Not long ago, I had a client that made computer peripherals for defense and heavy-equipment manufacturers. In the U.S., its business was booming, but in Europe, it had hastily cobbled together an ad hoc network of independent reps who sold very little. Except for one, who outsold the others combined. I paid a visit to find out why.

In Düsseldorf, I spoke to this top rep, or tried to--I couldn't help being distracted by his assistant, who was wearing a wire-frame pyramid on her head. That may not be typical attire in most offices, but it wasn't out of place at a Bhagwan commune, where followers of an Indian holy man seek spiritual enlightenment. As it turned out, that's exactly where I was: This group was my client's top-performing European rep. The group sold my client's devices because it said they gave followers "inner peace," which was an interesting spin on the products' stated ability to reduce carpal tunnel syndrome.

The lesson to be learned here was that my client had done a lousy job of choosing its partners. It had followed one of the most common paths of geographic expansion, both domestically and abroad. Companies with great products are often approached by individuals eager to be appointed exclusive reps in new markets. It's easy to believe signing such folks involves negligible costs and risks. But once someone is granted exclusive rights, other candidates--who are often more qualified--must usually be turned away. It can take years to untangle yourself from these poor decisions.

How can you avoid a similar fate? Whether you are expanding to a new country or simply to a new state, consider the following three-step approach:

First, think hard about the attributes of your most successful partners--the agents, distributors, resellers, franchisees, etc., that have worked best for you to date. What kinds of complementary products and services do they offer? How do they develop leads? How do the best ones provide postsale support? Try to locate prospective partners in new markets that have those same attributes.

Next, talk to prospective customers in new target markets. Tell them you are looking for someone to serve them locally and ask whom they would recommend. (This can also help you identify hot prospects that you can deliver to your partner once the ink is dry.)

Finally, once you've signed on a new partner, incorporate a methodical planning and review process into the relationship from Day One. Communicate regularly. Visit customers and prospects with the partner. Share any information or tips that can make the partner more successful, and be ready to learn from the partner as well: You want to capture the best of what a partner is doing and replicate those practices everywhere else.

Forging strong partnerships is a great way to help scale your company, but you have to make time to nurture these relationships as carefully as you would a new senior hire. In fact, maybe more, because these partners aren't under your direct control, yet they often serve as customers' primary contact with your products.

In short, don't marry your first date. The more time you spend a-courtin', the better the relationship will turn out to be.

 

From the March 2014 issue of Inc. magazine