I wanted to share a conversation I had recently with one of my clients. I’m always looking for ways to explain how international military sales are different from sales in the U.S., and I think this was a good example.
We were discussing the benefits of my client’s product, and my client mentioned, “This new unmanned technology will even allow them to completely withdraw the legacy systems from their armed forces!”
It might seem counter-intuitive, but no developing-country military will seek to procure a technology that will replace their existing equipment with fewer systems – or, worse yet, fewer staff. Usually, militaries in developing countries are not only under budget pressure, but also are under political pressure to justify their own existence. In that situation, their primary goal is to preserve the equipment and resources they do have, and then if possible, to expand their capacity. In their fight for the very existence of their armed forces, when it comes to their own identity, quantity matters more than quality.
This is difficult to explain, so let’s look at this from the perspective of a Navy officer in a developing country (which happens to be my experience). The officer’s primary goal is to keep their equipment operational with limited resources, and to train their staff as much as possible. He probably has many more staff than equipment to train them on. Operating a frigate designed for a 90-person crew with 120 sailors does not represent inefficiency; rather, it is a way to train more people in less operational time. Given the tight budget and shifting political priorities, the armed forces constantly resist attempts to retire old systems or reduce their operational time.
My point is that if you attempt to sell a new technology to this officer on the grounds that it would allow him to replace his current equipment with fewer–or unmanned– systems, your sales pitch will fall on deaf ears. This officer’s primary goal is to preserve the equipment he already has, and to maintain the size of his service (in systems and men) at their current levels.
So, how should you pitch a new piece of state-of-the-art equipment to this officer? As a one-for-one replacement or as complement to his existing equipment. The new technology should not pose a threat to his force levels. On the contrary, it should be a force-multiplier. It should help him to train more people, and it should be appropriate for his staff’s skill level, to ensure that they will be able to correctly operate and maintain it.
In short, it is unlikely that a developing-country military will sign on for any program that – explicitly or implicitly – might lead to budget or equipment cuts. Especially in cash-strapped and politically-challenged militaries, their main focus is on maintaining and expanding their military resources.
And really, this isn’t all that different from the U.S. military; only the scale is different. Consider telling the USAF that they won’t need the Next Generation Bomber because you’re developing a Next Gen UAV that can do the job. Clearly, you won’t make many friends. Sometimes, the very identity of a service is at stake. Cuts could also imply plant shut-downs or base closures, which causes job losses – never popular.
So, for international military sales, just adjust the scale. Before offering a replacement, think about the context. For a foreign navy, a patrol boat could be as important as an aircraft carrier is to the U.S. Navy. Don’t pitch a product as a replacement of a system that reflects on the identity of a service. Remember you are not there to lead a reduction of their military, you are there to help them to improve their capabilities. Pitch your product as a complement — a force multiplier — and demonstrate all the ways that it will help the military expand their capacity and keep their numbers strong.