Anyone in the software industry worth their salt heard about the great army of developers that is sitting in what locals call affectionately “Mother India.” The Indian education system mints new graduates at a rapid clip. Entire forests of buildings and campuses have been, and continue to be, built to service an ever-growing number of companies, foreign and domestic.
But curiously, software companies all too often consider India only for its labor force, not as a market. Because apparently, you can have thousands upon thousands of developers in one location and yet not be a fertile ground for software sales!
OK, I get it. I saw fellow salespeople going to India and falling into some very common traps, getting englued in the mud like some animals surprised by the monsoon rain. And then concluding that India as a market is all hype.
I understand because I made some of these mistakes myself. But I learned from them. Here are some nuggets of wisdom.
Error #1: When Selling Software In India, Only Go After Domestic Companies
Usually, when you invest in a foreign market, you are expecting to sell first and foremost to domestic companies. This is the whole reason behind opening a local office: you assume that you will be selling to locals.
The local offices of international companies? If you get them, great, but in general they are not the prime targets.
Well, in India, you need to revisit this philosophy.
Not that it is not possible to sell to domestic companies. Sure, it is. In fact, many are sophisticated world players in their own right, and depending on your offering they may become valued customers. Definitely prime targets.
But in many cases, their number is dwarfed by the greenfield investments of foreign companies.
Take auto for instance. India has its own OEM—Tata Motors—and that company maintains an extensive campus in the suburbs of Pune. But most automotive software developers work elsewhere—outside the Tata Motors ecosystem. Mercedes, Mobis, Mando, Delphi, Valeo—all foreign companies with a significant presence in India.
And while in some countries people may be hesitant to work for foreign companies, no such hesitancy exists in India. For example, in 2018, Indeed conducted a survey of the top IT companies to work for in India. 8 out of 10 were foreign companies, including Google, Amazon, Cisco, and Apple.
So, think about India as selling to the world. You get access to a premier roster of industry leaders coming from multiple continents within a few meters or kilometers from one another.
And based on my experience, these teams, most often than not, are collaborating closely with their colleagues abroad. More than once, I walked into a meeting room for a customer demo, only to find out that colleagues from Europe, the United States, or elsewhere invited themselves to the party, either in-person (visits, long-term assignments) or remotely.
Error #2: Underestimate The Influence Of Indian Engineers On International Sales
But then, surely you can just sell to these companies’ headquarters and rely on them to send licenses as needed to India (and elsewhere), right? No need to care about the Indian users—they will accept the decisions from headquarters, they have no choice.
This is something I hear a lot about. Albeit it can sometimes be true, it is often not.
In fact, very frequently, either Indian teams are involved in the purchase decision (for example, by running the evaluation or playing the role of a technical decision-maker)—or they own the decision.
Ignore them at your own risk!
Let me tell you a secret: I used to have a field day against competitors that made the strategic mistake of discounting the Indian teams of otherwise satisfied clients.
In particular, I remember an Asian-based competitor that could not be bothered to sell directly in India. They would rely on the head office to ship tools to their Indian engineers. After all, these were working at an outsourcer, so their decision-making influence must have been quite low.
Big mistake. Engineers complained about the general lack of local support. And because we proved our mettle at another client they serviced, they unsurprisingly became vocal champions for us.
In the end, we bagged the sale.
Oh, and please don’t imagine that just because India is a developing country people are any less astute in their trade as in your own country.
Believe it or not, I saw this too. In a particularly glaring case, the competitor’s Director of Sales—an Indian no less!—thought it would be a good idea to patronize a director involved in software development at an important client. “You don’t understand, you must do this, you have no choice.”
She was getting quite an “education”—and it left scars.
When I visited her with my crew, we took a totally different approach. “Talk to us about your problems.” We offered ideas, not tried to impose them. We provided some anonymous examples of other use cases that were similar to what they did and the few approaches we used to solve the issues.
Later, she discussed in her native tongue with my team member who explained what previously happened when the competitor visited days ago.
Who do you think earn their business? 😉
Error #3: Do Not Fully Leverage India For Accelerating International Software Sales
So, in India, you have access to a host of foreign companies. These offices are often well-connected to a number of teams from all over the world. The astute business people will certainly want to leverage this to accelerate their growth, not just in India but everywhere.
Unfortunately, many business people seem to go out of their way to discourage locals from engaging foreign companies—through their compensation plan.
Sure, in sales, there is a strong culture of “eat what you can kill.” You want to pay people that contribute to a sale, not pay people that do not. Logical.
Here’s where things take a turn for the worse: contributing gets defined as doing the closing. In many other countries, that doesn’t pose much of a problem. But in India, it can lead you astray. Why? Because of how integrated Indian software development teams are with other teams abroad.
In need of extra development firepower? Just tap a few Indian engineers, et voilà! They can be part of a team assigned to a group based abroad, or individuals assigned as remote employees to a team abroad. They may come from the same company or an outsourcer. And as a result, their role in the sales decision-making process can be different.
- So, say your team engages in good faith with locals in India. Conducts the evaluation, does the appropriate follow-up. Spends valuable time building the case for a sale. And then finds out that the sale will be booked in another party, and the licenses shipped to India.
What happens next? If the answer is that the team in India gets no credit, then they may think twice next time they engage with any foreign companies or outsourcers in India.
Think about the Faustian choice you are giving them. Either do what is good for the company—and risk missing their own targets because they spent time building these sale cases (there is an opportunity cost after all)—or focus on their own numbers by “qualifying out” any opportunities that may close abroad.
And if you are then asking locals to do any support for the deal post-sales, you are only compounding the problem.
There are solutions to these problems. The absolute geographic nature of compensation is not a constant across all companies—some compensate through business units, others choose to establish sharing schemes to promote cross-border collaboration. Some may even make exceptions on how certain roles in India are compensated compared to others elsewhere in the world.
This can be quite tricky at times. It may challenge some of your long-held beliefs and cherished practices. But when you are building sales internationally, it pays to plan globally but execute locally. And compensation is certainly part of it.
Error #4: Blindly Trust Certain “Business People” When Selling In India
Finally, say I convinced you. You will pursue sales in India. Your efforts won’t be limited to local companies. On the contrary, you will leverage India’s incredible network of foreign companies to propel sales there and abroad, and you are prepared to make sure your team gets whole when engaging in cross-border sales.
There is one last snake that can bite you: the over-hyping salesperson or self-described “business person.”
You know who I am talking about. The smooth-talker that promises riches beyond your wildest imagination. “Trust me, and let me work my magic, and all you will need to do is keep counting the rupees I will line your pockets with.”
They are sometimes the sales directors of distributors that promise you huge revenue streams thanks to their extensive network of connections—only to feed off sales you would otherwise have bagged yourself easily as I am explaining in this article.
But don’t forget the local managers, the ones you recruited after the candidate sweet-talked you about their amazing experience—only to find out they are all fluff.
And make no mistake: that type of “professional” can set your sales efforts back months or years.
In one case, I personally saw a CEO—an Indian living in the USA, no less!—being taken for a ride. Of course, our efforts in India went nowhere as a result.
In another case, a “power sales exec” at a distributor told me to “just be patient,” that “things take time,” that it was “normal,” and that as a foreigner I did not understand the Indian market. Well, I actually proved him wrong by directly selling to a local account—an entity of the Indian government no less!—without first setting a foot in their office.
That’s right: sold to them from 7,000 miles away while the local sales “expert” proved that his expertise was mostly about finding good excuses.
You will undoubtedly argue that unsavory salespeople—incompetent, Lone Wolves and the likes—can be found in all countries, not just India. Absolutely! But then, in my experience, they often get away with it in India.
How? Well, to detect a problem, you have to see these individuals in action. At home, it is likely to happen sooner rather than later. But if you are the kind of business leader who does not show up in India or who never takes the time to visit clients with your local teams, you may be fooled by “all talk no walk” people.
When I built my team in India in a previous assignment, I knew what type of person I wanted on the team, and who I did not want. I recruited bright but humble people, engineers and business developers alike, ready to work hard and learn. I went there regularly and supported them.
And above all, I never—ever—hired the “strapping” experienced professionals that told me they could do everything out of their own genius.
How successful were we? We turned a territory that was previously ruled out as “hopeless” by my management into one of the leading territories.