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July 01, 2011

Cover Story

Technology and Customer Service

by Teresa Day and J.M. Emmert


Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.


“The customer is always right.”

DSN July issueThis saying is credited to retailer Marshall Fields, whose eponymous store in Chicago became known for unheard-of customer policies such as unconditional refunds. Fields is also credited with saying, “Give the lady what she wants!”—another maxim that sums up the ideal of putting the customer first.

Of course, Fields didn’t really believe the customer was always right. The concept was not even about whether the customer was actually right or wrong: it was about making the customer feel special. What’s lost to history are those influences that shaped Fields’ thoughts on the matter. Perhaps he had contact with the already numerous individuals demonstrating exceptional customer service through the direct selling business model, which by the time the first Marshall Fields department store was built, had already been thriving for more than 50 years.

What direct sellers embodied with their personal contact with customers so many years ago continues to be the preference of shoppers: “I am right!” and “Give me what I want!” 

Today the customer is still right. But she is also smarter, more proactive and more expecting of a high level of service and responsiveness from companies with which she does business. Her expectations are fueled by improvements made to the customer experience through technology—apps, smartphones, software, mobile devices, online services and more. It comes as no surprise that as technology raises the bar on customer service, expectations rise.

In fact, the customer service experience is even more important now, with the proliferation of businesses providing similar goods and services for purchase. Since products can be found in multiple sources, what will be the distinguishing factor in today’s economy? The customer experience is still key to attracting and keeping customers, both internal (distributors) and external (end consumer). Companies that meet the rising service expectations with exceptional customer experiences will fuel their growth.

Raising the Bar

Technology has raised the bar for all types of sellers concerning the customer experience and expectations of high service levels. It has even affected the way in which we purchase goods and services, setting new standards for the buying process as well.

Direct selling companies are already leaps and bounds ahead of traditional stores and online businesses in the customer service arena because of the basic relational nature of the direct selling business model. For more than 150 years, paying attention to customer needs and wants has been foundational to how a direct selling business operates. Technology simply gives the direct sellers more leverage to meet—and exceed—customer expectations.

Those direct selling companies focusing on technological development, with particular emphasis on systems that support customer-centric initiatives, are both attracting and keeping customers and therefore, growing in business. 

A recent study conducted by the Keller Fay Group, a word-of-mouth research and consulting group, and Google addresses the effects of the Internet and mobile devices on conversations about brands. Interestingly, though the Internet is the chief source of information motivating conversations, a whopping 82 percent of word-of-mouth dialog still occurs face-to-face. 

This data would seem to confirm what direct sellers have always known—the power of the individual relationship and the commerce that can grow out of it.

Just as compelling, however, is whether or not direct selling companies will invest in technological advancements that bridge the gap between what they already do well and the way customers prefer to receive product information and make buying decisions—thus keeping their lead in the customer’s mindshare.

ViSalus Sciences, a young direct selling company experiencing excellent growth, has integrated Vi-Net, its automated marketing system, with Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, creating what the company refers to as its “private Facebook.” 

Committed to providing amazing customer service experiences, ViSalus leverages technological advances and makes them user-friendly. Doing so, it taps into consumer preferences for receiving and sharing information. 

Vi-Net has a front-end marketing system that provides simple and attractive websites for distributors that captures visitors’ information and automatically follows up with them. 

Additionally, distributors can access their sales and genealogy reports, training videos and information and other online tools to promote their businesses. 

Possibly the most powerful part of Vi-Net is the integration of “social networking” and “network marketing,” which bridges the gap between the two worlds.  Executives at ViSalus post videos on Facebook regularly with content that distributors can share with their networks. This creative approach to the use of technology has also attracted what executives describe as “youthful energy.”

Florida-based direct selling company Team National, which offers a wide variety of products and services across 20 industries, is also taking a proactive stance on enhancing their customer experience with technology. Andres Forero, Vice President of Information Technology at the company, says, “With the advances in technology, it’s amazing how many different ways you can impact the customer service experience. We are launching tablet and smartphone applications, using touch-screens in our showroom and using applications to increase the quality of our websites.”

Team National has made the decision many direct selling companies have made: to move ahead with a hefty investment in technology in order to keep its business customer-centric. “We are only limited by the time we have to implement technology to better our customer experience,” says Forero.

Increasing the Speed of Business

Increasing the Speed of Business

The direct selling industry has flourished over the years with its own definitions of mobility and social networking. With new technologies moving these experiences into cyberspace and virtual reality, the industry is getting stronger by the app as the link between consumer, distributor and home office tightens. Whether on the go, out in the field or behind the desk, direct sellers can literally meet customers “where they are,” no matter where “there” happens to be.

Technology provides speed—speed to engage customers in new ways, to present marketing messages and to turn conversations into business transactions. Direct selling companies embracing these practices are embracing the future, and because of it, can expect to grow. With the use of online applications or smartphone apps, distributors can maintain and broaden their business portfolio from anywhere in the world. Customers are at their fingertips 24 hours a day. Within moments of a customer purchase, a distributor can be notified and quickly follow up with an e-mail or text message.

Distributors have always been the brand partners to direct selling companies, and today, with the new tools of technology enabling them to reach across geographic divides, they are brand ambassadors as well, helping to build reputation and duplicable results throughout the world.

A distributor can reach a company’s back office quickly and easily with iPhones, laptops and of course, traditional desktops. Sales figures, financial reports, customer buying trends, commissions and updated inventories are at the ready. 

And all without any paperwork.

Providing Real-Time Business Data

In the past two years, Herbalife, Ltd., which sells weight-management, nutritional supplements and personal-care products, has focused on building its data analytics package so that distributors can get real-time business data. “There is almost nothing that Herbalife’s distributors can’t access on line,” says Chris Morris, Vice President of Distributor Technology Strategy. “Mobile technology has been a focus, both device resident applications and mobile versions of our traditional Internet properties.”

The company has also streamlined its primary distributor portal to both standardize what tools are available globally and make it easier to navigate through massive amounts of online content. Recently, Herbalife has focused on building out tools that allow its distributors to better support their end customers, which in turn leads to a more satisfying customer experience. Morris says that distributors in each of the company’s global markets have input into the adaptation of these tools, which are specifically tailored for their needs.

Empowering the Salesforce

Empowering the Salesforce

Direct selling companies focus on making their technological advances available to their independent business owners at little or no cost. This “tech sharing” levels the playing field between small home-based entrepreneurs and large, well-funded corporations, creating an advantage for the home-based entrepreneur that simply didn’t exist a few years ago.

Primerica, the largest independent financial services marketing company in North America, has been a trendsetter in technological applications over the past six years, rolling out new apps and platforms that give its agents power in the field to access critical data anytime, anywhere.

Since teaming with Palm, Inc. in 2005 to develop TurboApps, the company’s licensed representatives can manage insurance applications on hand-held devices, eliminating the mountains of paperwork once needed. 

Before rolling out TurboApps, Primerica representatives mailed in more than 30,000 life insurance applications per month and more than 18,000 loan applications. Not only did TurboApps eliminate all of the paperwork, but it also improved the accuracy of filings. Electronic client applications can now be processed quickly and easily.

Additionally, the software runs complicated database checks that not only allow clients to become insured sooner, but also help agents receive commissions earlier.

TurboApps caught immediate attention from the techno world, garnering Computerworld’s Best Practices in Mobile & Wireless Award for “Business Evolution through Mobilizing Field Workers.” The app was also a Computerworld’s 2007 Honors finalist. In 2009, TurboApps went mobile, empowering Primerica’s agents to do business on the go with one-touch smartphone technology. 

Since then, Primerica has developed Client Portal and Primerica Ring to even further enhance client–agent relations. With Client Portal, the company’s 2.4 million clients can access their products, accounts and Primerica contact information through a free, single sign-on Web portal. Primerica Ring is a video and Web collaboration system that enables agents to interact with other representatives and clients no matter where they are. The system can connect multiple recipients using high-speed Internet connections and Web cams.

“With Primerica, the more people you see, the more people you can help,” Senior Vice President David Lipsit says. “Primerica Ring has been great for me because I can train representatives via video conferencing. I can also have top leaders in the company dial in to give motivational presentations to my team without the leaders ever leaving their homes or offices.”

In May, Primerica gave its agents an additional burst of speed by bringing on a new mainframe to run its core business applications. The new zEnterprise is reducing the time it takes Primerica agents to initiate insurance and other types of financial accounts from days to minutes. Agents using smartphones can upload client records directly to the mainframe server, again eliminating both time and, maybe more importantly, paperwork.

Herbalife also utilizes Web-based meetings that offer both flexibility and power to bring distributors together with the home office. Company leaders can communicate more effectively with distributors by having them watch and listen to presentations, rather than pouring through documents after the fact. As an excellent by-product, the company also uses recordings of the meetings to build its resource library.

“We are a big believer in the power of Web-based meetings,” Morris says. “The technology available to us today allows us to conduct these meetings effectively with participants around the globe. Many of these sessions are recorded so that distributors can access them at a time and place that is convenient for them.”

Going Mobile with Traditional Customer Service

Companies investing in their customer service experience are also implementing new ideas for their internal staff. Some companies are restructuring their internal customer support operations entirely to better support both distributors and end customers.

Eighteen months ago, MonaVie implemented a remote, work-at-home model to assist customer service representatives in maintaining the company’s high customer service expectations. Customer service reps work at home and have complete access to the company’s ordering and shipping systems just as if they were sitting at the home office.

“Our work-at-home program allows us to attract and retain highly skilled, committed customer service representatives who might not have otherwise considered a career in customer service,” says Jake Larsen, MonaVie’s Director of the Contact Center. “The lure of working at home in a rewarding position translates into representatives who are grateful for the opportunity and love what they do. These representatives, in turn, deliver exceptional customer service.”

All of MonaVie’s programs are intended to support the relationship between the independent distributors, their downlines and their customers. While the company will always be ready and available to assist, says Larsen, all of their efforts are structured to complement the independence of the business owner.

 Amway offers a complete mobile business solution to its independent business owners that makes the entire world available through smartphone and iPhone technology. Many futurists believe smartphone apps will dominate tech applications in the near future, and those companies that stay on the leading edge of technology will create their own advantage. 

Already ahead of the game in November 2009, Amway launched an iPhone app that provided ordering capabilities as well as product and sales support for its North American market, which last year had an estimated $912 million in online sales. The app could be downloaded for free, and allowed Amway distributors access to multiple functions, including a complete product catalog, videos on product information and the ability to place orders, all with or without an Internet connection. A year after its introduction, the app won the U.S. Direct Selling Association’s Technology Innovation Award.

Amway also rolled out a new Web-commerce platform in 2010. Jenie Altruda, Amway spokesperson, said Amway’s platform offers a mobile business solution—personal retail website templates that allow IBOs to set up independent store fronts and a business center dashboard where the back office can be managed from Amway.com. The company hints that plans for an Android app are in the works, with an update to be given later this year.

Amway provides its IBOs with access to the company’s brand videos, a library of original videos and podcasts that can be shown to customers or enhance sales training. The company also provides dozens of free online and DVD training courses in five languages. Approximately 200,000 people signed up for the courses last year, completing about a half-million classroom sessions in 2010.

Transferring Knowledge More Effectively

Direct selling companies have typically been known for providing consumers with valuable education about the products and services they provide. In the past, customer service representatives in the home office were responsible for understanding all of the features and benefits associated with the products and services being sold. Today, technology allows a company to equip the home office team with Web-based tools—that are also made available to distributors and even customers—that effectively duplicate important information and messages directly to the salesforce and consumer.

XANGO, the nutrition company that markets its premium mangosteen beverage XANGO® Juice to consumers worldwide, is powered by a global network of nearly one million independent distributors in the United States and more than 30 international markets. To support distributors in creating exceptional customer service experiences, the company is using several smartphone and mobile applications.

“XANGO produces products that require more than a cursory understanding of how they benefit the consumer,” says Jeff Chandler, Director of Corporate Communications for XANGO. “Our customer service agents need to have in-depth product knowledge to help educate distributors and answer their questions succinctly and professionally.”  In the past, challenges associated with what Chandler describes would handicap a company’s ability to capture both distributors and customers quickly and effectively. Today, the use of technology through smartphones and applications enables the most complex products and services to be explained and purchased with ease. In short, applications are telling the story.

XANGO has also engaged its internal customer service staff remotely. Chandler believes that the longer a customer service representative stays with XANGO, the better equipped that rep will be to answer questions and resolve customer problems, thus contributing to a better experience. By allowing staff to work remotely from home, Chandler says, “we hope to gain their loyalty and longevity with the company. Everyone wins.”

The Direct Selling Competitive Advantage

Putting a quantitative number of how apps, smartphones and other advancements may have fueled business growth is difficult for companies, but nearly everyone can agree investments in technology are a must in today’s frenetic-paced world. Everyone can also agree that technology is best used when it supports the foundational person-to-person connection in a direct selling relationship. 

Because of this connection, direct sellers don’t have to rely on the “if you build it, they will come” approach to technology. Companies that understand and value this basic principle will lead the way in growth.

Amway is the second largest direct selling company in the world and understands this principle completely. “Our e-commerce site and supporting technology make the customer and independent business owner (IBO) experiences easier than ever before, but can never replace the value the independent business owner brings to the equation,” says Altruda.

Altruda emphasizes that IBOs bring a personal, customized touch through their extensive product knowledge and business experience. They also help customers identify what products are the best fit for them based on needs, explain product features and benefits, assist with the ordering process, answer any questions and follow up to ensure customer satisfaction.

Utilizing social media is another important way to engage customers in a broader and more satisfying customer experience. Vemma Nutrition Co. Founder and CEO BK Boreyko considers himself a bit of a social media junkie. Part of his daily routine in running the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nutrition company is tweeting. A colleague told him recently that there is probably no other CEO in the world who tweets as much as Boreyko. In fact, if you google BK, his Twitter page appears as the third or fourth link.

While recently mulling the proposed color scheme for Vemma’s new 52,000-square-foot headquarters in Tempe, Boreyko decided to solicit some feedback from the masses. He asked his Twitter followers if the big orange “box” at the back of the building was “over the top.”

Boreyko’s use of technology brings all in the Vemma network into the decision-making process, extending ownership of the decision and engaging others in a manner not possible 10 years ago. He believes social media is a necessary tool in building not only a strong customer following but also an equally forcible customer service program. To that end, Vemma has its own social media manager, who monitors and communicates through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Boreyko is sensitive to perceptions that buying and selling over the Internet can become too impersonal—so much so that he hired a copy writer to detail in written form product offerings to enhance the buying experience. While reading about Vemma’s products, customers may learn that Queen Victoria longed for mangosteen, a fabled fruit that had been used for centuries by Asian health practitioners for its nutritional benefits. (She never got to taste it, so the story goes.)

“I think a lot of customers and brand partners love that,” Boreyko said. “As you go through the Web site, you’ll see that the copy is more conversational.”

Next up is a way to making the point of purchase even more mobile and hassle-free with frictionless payment, by which a consumer can use his or her cell phone number to pay for goods. How does it work? At checkout, the consumer clicks an app and a payment screen pops up. The mobile number is entered, usually followed by a secure PIN code, and a credit card on file or bank account number is automatically billed. The transaction takes mere seconds. The payment method is still in its infancy, but Vemma is exploring options to get on board with it.

Investing in Forward Thinking

Investing in Forward Thinking

The e-commerce channel is estimated to reach $300 billion in the United States alone by the end of 2012. Each interaction has the potential to create a brilliant and exceptional customer experience, or a frustrating and inferior one. A company’s investment in forward-thinking technology could largely determine the outcome of that experience. Companies unwilling to risk the frustrating and inferior experience are making room in their budgets for the software and new tools that will ensure a superior customer experience.

Dan Macuga, Vice President of Marketing and Social Media at USANA, which sells nutritional, personal-care and weight-management products, says that utilizing technology correctly and efficiently creates a better, easier and more satisfying experience for both customers and distributors. “That’s why we stay on the cutting edge of technological advances—so we can best provide the quality service our customers have come to expect from us.”

From USANA’s perspective, according to Macuga, in every avenue available—whether corporate and distributor websites, e-mail campaigns, social media updates, shopping cart upgrades or specialized communication efforts—technology is utilized to improve the effectiveness of USANA’s customer service as a whole.

Today’s consumer is “self-empowered” as a result of quick access to not only products and services but information as well. Companies who stay on the forefront of conveying information in a friendly, personable and trustworthy manner have better access to individuals they can convert to both representatives and customers.

Technology is an enabler, and used well, enables direct selling companies to stay in tune with consumers. Capturing the attention and the loyalty of customers has always been the priority of businesses that expect to experience longevity. New advances are helping direct selling companies create strategies to capture the mindshare of consumers. The combination of social media technology, more effective ways to present and communicate, better-than-ever tools to manage the home-based business and the direct selling business model, packaged in smart tools and applications is the new opportunity for direct selling companies. Investing in technology is certainly not an option.


Tim Blackwell contributed to this report.