you are studying PPE, Economics or Business, this is one career path you may not have thought of…
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Perhaps the key point that I’d like to discuss first of all, when answering the question “what does an international business development manager do” is that it’s a bridging function. I must have said this a thousand times to job candidates… Depending on how you look at it, that means you have either the best or the worst of both worlds.

An International business development manager (IBDM) links the company they represent and the partners. That means she (I’ll use the feminine variant for ease of writing) funnels the data coming in from the market and directs it to the appropriate specialists in the office. She also selects from all the news you have in the company (products, processes, marketing developments). She ensures that the relevant data reaches the business partners.

It’s almost like being a translator. You have to explain to your company why the client demands x or y and make the partner understand why not everything is desirable or possible from the company’s perspective.

1. The job description

If you read the job description of an International Business Development Manager, it’s usually full of stiff stock phrases. I found these:

  • Monitor effective implementation of international business development activities.
  • Develop individual business plans for each country.
  • Administer and develop initiatives to increase sales and market development activities.
  • Analyse business strategies and develop improvement plans to provide proper growth to the business.
  • Manage all development processes and ensure compliance with government policies and regulations.
  • Assist businesses to identify opportunities and to develop strategic plans to enhance the same.
  • Design plans to achieve all objectives and develop plans for new business.
  • Train and guide staff members and business development issues.
  • Coordinate with the management team, maintain budgets and participate in every fortnightly conference.
  • Analyse business and review future prospective for same.
  • Manage all customer communication and maintain an effective relationship with all.
  • Prepare and implement various capture methods for business development.
  • Review competitor plans and the effect of products and services in management.
  • Prepare pricing strategies according to customer budgets and procurement methods.
  • Maintain all communication with Director.
  • Evaluate market trends and provide appropriate support to product development.
Not sure that everyone is much the wiser for all of that unless you’ve worked in the field before, so let’s break it down a bit.

2. Jack of all trades?

It might seem like that, having read the description above. You need a few skills in-depth, and for the others, a working knowledge should suffice. A good International Business Development Manager has to know the potentially critical points for her clients. E.g. She doesn’t have to be an expert on FOREX, but it is essential to understand how the main payment instruments work. 
Whilst the role of International Business Development Manager is mainly classified as the sales department, it’s certainly not a pure sales role. Yes, you have to know all the aspects of the sales role that any domestic field sales rep will also learn, but there’s much more to it. That often makes it difficult for a “sales guy” from the trained team to transfer to international simply because there are many more aspects to consider.

3. International Sales

We’ll start at the top… Yes, this is the core of the role. Your company depends on you to bring in the revenue. In most cases, that means you don’t only sell to an importer or distribution partner. Still, you need to ensure that they are equipped to sell your products to the final client or consumer.

That means you need to know:

  • What channels to sell your products in
  • Physical placement of your product (especially if it is a consumer product) – this may be different to in your home market
  • How to develop (& implement!) sales plans for your products
  • What price position your product should have compared to the competitors (this is a whole art & science in itself – I’ll dedicate an entire post to this later this year)
  • How to negotiate in your target markets (again, there are PhD dissertations on this…) both at the field sales level and also at the C-suite level
  • The best way to manage sales teams with a variety of cultural backgrounds
  • How to develop effective and efficient sales management processes

Phew,…and that’s only the start.

4. Product marketing

Do you have to be a specialist here? No, but it does help to have a good grounding. When the customer is demanding to know why the product contains X or doesn’t do Y, it’s helpful to give an answer. As an International Business Development Manager, you’re often “alone” with the client without a team of specialists along for support. So whilst you can call the office for backup from a specialist, it really helps your credibility if you can answer the basic stuff yourself. Not to mention, if you’re working in a completely different time zone to the office, you may have to wait for an answer, which can really disrupt the workflow of your meeting.

Especially in the earlier stages of entering a market, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the luxury of taking a product manager with you on visits. (Unless you have a very technical product, in which case the process may be the other way round). That means that you have to analyse and define what the market needs together with the customer. It can result in headaches further down the line if the BDM fudges the phase of establishing what the necessary specifications are. These may be required by either law or custom (e.g. everybody delivers this product inclusive of a brush), but making changes later in the project is often more expensive and time-consuming.

5. Marketing

Whatever “marketing” looks like in your industry, it’s probable that you will have a couple of specialists or a whole department back in the office. If you are responsible for a market, together with all of the results (turnover, profit, market share), then you must have a contribution here.

When the International Business Development Manager is the person with overall responsibility, you will also have an opinion as to what the market needs in terms of marketing. Again, you might not be a specialist here (although it’s one of the areas where the more knowledge you have, the better). However, “think global, act local” can only be implemented if someone explains well to the global team how local needs to look to be successful. 

6. Training 

Over the years, I’ve been asked by the companies I was working for or by distribution partners, running all sorts of different pieces of training. These have been things like:

  • Sales training for the sales team
  • New product training
  • How to run effective meetings
  • Dealing with customer complaints
  • Analysing sales data

I even did a German class for a Chinese management team once!

This also applies internally, so you may also be asked to train internal teams on specific markets or how specific sales channels work. 

7. Finance and Trading

You certainly don’t have to be a qualified accountant or FOREX trader to work in international sales. It is essential to have an understanding, though, firstly about which currencies your target markets work with and how they are influenced. E.g. Many Central American countries, look to the US dollar. South-East Europe is focused more on the EURO zone.

That is one part of the picture. The other paramount importance is that you need to get paid for the goods you’ve sold. You need to understand HOW you can get your money out of Mozambique on time and what risk are you exposing the company to with your choice of the payment term. This is a far larger topic than dealing with a client in the next province and can get both expensive and ugly really fast if you get this wrong.

Last but by no means least in this section, you need to calculate to ensure that the prices you offer and other conditions will be profitable at the end of the day. That means you need to know all the cost drivers in your supply chain and marketing operation.


8. Logistics and Operations 

Like with the money, you need to be sure that you don’t agree on something logistically with the client that physically isn’t possible. (Deliveries by sea from Norway to Vietnam in 15 working days just aren’t going to happen). You need to have a basic understanding of what documentation is NEEDED by the client. What he might just like to have can be a very different story. 

Especially with letter of credit payment terms, it would be easy to agree to something that negates the security that made you want an L/C in the first place. Or, if you have no idea about INCOTERMS, you could end up exposing the company to huge risks and expenses through ignorance. 

I spent a year working in export admin before moving into the sales side. Whilst I hated the paperwork in admin, it did give me an appreciation when I started in sales of what problems I might be causing if I blindly agreed to all the client’s wishes.

9. Contracts 

This is a point that really has to be taken care of by a specialist. The commercial conditions of any contract have to come from the business development team. Also, you probably have the rather thankless task of explaining each clause to the partner. It’s necessary but tiring, even though it means you know clearly what is agreed. 

10. Regulatory 

Like contracts, the details here really have to be left to the specialists. However, depending on the area you’re working in, you probably need an extensive picture overview. Certain types of products may need to be registered. Then you need to know what changes from your side trigger a re-registration. Products with specific origins may not be imported (e.g. Israel Iran can be extremely sensitive.) A client of mine in Yemen once received products with a “made in Israel” marking after the purchasing department changed the supplier without telling sales. The client was “depressed”, to say the least. We were lucky that the customs didn’t find them (either our outbound – they were wrongly declared because, in the sales department, we had no information about the change or inbound to Yemen).

Certain types of products may be on restricted lists (dual-use) if they could feasibly be used to produce armaments. This is a really complicated field.


11. Market analyses

For business development, a vital part of the role is identifying opportunities. You then need to work out how best to capitalise on them. That can mean a lot of desk analysis to work out:

  • What is the competition doing
  • What are the trends on the market,
  • How does the market “tick” compared to your home market?

Market data in export markets is seldom fully reliable – or it may simply not be available at all. I once compared the “total market value” for one of my product groups against our own sales, and it was apparent the market was underestimated. If not, I had managed to achieve 300% market share together with my partner!

Do you need to be some kind of excel genius? No, but a particular affinity for numbers is required.


12. Relationships 

This is the most crucial part of the job to my mind. If you asked me, “what does an international business development manager do?” my initial answer would be “build relationships that lead to profitable business for the company. Without this ability to connect with people from different cultures, you can’t be successful long term in this position. (In China, this kind of relationship is called guanxi.)

For most people working in the profession, it’s also the most satisfying part. You get to exchange ideas with people from other cultures; once you understand why your product fits their needs, you sell.

Do you need to have language skills (apart from English)? Not necessarily, although they certainly help. Being able to communicate with empathy is WAY more important. Understanding the customs and culture of the market, you are working in is vital. I’d also recommend learning about how your partners deal with time obligations, which can ease negotiations.

It’s possible to do business without a good personal connection, but this is seldom successful over time. For this reason, you must select the right person for the role of International Business Development Manager. It really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”.


13. Job Satisfaction as an International Business Development Manager

I’d say that if you like having a HUGE amount of variety (aka nothing resembling a routine)
AND the idea of practically living on planes doesn’t put you off,
then working in international sales can be immensely rewarding. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

It’s not a job for people who like to have an 8-5 kind of routine. The hours are irregular, and you are (usually) away a lot & it can be exhausting. That means you get to go to lots of cool places but don’t actually really see anything whilst you’re there. It’s a lot of work, but I couldn’t imagine having done anything else.

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