In international markets John Overby of Advanced Hardware Architectures, in Pullman, Wash., counts on local sales agents to sell his semiconductor devices. He reasons that aside from lessons about the product, the agents require little or no sales training, and they're less likely to make cultural blunders. That strategy, which has helped boost Overby's revenues to $15 million (40% from international sales) in seven years, pays because Overby is an expert at getting superior sales agents. Here is his advice:

Use your contacts. "Ask them whom they've done business with and whom they respect. But be careful. I once asked a customer in Norway to help me find a local agent, and the company refused because it didn't want a middleman. Instead I found someone by asking my agents in other countries. One name came up consistently, so I called him. The customer did work with the Norwegian agent, despite the initial protest."

Call the Department of Commerce. "That's what I did when I first started exporting to France, five years ago. Unable to officially recommend individuals, the department gave me a list and told me which ones were best suited for my industry. If you're new to the game, call 800-USA-TRADE for help."

Check out trade shows. "In France I subleased space for under $5,000 from the Department of Commerce, which regularly sets up a booth for U.S. companies at selected trade shows. Top-quality agents were also exhibiting there. By the end of the show, I had interviewed five agents and hired one. Trade shows are also a great way to see how agents work the crowd and to see how well they know the product lines they already carry." -- Sarah Schafer

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