Restek, a manufacturer of lab-equipment parts, does business in 30 countries. About 10% of its $10.5 million in sales come from overseas, but that share should be 25% by now, the company contends. Its oversight: not giving enough direction to its foreign distributors.

What the far-flung reps needed was made clear when 19 of them (from Germany, France, Spain, Japan, Israel, and Australia, among other nations) gathered for three days of training at Restek headquarters, in Bellefonte, Pa. Four of Restek's U.S. distributors and many of its 70 employees joined in, too.

The reps' big question was how to survive Europe's economic downturn. They needed "to know how to sell into secondary markets," says Christine Vargo, who oversees Restek's Western Europe region. So Restek prepared a grid matching market niches with applications for its lab parts. The company also intensified hands-on product training. (Previously, overseas reps had to use Restek's literature and homemade video to become familiar with the lab components.)

And then there were the reps' little but important requests: "Don't forget to forward us your press releases." "Don't send 'free' demo packages, because customs will assign them a value." "Please mail or fax product alerts as soon as there's a problem." Says Vargo, "There were definitely moments when the conversation got heated."

Sessions on marketing in different countries elicited debates on the merits of direct mail in small markets such as the Netherlands, where customers still expect face-to-face calls, and in large territories such as Germany, where literature has proved to be a good selling tool.

The best reps ran mini marketing tutorials at the gathering. The Italian distributor, for example, addressed how to translate Restek product literature so customers would better accept it. The German rep shared tips on co-op advertising. A U.S. rep, newly hired from the competition, analyzed rival companies' selling techniques.

Restek used the marketing discussions to launch one-on-one sessions about each rep's 1994 business plan. The disclosures were helpful but sobering; although Restek's sales are up in Europe, there's still a long way to go.

The company's portion of the bill (hotel and recreation included) came to about $50,000. Although it would have been cheaper to time a training session to a major trade show in Europe, the U.S. event allowed the reps to meet the whole Restek organization. "We reached some common ground," says Vargo.