They come in all shapes and sizes. The matchstick men. The boiler room. Or the good old bait-and-switch. Today we’re talking about confidence men and sham service providers in foreign countries. And since innovation and international growth requires capital to be spent in good faith, there are plenty of service providers more than willing to relieve a fool of their hard-earned cash. Don’t be that fool.
As we covered in “Don’t Go Global: The Future Is Multi-Local”, hiring a local partner when expanding abroad is crucial for a successful market entry and growth strategy. However, finding a trusted partner in a foreign country is tricky. As our networks loosen, we need to develop new processes and ways of making sure that our business partners are complying with our high standards and expectations so that we can get the most return on our investment and lower the risks involved. Let’s take a look at the different strategies available to identify a trusted partner:
1. The Eyeball Test
Don’t judge a book by its cover, but sure enough you can judge it by its content. Take a look at your potential partner’s website and blog, read the terminology they’re using on their platforms and note how they’re communicating with people on their newsletter and other channels. All of these steps should be viewed as a first basic filter when evaluating potential collaborators. If the company or professional passes the eyeball-test, it’s worth researching a little bit more. Without a doubt, first impressions can often be wrong and misleading, but when you’re able to choose from a big pool of candidates you need to sort the wheat from the chaff first. Plus, if your potential service provider hasn’t made a user-friendly and well-organized website, it’s a good indicator of how much they care about their customers.
2. Social Media
Once a company passes the eyeball test, it’s time to take a deeper look by analyzing their social media activity. If their social media channels offer a big enough sample size, you might have a chance to read through some genuine comments and glean some interesting insights. But beware, there are certain pitfalls to this approach. To begin with, a high amount of followers and likes doesn’t necessarily equate to satisfied customers nor do they represent a quality index or trusted partner. Read through the comments to get a feeling for what people really think about this service provider. In case the company has a lots of followers but little authentic engagement, it might be a red flag that indicates your potential partner is buying followers or censoring negative reviews. On the flip side, if a social media channel is fairly limited or non-existent, it doesn’t mean they’re not a quality service provider. In short, reviewing their social media activity is another low cost, low risk strategy to include in a comprehensive evaluation, but don’t apply it as a standalone decision maker.
3. Client References
Including client references to determine a trusted partner is a commonly-used technique. Basically, two main types of references exist – case studies and contact references:
This reference type is a nothing more than a showcase of your potential partner in action. It’s a summarized example of how your prospect helped a specific client and how it positively impacted their business. In some cases, these may be an exaggerated report blown up with fancy numbers and statistics designed to wow you. The main problem with case studies is that they aren’t objective. They’re cherry-picked examples the service provider chose to demonstrate their value to potential clients. Still, case studies can provide a nice comparison to see how a particular partner supported a company facing similar challenges to your own.
A reference contact is a specific person who has worked with your potential partner in the past and who you can speak with in order to get more information. This evaluation method has its perks as it’s certainly less biased than a case study, since an open talk might give you more objective, informal and realistic insights into a partner. However, it’s still very likely that your potential partner chose someone that will be a fan rather than a neutral customer. Our expert tip to avoid this bias: ask your possible collaborator yourself if you can speak with a contact person from a particular case study reference you found on their web. Case studies are rarely updated so you might have a good shot to catch your evaluated company off guard as the mentioned “success story” from three years ago might be have a more holistic view after spending more time with the partner.
Similar to client references, recommendations are a highly subjective way of figuring out whether a partner can be trusted or not. However, in this case we talk about consulting someone who should technically be on your side, be it friends, family members, business contacts or the local chamber of commerce:
Friends & Family
Your most personal network is probably the safest bet to get an honest opinion about a certain provider, but at the same time it may also have the lowest reach. While it’s worth a try thanks to virtually no costs, it probably won’t get you very far abroad as your network doesn’t extend everywhere. Don’t put all your eggs into this basket.
This validation source is kind of like a double-edged sword – it can help or hurt you. It really depends on how much you trust your contact. Either way, it’s effectiveness is quite similar to friends and family reviews in regards to an increasing limitation and low scalability as you move into unknown territory.
Chamber of Commerce & Public Sites
Your home country’s government institutions that support export efforts and international trade are a great place to start. Due to their ample experience and clear specialization, they usually boast an excellent network and are very familiar with your needs and which providers can solve them. The only downside, although quite a big one if you value time, is that they are rather slow and might delay your market-entry timeline.
5. Google Search
This is a long shot and certainly not a suitable strategy to create a scalable trust evaluation process. Sometimes you might get lucky and find lots of information from sources of different authority and credibility levels. Or you might not find anything at all. Try searching for “Company Name Scam” or “Company Name Reviews” in quotation marks. Also, make sure your adblockers and firewall are on during this rollercoaster search string ride. In the end, it works well for crossing off any extremely negative partners from your list, but then again, some of the other strategies mentioned above should do the trick as well.
6. Rating Sites
While difficult to find, rating sites can be a very intriguing option for evaluating partners. Think of it as a Tripadvisor or Glassdoor for corporate services. Freelancing sites typically include this feature, but for corporate services, it’s less common. In general though, the more rating entries a platform has, the more credible it is. Unfortunately, rating sites don’t exist yet for all branches, functions, markets and business types. As a result, it’ll take some time to encounter a trustworthy site, if one exists at all, that has a significant amount of ratings to allow you make an informed decision. In our opinion, you should never rely on rating platforms on their own. However, for certain environments and tasks, such as hiring recurring freelance professionals, it can prove to be an invaluable tool that helps you automate and scale your operations for finding a trusted partner.
While it’s the most objective tool on this list, the usefulness of certificates really depends on how meaningful and credible they are. For accountants or lawyers it might be a solid indicator that they are legit and know what they’re doing, but for somebody working in marketing it might not guarantee anything. For instance, Hubspot Inbound or Google Adwords Certifications can be acquired with relative ease, even if you have no previous experience in the field. Additionally, as they don’t bear any costs, don’t include a strong authentication process and, since you can retake the test as many times as you need to pass, it’s not the best indicator for quality. Thus, we recommend checking the value of a particular certificate before using it as an index for trust and quality.
8. Trial & Probation
While it may sound like one of the safest bets on this list, it’s definitely no guarantee for identifying a trusted partner. Additionally, your partners, they might be reluctant to agree on a trial period depending on how much money or time they’re sacrificing. In some situations you may also experience something like a “honeymoon phase” where you are wowed and love the first weeks before you start to discover the first pitfalls. This tactic is also used by companies that are trying to impress you just long enough to get you to sign a long-term contract. In spite of these disadvantages, testing a service for a limited time and low costs is the most accurate tool available to determine a reliable collaborator that you can trust. Due to the high time investment from your side, it’s best suited for the final stages of your decision making process after you already shortlisted the most qualified candidates.
There are many ways of determining a trusted partner abroad, but none of them can be relied on exclusively. To get the best results, a combination of evaluation approaches is required. We recommend creating a clear process and separating the decision making process into different stages. First, use your personal network and government institutions to see if you can get lucky and receive viable recommendation. If your ties aren’t sufficient and you have no time to waste, try using rating sites and certificates to create a shortlist of potential partners. Afterwards, do a little bit of basic research by looking at companies’ websites, social media channels and Google search results to see who can pass the eyeball test. Finally, try to initiate a trial period with up to three candidates to build your own opinion and then select your top performer.
Alternatively, don’t forget that you can actually skip this entire process and take advantage of our free online partner identification platform to determine a trusted partner in a matter of seconds. We’ve carefully analyzed and preselected hundreds of service providers for all business fields such as Administration & Legal, HR & Talent Acquisition, Business Development & Sales, and Marketing & Communication. Based on your business, situation and target market, we’re here to help you find the best partner for your business.