November 01, 2011
A Changing Marketplace Impacts Direct Sellers
by Larry Chonko, Ph.D.
As the marketplace changes, so must the role of the direct sales person. Direct sales people cannot rely solely on “what worked in the past.” As customers change how they behave in the marketplace, direct sales people must continually balance timeless competencies with timely touch points in order to deliver the highest level of quality and service to their customers.
Let’s consider five timeless competencies for direct sales people, regardless of the particular type of direct selling company with which they are associated (one-on-one sales, network marketing or party plan):
- Knowledge of the customer
- Trusted advisor
- Art and science
Knowledge of the Customer
The first timeless competency is knowledge of the customer—not much news in that. Customers place value on and demand low prices (P), convenience (C), quality products (Q) and value added (V). The news is really about how customers use access to information about P, C, Q and V, and what direct sales people can do in response to the customers’ use of this information. Many non-direct selling competitors are very good at P, C and Q, particularly those that operate on the Web. Some are also good at V. V still can result from the personal touch—the customer’s desire to have questions answered, to have problems solved, to have complaints managed—in other words, excellence in customer service after a sale is made. This is truly timeless. Direct sales people cannot lose sight of the importance of V and, as will be discussed later in this article, how V is impacted by touch points. P, C and Q can be communicated and made available without the presence of a direct sales person. Value added (V) can be created by direct sales people through personal visits, which has long been the hallmark of direct selling, but today it can and must also be created through the use of electronic media. So, how else can direct sales people be the V, enhancing the P, C, and Q of direct selling products/services? Here are a few thoughts.
- Helping a customer will always take priority over any other direct selling task.
- Direct sales people exist to satisfy customers.
- A direct sales person’s customer is satisfied when she or he receives value for the money. More important, a customer is more satisfied when she or he experiences value added.
- When a dissatisfied customer expresses concern, this is not a problem; it is an opportunity “to make it right.”
- To satisfy a customer, direct sales people must look at the situation through the customer’s eyes. Then, they do what they would want done if they were in the customer’s situation.
- If a customer is dissatisfied, it’s not enough just to provide what should have been done in the first place. Value added means to provide something extra. This “something extra” should always include a positive reason for customers to return.
- When direct sales people deal with a dissatisfied customer, concentrating on saving the customer—not the sale—should be the chief goal.
- Always treat customers as if they will remain customers. Never treat customers as though this is the last opportunity to visit with them.
To those who might say there is little new in this list, remember, we’re talking about timeless competencies. Activities such as these should be a natural part of the direct sales person’s efforts. But, in order to grow, direct sales people cannot simply enhance what they already do well.
The second timeless competency for direct sales people is commitment to becoming a trusted advisor. Relationships with customers and distributors must be founded on trust, and direct sales people must be viewed as a source of truthful information and counsel. Attaining the status of trusted advisor is critical to the brand share of mind that direct selling companies, the industry, and direct sales people have with each prospect. Becoming a trusted advisor can only occur over time as customers learn to believe that direct sales people have their best interests in mind.
The path to becoming a trusted advisor requires that direct sales people employ timeless selling skills for the purpose of achieving sales or recruiting new distributors. Direct sales people, as trusted advisors, will be a first choice of prospects with needs and wants because they are trusted. They are in a position to help the prospect first, gain a deep understanding of the prospect’s situation, and further strengthen their credibility and trust. And, trust can be instrumental in overcoming possible negative information, the content of some of which is beyond the control of the direct sales person and the company. To attain the status of trusted advisor, direct sales people must:
- Adapt to (and anticipate) customer requirements while still meeting personal and company goals and requirements.
- Develop creative thinking and problem-solving ability to be a value-added resource for customers.
- Effectively segment markets and target efforts to the specific needs and wants of those markets.
- Develop listening, questioning and dialogue skills that engage customers to help more effectively meet their needs and wants.
- Balance prospecting such that there is a strong focus on selling products to customers, not just building a sales organization.
- Master the skills required to create shared value with customers.
- Embrace the value of technology as a communications, information provision, analytical and learning tool.
As trusted advisors, direct sales people engage in the practice of non-manipulative selling, which permeates all the stages of the buying cycle. Early in the buying cycle, getting to know prospects and forging relationships is emphasized. It is at the early stages that direct sales people craft the foundation for trust. Knowing prospect needs and wants enables direct sales people to fit product/service features and benefits in ways that provide true value to those prospects. Only after direct sales people and prospects reach a mutual agreement about value does a sale occur. Alternatively, if direct sales people engage in manipulative selling, stressing only completing transactions, they will have little success. Coercing people to buy what they do not want to buy or do not understand is bad business. However, if direct sales people emphasize quality presentation of factual and truthful information and true concern for a prospect’s situation in the early steps of the customer buying cycle, completing the transaction should come naturally, without coercion. This is the hallmark of a trusted advisor.
Art and Science
We live in an e-communications world. Things can, and often do, rapidly change. ASAP is an appropriate acronym to describe direct selling today and into the future. The first “A” and the “S” in “ASAP” stand for Art and Science. A third timeless competency for direct sales people is the blending of art and science. Direct selling is both a creative and an analytical process. It is an art because creativity and spontaneity are keys to success. The direct selling marketplace, business in general, and direct selling requirements are constantly changing, and creativity is needed to adapt to these changes. Direct selling is a science because there are proven approaches that work. Deduction, observation and analytical skills are very important to the direct sales person. Direct selling involves development of a unique style (art) of applying timeless processes (science) like prospecting, preparation, making presentations and partnering to understand customers’ needs and wants and to match the benefits of a company’s products or services to those desires.
A fourth timeless competency for direct sales people is agility, the second “A” in “ASAP.” Agility is dynamic, situation-specific, change embracing and growth oriented. Agility requires direct sales people to be open to change, ready to make change, but not change for change’s sake. Agile direct sales people quickly see new opportunities; become astute at anticipating changing customers’ needs, wants and preferences; are able to meet customers’ needs faster; become capable of creating flexible and customer-focused product/service values; and become quicker at learning and unlearning. Paying attention to the marketplace positions direct sales people as ready to make changes as needed.
The fifth timeless competency for direct salespeople is the “P” in “ASAP,” which stands for Performance. Simply put, direct sales people must perform. Excellence in sales performance has been a hallmark of the direct selling profession from the very beginning. What’s different now is the multitude of ways in which sales performance is accomplished. Selling is not just about the timeless imperative of making sales. It is also about a continuous emphasis on earning and maintaining long-term customer relationships, which requires managing timely information in a personal and creative manner using the new tools of technology effectively.
Timely Touch Points
The above timeless competencies do not change regardless of the pace of technological advancement.
The key for direct sales people in the changing marketplace is how to be timely while still embracing the timeless competencies. To be timely in today’s marketplace environment, direct sales people must play the role of managers of an explosion of customer touch points. The task of managing touch points is formidable, as suggested by the vast array of touch points, some of which are listed in the sidebar. This task is made even more challenging by the existence of touch points that are beyond the control of the direct sales person, the company, or the industry (e.g., Facebook pages, blogs, other social media).
Customers experience brands in numerous ways: products, packaging, price, the direct sales person, the company, the industry and others. Each of these touch points contributes to the customer’s impression of the brand. Some of these touch points are obvious, like product performance, and one-on-one customer interactions. Other touch points, such as the product catalog, websites, how the salesperson communicates, or post-sales support, may be subtler in their brand effects. All touch points are not created equal. Some will naturally play a larger role in determining the overall customer experience.
To attain the status of trusted advisor, it is imperative that direct sales people build a strong brand and strong value propositions that optimize the customer experience. How does a direct seller stand out in a crowded customer mind space? To be in business today, our most important job is to be the head marketer of the brand called “You.” So, direct sales people cannot underestimate the importance of developing a brand image.
Here is a quick story to demonstrate the importance of differentiating oneself. If 30 people were asked to describe themselves by listing five adjectives that they consider to be important descriptors of their personae, a list of 150 adjectives would be generated … or would it? How many of those adjectives like honest, organized, leader, motivated, and people-oriented would be repeated … and how many times? The first issue about personal branding is that people describe themselves in remarkably similar ways. The second issue about personal branding is that, in spite of our efforts, the vast majority of customers are not paying attention to salespeople, unless they are approached in some way, personally or electronically, with something of value. The third issue is that no matter how much time a direct sales person spends in e-media, most of the contacts do not remember all the pertinent details about that direct sales person and what she or he does.
The communications world is evolving fast. And customers are more empowered. Direct sales people cannot be overly concerned with controlling content on uncontrollable e-communications venues.
Customers want to be heard … and direct sales people must listen to them. Direct sales people, as touch-point managers, must craft valuable content in the media they control. They must work in a timely fashion to develop consistency across different touch points that communicate value propositions that focus on value, on customers, and on what is delivered.
But direct sales people cannot lose sight of the timeless competencies. Today’s customers still value P, Q and C. But they also buy because they believe in the integrity of the company and the direct sales person. The V comes into play for the direct sales person by way of their excellence in managing both the timely and the timeless.
Timely Touch Points
Announcements and Other Media Relations
Companies are always building their corporate image. So, too, should direct sales people, by making announcements, citing accomplishments, and the like.
Direct sales people can ask customers for feedback and then incorporate their suggestions and requests into their activities. A regular process for getting feedback can be a valuable way to use a touch point to obtain customers’ attention and find out what can be done better.
The more (and higher-quality) messages sent out to customers, the more they will have direct selling on their minds.
Invoices should be branded with logos and company information or information about the direct seller. Invoices are another place where brand recognition can be generated. And if products or services are sold online, include branding on the checkout page, receipts and confirmation emails for additional touch points.
A lot of what is done in a business—launching a new website or blog, attending a training event, speaking at a conference, volunteering—can become newsworthy. Press releases announcing news related to a business should be a recurring touch point.
Printed Collateral Materials
Start with the product or company brochure. Even in these days of e-communications, a hard-copy brochure remains a great item to push across a desk. A brief email version of the brochure is good for rapid first responses, and saves a lot of money on overnight delivery charges. For this same reason, a newsletter is a great means of tickling customers.
Promotional products on hand—such as shirts, baseball caps, pens, posters, calendars or refrigerator magnets—can also contribute to brand image.
Reports and/or Sales Communications
A generic pre-printed folder in which information can be packaged conveys a quality look and contributes to brand image.
Salespeople, Sales and Service
An organization is only as good as the impression provided by its independent contractors and other representatives.
Everything a direct sales person does in social media—from blogging, to commenting on blogs, to posting on Twitter, to creating a Facebook fan page, to connecting with colleagues on LinkedIn—contributes to the direct seller’s online brand image.
We all have a website for our business, but the website must tell a potential customer what they want to know and provide a way to engage current customers. The more fresh and valuable the website is, the more it will be visited and referred to by other customers.
Webinars and Teleclasses
Free online events can give a direct sales person a way to share knowledge and create a touch point that promotes products or the business by demonstrating expertise.
Larry Chonko is the Thomas McMahon Professor in Business Ethics at the University of Texas at Arlington.