Global Report

How to make a foreign partner's sales force work for you

Striking a deal is only the beginning

(Nullplus/Getty)

(Nullplus/Getty)

About three years ago, Complete Innovations (CI), a mobile workforce solutions firm, decided to plunge into the U.S. market. It was the kind of move that most ambitious Canadian entrepreneurs eventually take. But the Markham, Ont.-based company’s foray had a decidedly more daring quality. As CEO and founder Tony Lourakis recounts, the firm decided to place a huge bet on partnering with AT&T as the means of breaking into a vast and rapidly growing market.

AT&T, of course, has thousands of partners that provide a wide vary of value-added solutions to AT&T’s core telecom services. CI, says Lourakis, wanted to become one of those suppliers.

But first, he had to figure out how to crack into a complex corporate fortress.

CI makes systems that allow companies with fleets to track the location of trucks, delivery personnel and parcels. CI’s subscription-based service, Lourakis says, is built around cellular transponders that relay GPS signals from a client firm’s vehicles or parcels to CI’s network software.

Lourakis founded CI in 2000, providing smaller courier companies with dispatching applications that allowed them to keep up with logistics giants like FedEx. Five year later, CI launched Fleet Complete, a fleet and asset tracking application, to complement its other services. The app can be loaded onto smartphones used by mobile workers to deliver work orders and other dispatch information.

In 2007, CI made a key strategic go-to-market move that has paved the way for its dramatic growth in the past five years (the company ranks No. 225 on the PROFIT 500, with 2013 revenue of $15.3 million). That year, CI joined forces with Telus to significantly expand the potential customer base for Fleet Complete.

Armed with an exclusive distribution arrangement with Telus, CI was able to market its product nationally by piggybacking on that telecom company’s extensive business services sales force.  “Every one of those devices is cell-connected,” Lourakis observes. “Cell carriers were involved with every sale.”

That move naturally prompted CI’s sales team to look to the entire North American market. As Lourakis notes, virtually every company has a relationship with a cellular carrier, and many operate some kind of vehicle fleet. “It gives us a massive market.”

But tapping into the opportunity wasn’t just about shaking the tree. Many firms, Lourakis says, have tried and failed to succeed by riding the coattails of the cellular carrier industry. “It’s not enough to strike a deal with a third party to sell your product,” he adds. “The most critical part is what happens after you strike a deal.”

After deciding to enter the U.S. in 2011, Lourakis and his team spent more than a year studying how best to partner with a company as large as AT&T.

A key insight: CI realized it couldn’t assume that a formal reselling arrangement with AT&T would automatically translate into sales.

CI’s U.S. sales team aggressively marketed Fleet Complete to AT&T’s regional sales managers, even digging up their own leads as a way of demonstrating that the availability of such a mobile workforce application could translate into new corporate customers for AT&T.

As with Telus, CI also decided to negotiate an exclusivity deal with AT&T, subject to certain performance benchmarks. Lourakis realized that all the big telecom carriers offer what is effectively a commodity service. That means their sales teams are overly reliant on price as a point of leverage with potential clients—a dynamic that eats into a sales reps’ commissions.

“One way to get mind share with sales reps is exclusivity,” Lourakis explains. The carriers’ sales reps, he adds, had told his team that they’d been burned in the past by offering one company’s value-added application, only to discover that the rival teleco was promoting the same product.

These exclusive arrangements have allowed CI to forge closer relationships with both Telus and AT&T. “We’re really locked in with them,” says Lourakis. “We’re part of the family.”

Two years into the partnership with AT&T, CI’s exports now represent about 35% to 40% of its revenue, almost all of it booked with U.S. customers. Lourakis has dealt with resellers outside North America, including one in the Middle East. But because CI can’t deliver the kind of intensive sales support it provides to both Telus and AT&T, CI has had to rely on the resellers’ own sales efforts, with moderate results.

Lourakis, however, isn’t thinking much about the world outside North America for the time being. He estimates this continent’s market for mobile workforce solutions provided by CI and a handful of other companies is about 25% penetrated; only one in 10 mobile workers are equipped with the technology. “It’s a massive opportunity here in North America,” he says, “and we’re going to continue growing organically for some time.”