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Your sales force could be your weakness

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European corporate customers are disappointed in their suppliers' performance--and that spells a big opportunity for U.S. companies trying to get a competitive edge overseas. That is the finding of a recent study by Learning International, which looked at long-term business-to-business relationships in 10 Western European countries. The research provides fresh insight into what European buyers want from their suppliers' salespeople and has important implications for how U.S. companies should organize their European sales, marketing, and customer service efforts.

Even when European customers give high marks to a product, they may choose a different supplier if they're not satisfied with other aspects of the relationship. What distinguishes successful suppliers is not a sophisticated product or bargain prices-although those things don't hurt-but the ability to demonstrate competence and integrity over a long period of time. In an interview for the study, one executive with a French aircraft parts company said, "If I buy only once, it is the product that interests me. But if I want to establish a good business relationship over a long period of time, then I look for a supplier who demonstrates integrity."

Although Europe is culturally diverse, companies throughout Europe have similar expectations of their suppliers, according to the two-year study. The more than 1,000 senior managers who participated in the study indicated the qualities they looked for most in salespeople were integrity, dependability, knowledge of the product or service, and trustworthiness. What's more, they expect the companies they buy from to be stable and to have a recognizable name in the market.

The trouble is, while some of the 65 customer expectations studied were met, most were not. In fact, suppliers met or exceeded only 39 percent of purchasers' expectations in each of the countries studied. Worse, customers reported being satisfied in those areas that were...