The Tools Culture: What Is It, and Why Do You Need One?

Click here to order the February 2016 issue in which this article appeared.

The direct selling channel has no peer when it comes to leveling the playing field for those who want to seize the opportunity. Regardless of one’s background, education, age, circumstance or any other possible limiting factor, in direct selling everyone begins their respective journeys at the same starting line. But how does the independent salesperson decide what’s next in their journey?

The fact that the gates are wide open can invite challenge for salespeople and the companies they represent, as most new representatives come into direct selling without a shred of sales experience. While that by no means automatically disqualifies them from having great potential to succeed, it does require an onboarding process specifically designed for the achievement of quick wins, immediate identification with brand/company culture and the ability for new representatives to establish a vision for their own futures as soon as possible.

Retaining salesforce members is probably the most formidable challenge a direct sales company faces. You’re working with a group of volunteers, and you may have no idea what initially brought them to your door or what will make them stay. Market segmentation research has made fantastic inroads into that enigma, but the reality is that salesforce retention is a never-ending job.

With so many direct sellers on the scene today, there’s a lot of competition to get those prospective representatives to your doorstep in the first place. Given that it’s easier than ever for prospective independent representatives to study up on companies online, it’s never been more vital for companies to provide the very best support to their salesforce members. Putting ourselves in the prospect’s shoes again, if she’s never been in a sales position before and she’s not sold on whether a direct selling business is really for her, what does she want to hear that will increase her confidence in your opportunity? That it’s simple, and that you’re going to walk her through the steps—as few steps as possible—to get to her first win. She wants easy-to-digest tools that don’t require her to be the expert, only the messenger. And once she’s in the door, those first 90 days are the most critical, as they’ll likely determine whether she’ll still be in your salesforce ranks at this time next year.

Bridging the Generations

As the broader business world moves away from printed materials and sprints toward digital technology, it might be tempting to say that the direct selling channel is doing the same. There’s no doubt that this channel has moved into the digital age, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that we’ve abandoned traditional tools. Take a look at the broad cross-section of independent representatives who represent direct selling brands, and it’s clear that the channel has chosen to straddle the line instead of cross it. Companies who have been on the scene for several decades often continue to provide the beloved printed staples to loyal salesforce members. We’re a customer service-oriented channel, after all. At the same time, in an effort to present a brand image that appeals to younger generations—in particular, new college graduates entering the work force and considering direct selling as a viable career option—it’s imperative that companies incorporate the very latest technology into their respective tools cultures. It’s a careful balance. Abandoning the old in favor of the new could backfire, alienating those who either aren’t tech savvy or just prefer doing business the traditional way. Facing that conundrum, then, a lot of direct sellers, even companies who are less than 10 years old, have decided to offer everything to everyone. Direct selling is nothing if not accommodating.

Companies such as WorldVentures, for example, find a lot of validity in that approach. “Some tried and true stuff still works—printed pieces, CDs, DVDs—you can hand them off,” says Eddie Head, President of WorldVentures Holdings. The company makes quad-fold brochures available to its Independent Representatives, who distribute them at travel parties while they present the business opportunity. It’s a great leave-behind item that reiterates the key takeaways of the presentation. “We know that if representatives share it, you’ll get more yeses than nos,” Head says. The company also publishes Voyager, a monthly magazine highlighting not just those at the pinnacle of success, but perhaps more important, those in the middle of their respective journeys. Those mid-level testimonials, Head says, help promote the company’s “One Big Team” philosophy, serve as powerful validation of the integrity of the business opportunity, and provide inspiration to those striving to reach the next rung of the ladder. Best of all, they’re all presented in a format that, like CDs and DVDs, can pass through several sets of hands.

These traditional tools represent elements of the face-to-face culture upon which the direct selling channel was founded. There’s perhaps no better way to understand the potential of any direct selling opportunity than to see it through your own eyes: the enthusiasm on a representative’s face as he shares his story, the credibility of a printed brochure, a handshake and a business card at the end of the presentation.

At the same time, WorldVentures rolled out to its representatives in 2015 a native app that detects each user’s profile, then serves up from a single platform the information he or she needs at that point in a specific stage of business, such as testimonials, access to reports, event registration, training, presentation and support tools. Representatives have access to a full library of videos from personal development coaches and direct selling experts. These leader-led talks are “great resources for sucking it up and developing intestinal fortitude,” adds Head. The predominant advantage of the app is that it gives representatives easy access to training regardless of where their travels take them. “They can sharpen the saw on the road or in a hotel room.” In late 2015 the company introduced “Quick Coach,” a series of one- to two-minute videos on a single subject; for example, critical topics such as overcoming objection, how to conduct a travel party, how to teach others. The entirely animated videos, featuring hand-drawn caricatures of company leaders, have attracted a big audience.

By covering all of the traditional and digital spaces where representatives and their customers are, Head says WorldVentures aims to spread the message about what he considers to be the company’s cultural distinction. As a travel company, “our product is simpler to sell. It’s very emotional. That’s an advantage. Invariably, this is all about our content and less about the delivery mechanism.”

“With social media, you don’t have to handle the rejection in person. It’s a great way to get new Beauty Consultants started.”
—Kim Sater, Director U.S. Consumer Marketing, Mary Kay Inc.

Technology Changes the Landscape

From the earliest days of our channel, the intimidation factor surrounding the sales process has convinced countless potential distributors that direct selling just isn’t for them. But technology has transformed the way independent salespeople market their businesses, reducing the apprehension often associated with phone calls and personal appointments, particularly when representatives are interacting with acquaintances they don’t know very well. “With social media, you don’t have to handle the rejection in person. It’s a great way to get new Beauty Consultants started,” says Kim Sater, Director U.S. Consumer Marketing at Mary Kay Inc.

Social media holds enormous potential to influence others through the power of suggestion, and repetition. In May 2015, Mary Kay launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #mymklife and encouraged the independent salesforce to share stories and photos of anything relating to their Mary Kay businesses. On Instagram alone, approximately 23,000 have participated in the campaign since its inception.

Technology also allows prospective customers and team members to do their research behind the scenes and get to know a direct selling company before forging a relationship with a representative. Mary Kay offers a guest checkout option, which enables customers to browse and shop without direct contact with a Beauty Consultant; however, an average of nearly 40 percent of visitors to the company’s website ultimately choose to register with an Independent Beauty Consultant. And for Beauty Consultants, Mary Kay offers a team-building app “that takes the fear out of sharing the opportunity. The app walks them through the steps,” says Jill Wedding, Director U.S. Consultant Marketing at Mary Kay.

Developing Your ‘Tools Culture’

Of course, being everything to everyone doesn’t mean throwing everything at your salesforce and hoping that something sticks. Direct sellers know that representatives and their customers already are wading through a sea of information that grows deeper by the day. The pieces of the puzzle have to fit together, so to speak.

Getting the most out of the available tools requires more than simply encouraging the salesforce to use them. Each of those tools has to play a specific role in the bigger picture. “Tools Culture” is a term best defined by a companywide, consistent practice of creating sales opportunities, recruiting activity, training and motivation through clear, simplified and branded communication tools.

Simplicity is key; keeping your volume of tools to a minimum can help prevent confusion among your distributors. That’s a mission that companies like Nerium International, for example, have taken to heart. “Put yourself in the position of brand-new consultants,” says CEO Jeff Olson. “They already have jobs and families. It’s so easy to assume the business is second-nature to your consultants like it is to you. They’ll quit if the tools aren’t high-quality, streamlined and easy to follow.”

In 2007, Entrepreneur magazine cited studies indicating that as much as 80 percent of materials created by marketing staffs for use by salespeople remain unused. SiriusDecisions, a global business-to-business research and advisory firm, found in 2013 that 70 percent of content created by B2B businesses is never utilized. It’s hard to put definitive percentages around it, but companies that take a “more is always better” approach often find that when they ask their salesforce how many of those tools they actually use, the numbers aren’t as high as they’d hoped. While it’s true that people learn in a great variety of ways, companies still have the responsibility of narrowing down the choices, simplifying their message and making sure that their complete suite of tools, across the entire spectrum from new consultant to seasoned veteran, fit together as pieces of a puzzle that when connected serves a broader goal to support the culture and the values of the brands they represent.

Facing the conundrum of whether to follow tradition or abandon it for new technology, a lot of direct sellers have decided to offer everything to everyone. Direct selling is nothing if not accommodating.

In 2015, Mary Kay developed an internal Digital Evaluation Team to help the company maintain a singular, cohesive digital tools strategy. With a large corporate headquarters and multiple subsidiaries, the company recognized the need to rein in its processes, helping avoid duplication of efforts, inconsistent messages and, ultimately, salesforce confusion. Serving as gatekeepers of sorts, the evaluation team developed a set of simple baseline criteria. “We ask three questions before any app or tool launch,” Wedding says. “Does the independent salesforce want it? Do they need it? And do they need it now?” In large part, the answers to those questions come from the Mary Kay independent salesforce, a group that has always been forthcoming with feedback, she adds.

Rodan + Fields maintains internal teams focused on providing assets for their field leaders and consultants. Additionally, a group of top independent Field Leaders, dubbed the “Voices of the Field,” provides helpful feedback to these departments and others within the company. These consultants participate in monthly meetings with the company to discuss hot topics and often participate in A/B testing with various tools before they launch. Any tool considered for the field is measured by two benchmarks: “Anyone must be able to use them—we want to create an even playing field—and they must promote a balanced approach to the business. Assets should help consultants build their businesses through the credibility of the brand and their relationships, as well as provide first-class service to their customer base,” says Heidi Wissmiller, Chief Customer Officer.

Obtaining salesforce buy-in is critical. When WorldVentures was conducting research for the development of what would be its native app, the company asked salesforce leaders this simple question: If they could do anything with their phones, what would it be? And for those representatives who had been with other companies, direct selling or not, to what kind of tools did they have access, or wish they had access? Those answers helped create the short list of the app’s features.

“Tools Culture” is a term best defined by the companywide, consistent practice of creating sales opportunities, recruiting activity, training and motivation through clear, simplified and branded communication tools.

Third-Party Tools

Aside from retention, one of the most compelling reasons for direct sellers to have a well-thought-out strategy around tools is this: If your salesforce either doesn’t have the tools they need, or the tools you do provide don’t meet their needs, they’ll fill the void with tools of their own making. That leaves the door wide open to interpretation of your products and your opportunity, leaving you vulnerable to charges of noncompliance, false claims or worse. The establishment, promotion and maintenance of a tools culture gives companies greater control over their messaging and their brands.

Tools are one of the primary means by which any direct selling company controls the dissemination of its brand. The more you can listen to and accommodate the needs of your independent salesforce, the better they’ll represent your company consistently and accurately. The way you train them is the way they train their own team members.

Nerium’s Jeff Olson is a big believer in maintaining a duplicable system, and that includes using third-party tools. “No matter how big you get, 80 percent of your volume comes from people who have been with you a year or less, those who know the least about your company,” he says. “You have to empower them to be the messenger, not the message.” The philosophy is simple: “If you’re moving your mouth, you should be pointing at a third-party tool.”

Think of it this way: If your less-seasoned salesforce members are producing most of your volume, would you want them explaining your brand in their own terms and presenting themselves as experts when they didn’t know anything about your opportunity a week ago? Companies that offer up a pre-packaged, simplified suite of tools help reduce the steep learning curve for new consultants. And, Olson says, that duplicable, digestible approach is more appealing to customers. “Look at the business from the perspective of the person you’re speaking to,” he says. “If you can hand someone a beautiful brochure instead of yakking, that’s better.”

Further, Olson advises, it’s wise to minimize the number of tools you roll out to the salesforce. “Keep the choices minimal,” he says. “Don’t make consultants choose which video out of 10 videos they need to watch. As soon as people have choice, that leads to confusion, which reduces their efficiency.”

In the process of learning to be a good messenger, he adds, Nerium Brand Partners receive the additional benefit of personal development; “they present a more attractive persona. If they can focus on being a better version of themselves and use these tools, they have a chance” at longer-lasting success.

Mary Kay similarly has embraced the third-party approach, with tools like Social Publisher, an optional service in which automated posts are pushed out to the Facebook business pages of Independent Beauty Consultants. Those posts, covering everything from seasonal product launches to beauty tips and trends, direct visitors to Beauty Consultants’ respective Mary Kay® Personal Web Sites. Participating salesforce members may have access to a library of pre-approved evergreen posts, which they may share at any time. The convenience of the service not only cuts down on the time Beauty Consultants dedicate to administrative activities, but from a monitoring and compliance standpoint, it’s a boon to the company.

The Mary Kay Show & Sell app, which can be projected to a TV screen in a party setting, employs a point-and-click approach to presenting the business opportunity. The app includes notes and pointers to which the Beauty Consultant may refer during her presentation. In 2016 the company will roll out myCustomers Plus, an app designed to help Beauty Consultants manage their inventory, provide better service to their customers, plan their routes for product delivery and other time-consuming administrative duties associated with running their businesses. The end goal is to address Beauty Consultants’ “pain points” and give them more time to build customer relationships, sell product and, ultimately, attract new team members.

If your salesforce either doesn’t have the tools they need, or the tools you do provide don’t meet their needs, they’ll fill the void with tools of their own making.

Technology and Customer Service Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Direct selling is legendary for extraordinary service. It stands to reason, then, that one of the most effective ways for retaining your distributors is to maintain a culture built upon listening and giving them exactly what they need when they need it. Technology has given the channel unprecedented access to a depth of real-time information. We now have at our fingertips an extraordinary knowledge base about the field, giving us the ability to respond to their needs in a more targeted manner.

To help consultants spend more time on developing their customer base and less time on administrative tasks, these days we’re seeing more direct selling companies—for example, Dallas-based men’s luxury custom clothing company J.Hilburn—issuing communications on behalf of their consultants. This hands-off approach to help consultants market their businesses makes direct selling an attractive, low-risk and low-intimidation career path for thousands with no prior sales experience.

Seventy percent of J.Hilburn’s salesforce of independent stylists are women, and roughly 90 percent of them have never measured anyone for custom clothing before starting a J.Hilburn business, says Co-Founder Veeral Rathod. And, their predominantly female consultant base has the challenge of understanding their customers, who are exclusively male. 

One of the most effective ways for retaining your distributors is to maintain a culture built upon listening and giving them exactly what they need when they need it.

To help address that learning curve, the company has built out its marketing and communications suite of tools to help train stylists on the basics, from how to take custom measurements to how to deliver a highly personalized shopping experience to their clients using a combination of technology and face-to-face meetings. “E-commerce is especially appealing to men, who often don’t like going to stores. But they’re very brand-loyal,” Rathod says. The company sends two to four emails per month to customers on behalf of their stylists—for example, “The Perfect White Shirt,” featuring a lineup of varying styles of this wardrobe staple. Consumers are able to quickly scan their style options; contact their stylists, who already have their measurements; and place an order. And customers receive seasonal “Look Books” on behalf of stylists, who are taught to follow up those mailings with phone calls and personal emails, sometimes even deskside order deliveries for busy clients. By combining marketing functionality with high stylist/consumer engagement, “we’re aiming to deliver a high-touch experience,” Rathod says. The company has taken great pains to merge the personal touch with the high-tech world and deliver not just a product, but an entire customer-service experience that gives men a reason to turn to direct selling, many for the first time. After all, “every product we sell, the customer is already buying somewhere else. We didn’t invent anything.”

Even as direct selling delves further and further into technology, though, in a channel that prides itself on relationship development, personal contact will never go out of style. It’s the very foundation of direct selling’s shared mission to deliver superior service while helping as many people as possible achieve their potential. “Digital initiatives are helpful because you don’t have to pick up the phone and call, although the best stylists will say that to be successful, you have to use the phone,” Rathod says.

“We ask three questions before any app or tool launch. Does the independent salesforce want it? Do they need it? And do they need it now?”
—Jill Wedding, Director U.S. Consultant Marketing, Mary Kay Inc.

Over the past couple of years, Rodan + Fields has been moving away from a mass approach to training and coaching and toward a personalized experience, says Wissmiller. This brand, business and personal development approach to customer service is a concept that is more meaningful, relatable and individually focused. The training software that is in its test phase asks questions as to what are the tools that the Consultants tend to use more, what kind of information is most helpful and where are they in their businesses? Rodan + Fields recently rolled out a pilot program to 400 consultants, in which they took a detailed test regarding their communication skills and other personality characteristics. Participants were then led through a personalized training program of multiple layers based on the answers to those questions. Let’s say, for example, that a consultant indicated that she’s nervous about conflict. Her training is designed to help her work through that challenge, learn to overcome it and come out feeling far more confident in her abilities.

Where Are We Headed?

Perhaps the best aspect of the digital age is the ability to deliver targeted messaging to specific audiences, and then measure and analyze your results. People come to direct selling for a multitude of reasons, and with that in mind, more companies have begun segmenting their distributor bases into personas based on activity, and then customizing the messaging they receive, whether it’s via email, SMS or website. The implications of targeted marketing for revenue generation, salesforce and customer retention could be significant for the channel.

“Tools should help consultants build their businesses through their relationships, provide first-class service and expand their customer base. Anyone must be able to use them—we want to create an even playing field—and they must promote a balanced approach to the business.”
—Heidi Wissmiller, Chief Customer Officer, Rodan + Fields

It’s clear that technology can help direct selling raise the bar on the service this channel provides, first to the independent representatives who represent our brands, then to the customers they serve. While direct selling companies strive to keep up with innovation, the respective tools cultures that each establish will look different. But the common mission, to provide continual, open-ended opportunities for people to achieve their fullest potential, unites us all.

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