This week’s article is from Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners. Brett has worked in direct selling since 2002, holding titles that include Vice President of Global Marketing and Sr. Director of Online Solutions. He works directly with direct selling companies as a strategic facilitator and corporate consultant, specializing in leading marketing, communications and digital teams and projects
Guest Post by Brett Duncan
The 7 Most Common Recommendations for Today’s Direct Selling Company
Every direct selling company thinks of itself as extremely unique. You probably feel that way about your company, too. Your product is one-of-a-kind. Your compensation plan has unique perks. Your founder offers both special privileges and special challenges. Your culture is special and unprecedented and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And I bet that’s all true. I just bet it’s not as true as you think it is.
My experience has shown me that direct selling companies have a lot more in common than they think. Especially in the areas that you think are unique to you. Especially in the areas that you feel are most challenging to your company right now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, “You think you’re special, but you’re not ;-).” That can be comforting; more companies are dealing with the same struggles as you are, no matter how “exceptional” they are.
4 Years of Consulting Summarized in a Single Article
This past March, I celebrated my fourth year of consulting with direct selling companies, and I’ve loved every single second of it. It’s been a real pleasure helping so many of you as we all collectively navigate our way through the opportunities and challenges that face direct selling in today’s marketplace. It’s been an eye-opening four years. When I tack those four years onto the 12 years I spent working on the corporate side of direct selling, it can uncover some interesting perspective.
As I was reflecting on this personal milestone, I realized just how often I’ve given so many companies a different twist of the same advice. I definitely don’t believe in one-size-fits-all strategies, and I treat every engagement as a clean slate that deserves a specific and differentiated approach.
But in the midst of my work with more than 40 companies in the last four years, I’ve also seen many of the same needs for every company. I’ve actually been shocked at how often I’ve offered up pieces of the same advice for my clients, because their situations required it.
So, with that said, I thought I may do us all a favor and outline the most common bits of advice I’ve given my clients over the past four years, assuming that your company, like them, could benefit from them.
A quick disclaimer: These aren’t necessarily the most innovative ideas out there; they are the most common bits of advice I’ve given. They are the lowest hanging fruit. Some are no-brainers, which is probably why they are so common. Many companies are already aware of the need to act on the recommendations; they just haven’t done it for whatever reason yet.
Here’s my challenge to you: as you read through these thoughts, don’t settle for a response of only “Oh yeah, I could’ve told you that,” or “That makes sense,” or “Yep, that’s how it is here, too.” I want you to look at each point I’ve listed below and ask yourself this question: “What is my company doing to improve in this area right now?” Commit to getting better, no matter where you’re at now.
So here they are, the seven most frequently recommended thoughts I’ve passed along to direct selling companies over the past four years:
1. Invest exponentially more in your development resources and your core enterprise platform.
Think just a second about every initiative and idea that you come up with. A contest, a campaign, an incentive, a comp plan change, a promotion, a launch, a usability/design update, a report, a dashboard, an app, whatever. We’re really good at coming up with extremely creative ideas.
But like an icon of our industry, Mary Kay Ash, once said, “Ideas are a dime a dozen; people who implement them are priceless.” In today’s direct selling environment, essentially every idea requires some form of development. And I’m referring to actual IT/website developers.
Think of all the ideas that have come up for you that have just sat there because you didn’t have the current development resources in place to pull them off. I’m astounded how many of us settle for that. While an initiative could generate thousands, even millions, in revenue and profit, we allow our minuscule development resources to determine what we work on and at what pace we work on them.
Want to accelerate your pace of growth? Invest responsibly but adequately in enough development resources to match your own innovation. Then it can actually become more than an idea. Similarly, how many ideas have been offered up, only to hear someone chime in with, “Oh, our system can’t do that.” I know I’ve heard it… a lot!
So many of us are leveraging back-end systems that are outdated and borderline irrelevant in today’s marketplace. We’ve band-aided them with third parties and plugins and standalone websites to help us get by, but we all know that’s not the true answer. If your current system can’t handle the innovations required to excel in today’s marketplace, how in the world will it hold up to what’s coming a year or two from now?
There’s never a good or convenient time to upgrade your core enterprise system. Do it anyway. Set your company up to be as flexible and accessible for today’s, and tomorrow’s, innovations as possible.
2. Go to the utmost extreme to optimize your new Distributor’s first 90 days.
Every somewhat-seasoned direct selling executive will acknowledge the importance of a Distributor’s first 90 days in your company. Almost every executive will also admit they fall short of even their own expectations for their company’s first-90-day experience. Something’s wrong with that, don’t you think?
There’s a lot that a direct selling company can focus on. It can be overwhelming. But if you had to choose one segment of your Distributor base to focus on, I will tell you to focus on this one.
I recently spoke with the head of field development for a well-known company in the $500 million+ annual revenue range. They have great training programs, segmented for new Distributors, new leaders, up-and-coming leaders and top leaders. I asked him this question: “If you could only have one of these training programs, which one would it be?” Without hesitation, he told me he would choose the new Distributor training. Each training has been fruitful, but the fruit and impact that comes from a successful Distributor in her first 90 days is irreplaceable.
Do you even know what your new Distributors are experiencing in their first 90 days? Make that a priority. In addition, map out every single touch point your company currently has with its new Distributors over their first 90 days. Review it, and then update it to what makes sense for them. Create new communications where it makes sense, and even filter out other communications if it doesn’t make sense for them.
Do everything you can to help them have the best start possible. Keep them focus on what matters right now, and worry about the rest later. It pays off for months and years to come.
3. Put less stuff in your Welcome Kit.
Part of the First-90-Day-Experience includes the Welcome Kit sent to your new Distributors. Some companies have streamlined this component quite effectively. Most are still incorporating a Kit strategy that was appropriate in the ‘90s.
Here’s the thing: we all know that a lot of the stuff you cram into your Welcome Kit never gets used. At best, a go-getter uses only some of it the way you intended. At worst, the mass amount of tools and paper and product completely overwhelms your new Distributor.
And don’t even get me started on the money that’s wasted on so many of these kits. I often sign-up with clients as a Distributor to capture the new Distributor experience for them, and I’ve honestly had to use a dolly sometimes to move the shipment that’s sent to me. It’s that heavy!
I’m still a big believer in shipping something to your New Distributors. In a digital world, these touch points can sometimes stand out more than they ever have before. But we must be strategic about what we ship.
To start, take a look at your Kit, and ask yourself if you could send 5 of something instead of 25 of it. Include a coupon for free tools so those that actually want them can get them, but at least you’re not wasting it all on people who will never use them.
And don’t over-discount your products in your Kit. There’s such a thing as diminishing returns. If you’re already giving a new Distributor $300 worth of product for that $150 enrollment fee, is pushing it to $450 really going to get you more enrollments?
4. Get serious about segmenting buyers from sellers.
Yes, today’s legal environment is making this a more top-of-mind initiative. But, to me, it’s not a legal thing. It’s a good business thing. Let me say something that may be viewed as sacrilege in direct selling: I don’t think it’s all about getting more Distributors.
Hear me on this: Of course, I want to have as many Distributors as possible. But I want them to actually want to be Distributors. I don’t want them to be forced into it to get the best deal, or to “pay for the products.” As a marketer, it will help me to know who is in it for their own personal product purchases, who’s in it to share the products with a few friends, and who’s actually interested in earning some serious income by building a team.
In the party plan industry especially, I’m shocked at how many companies have no access or data related to customers. In the past, we probably billed this as a feature, that your Distributor is who had access to their customers, not the home office. Today, that just won’t cut it. There are too many opportunities for the home office to complement and support the work of the Distributor with direct-to-Customer campaigns to ignore this transition.
If you don’t have “customer accounts,” get them ASAP. It will form a foundation for all kinds of opportunities moving forward. Then, make sure you’re positioning the Distributor position in a way that attracts those who want to earn income, and incorporate a strong customer program that suits everyone else. It may mean you enroll less Distributors than before, but at least you know they are actual “Distributors.”
And make it easy for your Customers to upgrade to Distributors when they are ready.
5. Get obsessive about keeping your corporate team strategically aligned.
Simply put, too many companies allow for department heads to create department strategies that don’t necessarily support the company’s overall strategic plan. And sometimes that happens because the company foregoes a strategic plan altogether.
You can’t waste a single dollar or minute of your internal resources. Everything, collectively, must all be pointed to the same end goals. If marketing has a pet project that requires IT resources, and that project isn’t fundamental to the company’s overall strategy, then you are screwing up in a major way. If a month-long promotion is rolling out that encourages behavior that flies in the face of the year-long incentive, that’s not alignment.
Human nature creates some interesting inter-office dynamics that have the potential to become major distractions. Do not let that happen. The field brings enough drama into the equation already; don’t multiply it by letting the home office team add to it.
If your home office needs a cultural shift in this area, get deliberate about changing it, and overdo it. As a place to start (and assuming you have a strategic plan in place), hold a strategic touchbase meeting every two weeks with the executive team, and make sure everyone is clear on what everyone else is doing. Accountability is key, so make sure it’s clear on who is doing what by when.
Over time, you can probably push this out to once a month. But don’t go there too quickly. Make sure every effort is aligned with the strategic plan, and make sure your executives are accountable to company goals, not their own pet projects.
6. Do less stuff.
I haven’t worked with a company yet that I haven’t suggested that they simply do less stuff. We are so good at coming up with last-minute promos, social media campaigns, product launches and other really good stuff. But when you look at it holistically, it’s a bunch of stuff that just creates a bunch of white noise to the field. So instead of doing it all, or even doing something, they just do nothing.
It’s our nature to add something to the mix to make something happen. Lots of times, it’s taking something off our plate and the field’s plate that will actually lead to success.
Take a look at what you’ve got going on. Where can you cut back? Which projects are minor impact items? Do you really need to launch them? Or are they just getting in the way?
Streamline your expectations for the field. The key is getting a lot of people to take a few select actions, and not getting a few people to take a lot of actions.
7. Do what you’re doing the right way.
Not only do we do too much stuff, but we typically just launch it. We don’t actually figure out how to incorporate it over time into the daily method of operation of our Distributors.
For being an industry that’s known for training and leadership development, we typically don’t account for training when we launch all the stuff that we’re launching. We simply launch it, let the field figure out what to do with it and then move on to the next item to launch.
It may be a new website feature, a third-party tool, a new product, or whatever. If you don’t have the bandwidth to completely and comprehensively plan your training and ongoing communication plan for a launch item, you shouldn’t launch it. Either it’s not important enough to train on adequately, or you don’t have the training bandwidth to squeeze it into everything else you’re doing.
In addition, we downplay the importance of change management in the work we do. Whether something changes for the better or for the worse, it doesn’t matter: it’s all change. The home office rarely accounts for managing this change in a responsible manner. Most issues that traditionally plague direct selling companies have to do with a lack of proper testing upfront, and a lack of change management prepared for post-launch.
As you budget resources and time to launch your “next big thing,” budget at least 30% of it to what you’re going to do after it launches. And a lot of time, that’s not even enough. Stop skipping your internal testing protocol when timelines get squeezed. I’d rather push the release date than skip testing. Too many companies regret this mistake for months and years to come when it happens. If you can’t launch something well, then why bother launching it?
That’s it: The most common recommendations I’ve given to direct selling companies over the last four years.
What do you think is missing? Which ones of the items listed above are the biggest challenges for you? I’d love to hear from you.