China’s channel challenge

The slowdown impacting China could get worse before it gets better for business-to-business companies.  Demand from the US and Europe for Chinese exports will remain depressed until issues such as the eurozone crisis and US fiscal cliff are resolved.  Investment is constrained by the heavy debt burden of local and provincial governments in China, and existing overcapacity.  China’s forthcoming leadership transition only adds an extra layer of uncertainty for Western companies attempting to grow their foothold in the Chinese market.

It was against this backdrop that FSG brought together eight senior-most China executives from leading technology, healthcare, and industrial companies to discuss best practices for managing the channel and driving growth despite the headwinds.  Our discussion over breakfast in Shanghai yielded insights into three aspects of the vendor/distributor relationship: 1) structuring effective contracts, 2) building long-term relationships, and 3) minimizing the pain of transitioning away from an under-performing distributor.

For this post, I’ll touch on contracts.  I’ll address the other two points in a future post.

The key takeaway I took from the discussion on contracts was seemingly counter-intuitive.  Every executive around the table acknowledged that there is little chance of any Chinese partner strictly adhering to the letter of contracts, but despite the apparent futility of these documents, all of the executives agreed that the best practice is to more heavily invest in the negotiation, preparation, and enforcement of contracts.  Local Chinese partners are more likely to view a contract as a roadmap than a strict and binary agreement.  And, every executive in the  room could share his own horror stories of partners violating contracts (or setting up new legal entities to skirt inconvenient agreements).  Although it may seem counter-intuitive to over-invest in contracts when there is little guarantee that partners will strictly adhere to them, a strong argument was made that investing the time and energy to structure a detailed contract can pay dividends, and furthermore, these contracts should be negotiated annually.

Companies should take a modular approach to structuring contracts, that links specific distributor activities to points of margin.  This accomplishes two things.  First, it sets clear expectations for the distributor of what capabilities they are expected to bring to bear with a direct link to their incentives.  Secondly, it allows the vendor to “take back” activities in the future, either because the distributor is underperforming, or because the vendor has built some of its own internal direct capabilities but does not wish to sever distributor relationships entirely.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the ins and outs of building and eventually transitioning distributor relationships in China; I’ll share some highlights of this discussion in my next post.


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