The Smart Way to Build an International Empire

Scaling up with its clients is more effective than cold calling abroad, as Vancouver's Vision Critical has learned

Written by John Lorinc

For retailers or consumer-product marketers, social media can be the ultimate imponderable. With every customer tethered to a smart phone with all the leading social media apps, online noise about a product or brand can rapidly build to a kind of digital crescendo that’s highly audible to digital natives, but may not be clearly visible to the marketing executives who crave feedback.

When veteran pollster Angus Reid and his son Andrew launched Vision Critical Communications, almost 15 years ago, market researchers didn’t need to track such feedback, for all the obvious reasons. But Vision Critical CEO Scott Miller says that the sonic boom generated by social media in the past five or six years has created a vast new opportunity for such firms to help their clients “make sense of the noise. That,” he says, “is the value proposition.”

Vision Critical’s decade old platform, now delivered through a cloud-based interface on a subscription basis, allows companies to build extensive networks of respondents—essentially, a far-flung network of digital focus group participants—who can provide real-time feedback on a product or brand. The 700-employee company’s 2013 revenues were in the $80 to $100 million range, with 79% of the top line coming from outside Canada, up from 30% five years ago.

In the aftermath of the credit crisis, Miller explains, the company—which ranked 281st on the 2014 PROFIT 500—began to expand outside North America, and established a network of sales offices in Europe, Asia, Australia and, recently South Africa. The initial thrust, he says, was to target English-speaking markets by piggy-backing with existing clients. “If you can scale with your clients abroad, it is much more efficient than trying to plant a flag.”

Read: How to Build a Global Sales Strategy

What became increasingly clear to Vision Critical executives is that the company’s market research technology was intensely disruptive—it sharply changed the way client companies consume and interpret market research. And that realization led to a key shift in the company’s international business model. “What we’ve found is that after you get the sale, you need to support those sales.”

The company adapted its pricing by offering an annual subscription price that included a service component worth a third of the rate. Then, with its offices in the U.K. and Australia, Vision Critical began to build service and support teams that could work with clients to help them get the most out of the technology.

The “secret sauce,” Miller explains, is using Vision Critical’s technology to keep the community of respondents engaged in a two-way conversation by sharing some of the results of the surveys and market intelligence. “That’s what keeps them coming back.”

But as Miller recounts, the company quickly realized that the expense of building a local presence could be “prohibitive.” As an alternative, Vision Critical decided to find local partner firms that could deliver service and support to new clients. Initially, Miller acknowledges, that search proved to be a bit of a struggle as Vision Critical grappled with the problem of finding partners capable of understanding all the capabilities of the technology. Indeed, he says, it was easier for the company to make sales than it was to support those new clients.

To help its local service partners get up to speed, Vision Critical embarked on a process of translating all its support and help desk materials into local languages. But as Miller notes, that exercise effectively put the cart before the horse. “We over-translated and customized too early in the process of going international. We weren’t focused enough on the use case.”

In hindsight, he says, it’s more important to translate only what’s important for local customers. “You don’t need to boil the ocean to adapt to other markets. In some regions, you don’t need to change much; in others, you need to change a lot. The growth model has to be adapted strategically and scaled on the business you have rather than throwing the line too far out.”

Ultimately, the company learned that the most effective and cost-efficient approach to providing growth-oriented service support is to dispatch “disciples,” energetic Vision Critical employees with a strong track record of working collaboratively with a range of clients on various applications to support the company’s field offices or local partners.

That move allows Vision Critical to not only project its corporate culture to the company’s global operations; it also provides the most straightforward way to propagate nuanced insights about successful case studies and applications.

“In most cases,” he says, “the disciples are not brought in as the chief [of the local office] but as a master among equals. We’ve had very, very few cases where these people didn’t work out.”

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