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Case Study: A Global Journey

Malcolm Miller is group Managing Director of Wiltshire-based RTS Group, an automotive learning and development agency, which trades across Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. Established in 1989, it employs 50 people and uses a further 100 associates.

The company specialises in helping automotive manufacturers develop frontline staff working in their dealerships. Clients include well-known manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Mazda and BMW. RTS devises, designs and delivers a wide range of learning solutions that improve the knowledge and skills of these frontline, customer-facing staff. These are delivered using methods ranging from one-to-one and classroom learning, through to elearning using smart phones, tablets or online tools.

“What we do isn’t technical training, and it’s not really the softer end of learning development,” Malcolm explains. “It’s about improving performance. It’s about improving sales, customer service and the profitability of dealers. That sounds fairly hard edged but it’s all to do with people skills in sales and customer service or management.”

Malcolm Miller

Malcolm Miller

One arm of the company – FIMTRAC – focusses on vehicle finance, and it is this area of expertise in particular which is seeing growing demand overseas.

“Our particular expertise is we know the automotive world inside out, upside down and back to front,” Malcolm says. “We’re well established in the UK with a strong presence in Europe, but they’re both busy markets with a lot of competitors – good competitors. So increasingly, we’re looking to places like the Middle East, South Africa and now China.”

After a dramatic decline in the 1970s and 1980s, the automotive industry has become something of a British success story over recent years, Malcolm says, both from the point of view of product and expertise.

“The UK is very successful in exporting cars – just look at brands like Aston Martin, Jaguar or Land Rover. But it isn’t just that, our retail model is also held in high esteem. We’re good at retail. So other countries are looking to the UK not just for products, but for that expertise, to learn how we do it and why we do it better.”

“We certainly don’t try and thrust the British flag down our customers’ throats,” Malcolm says, “but we do talk about where our processes systems and experience where is it having the best effect.”

One area in which the UK leads the world is vehicle finance, and exporting this expertise to less developed markets is now one of RTS Group’s main areas of international growth.

“People don’t buy cars for £ 25,000 or whatever the equivalent is. They buy them now for £350 a month. It’s a financial proposition. We’re extremely good at that in the UK. It’s the same model as a mobile phone contract. No-one would dream of buying an iphone for £500 pounds. You buy one through a contract, and that’s also how people buy cars.”

But if that’s how people buy cars, how have Chinese car manufacturers come to be buying expertise from a company based in Chippenham? The answer, says Malcolm, is partly by design and partly through good luck.

“We were already doing work in the Middle East and South Africa and the opportunities of the Chinese market were certainly on our strategy map – after all, China is a huge market. But actually, the opportunity came out of our work in South Africa, which is viewed by the manufacturers as part of their Asia-Pacific market.

“We’d been working in South Africa for manufacturers developing programmes for dealership staff to increase finance penetration at point of sale. Our clients were impressed with our work and our expertise and they asked us to repeat the model in China.”

While having that referral was a vital break, is had to be reinforced with plenty of face-to-face activity, too.

“We spend a lot of time on planes. As Woody Allen said, 95% of success is turning up. We have seriously tried delivering a pitch via video conferencing but it’s just not the same. You have to turn up and look people in the eye. Making that effort is what wins it.”

The other theme that runs through Malcolm’s approach to winning business abroad is authenticity.

“Obviously you need to know enough about the local culture not to commit any major faux pas. So things like how to offer a business card in Japan – stuff like that. But the number one thing is to be yourself.

“Understand that in the first five minutes – whether it’s at a first meeting or in a formal pitch– the message you need to get across is a very simple one. It’s about confidence. Not overconfidence, not arrogance but just presenting yourself as a confident and competent professional. Within the first five minutes, a potential client needs to know that you’re a safe pair of hands, that they can trust you. That’s what needs to come across in your bearing and the questions you ask and the comfort you give people.”

And in just the same way that effective learning and development depends on engaging and capturing people’s imagination, so Malcolm uses the same principles when he’s pitching for new business.

“We try to pitch in the same way we deliver our training and learning which is to get people engaged very early on. So forget the PowerPoint stuff – people see enough of those in their lives – what works well can be anything from a simple hand-out to physically demonstrate something.

“One thing we once did when we were pitching for some work to realign a sales process was to get the key messages put on some mouse mats. We left a couple after the pitch and they called us up and asked us to send them some more! We won the business too, thanks to those mouse mats…”

Another tip is to bring the team with you even when you can’t bring them with you. As Malcolm explains: “Obviously we can’t take everyone to every pitch, so another thing we do is record some video nuggets or short interviews with key people. We use green professional screen technology, but even using something like Skype or a webcam can bring someone to life. A video of someone real speaking on a screen is so much more powerful than just talking about them. It doesn’t need to be much – a minute and a half is perfect.”

Malcolm’s last piece of advice is simple. Ride your luck.

“For all the strategic planning in the world, you make your luck? We know we’re doing a good job, but if someone asks you to speak at a conference or come and talk to them about AB or C, take that opportunity. Your luck is there. If it doesn’t quite fit your strategy, then what the hell, take it anyway and then strategy will grow around it, which is exactly what’s happened to us.”


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