Active listening, collaboration and knowing your role.
With consumer sophistication growing, how and where customers buy products and services depends on meaningful and authentic interactions with brands. In the case of direct selling, these interactions often come down to one-on-one contact with independent distributors.
Active listening is key to connecting with today’s consumer and, Tony Jeary, author and Direct Selling News columnist, says that companies need to think strategically about training distributors in active listening.
Prospects want to feel they’ve been heard. They want to know products or services apply to them and their world and their vision of success. They also want to see their values, goals and priorities reflected back to them from their teammates, Jeary wrote in January’s issue.
So Jeary’s advice begs another question—If listening is key to prospect and consumer relationships, why not capitalize on active listening to strengthen the relationship between corporate and their independent sales force? They are, after all, the collective engine that makes the company run.
“Input can bridge understanding gaps, provide diversity of thought, and even prevent costly mistakes.”
Organizations are quick to measure employee engagement and satisfaction. Winning companies listen to that feedback and treat the employee/corporate relationship as reciprocal. It’s not one-sided. Rather, it’s about perpetuating the momentum of each part.
“Reciprocity is key; cultivating wisdom requires being in touch with what matters most to your employees and giving them the room to express their opinions and put their ideas to the test,” writes Glenn Llopis, business strategist and author of The Innovation Mentality.
A Legit Line
While independent distributors are not employees per se, much of a direct selling company’s success or failure rests on their shoulders. They are collaborators with corporate and to forgo a legit line of communication with this collective would be a mistake.
How best to open and manage this line of communication with the sales field is a matter of debate across the industry, but most direct selling executives agree it is valuable. Input can bridge understanding gaps, provide diversity of thought, and even prevent costly mistakes.
Direct Selling News asked several industry executives about the pros and cons of creating a designated field council for this purpose, as well as alternative methods for gaining sales field input. We listened, took copious notes and now combine some of their anonymous comments to provide insight into a sometimes fraught but always educational process.
“Field councils can also suck time and inadvertently morph top field leaders into bureaucrats, distracting them from building their businesses.”
The Field Council
The field council is a formal group of independent distributors representing either a specific market or entire direct selling company’s sales field. Requirements to participate vary, as do individual roles and responsibilities.
The debate about the value and effectiveness of the field council is ongoing. They can give the sales field a voice in the planning and actions of the company, create buy-in and feelings of ownership, allow the field to work smarter and more efficiently, and save corporate from costly product or programming mistakes.
However, field councils can also suck time and inadvertently morph top field leaders into bureaucrats, distracting them from building their businesses. Sometimes it causes the field to mistakenly believe they are corporate decision-makers, causing friction between them and the executive team who are charged with running the company.
Optimizing The Field Council
Opening and optimizing a legitimate and effective line of communication can be two different things. From inception, companies should define the field council’s purpose and overarching role of participants. It is wise to make it clear that the field council plays an advisory role and is not a decisionmaking group.
Some companies find the field council works best when members are “green and growing, rather than ripe to rotten.” When legacy distributors dominate a larger, broader council, they can limit diversity of thought and choke off necessary input from newer generations of independent distributors.
Some companies avoid this by forgoing participation or rank qualifications altogether. Corporate handpicks individuals and assigns specific roles to everyone on the council. This can prevent a “moan and groan” climate and encourages members to report in only on their roles.
Other companies establish the field council based on meritocracy, rotating distributors every 18 months, to help curb confusion about the council’s role and improve diversity of thought.
“Make it clear that the field council plays an advisory role and is not a decision-making group.”
While smaller, market-specific field advisory boards commonly meet with general managers, upper level executives can have closer contact with the broader field council. This can be problematic for CEOs, whose comments may be misconstrued, misrepresented or even shared broadly as one-on-one consults with top leadership. Some executives steer clear of field council meetings for this reason.
Utilizing field councils effectively comes down to direct selling companies driving the process. As one top CEO put it, “Stop letting the tail wag the dog.”
The field council often gets the first glimpse at new products or programs generated by corporate. Employees seek initial buy-in to ensure overall field success. They may also look to the field council for new ideas.
However, the field council always seems to want a faster horse. They may think they know what they want or need, but they may not be qualified to accurately assess that need. This can be a dangerous path. It’s the responsibility of the company to create more than a to-do list from field council input.
As such, companies can bring field councils together for candid planning sessions, held off-site and in confidence. They can create a corporate culture and meeting atmosphere that gives voice to sales field concerns and helps them recognize and strategize about broader field issues and trends. At all costs, avoid meetings that devolve into, “This is what the company needs to do.” Instead ask, “What are you doing as a leader to address these issues?”
While field input is vital, some companies opt out of the formal field council. They believe the process leaves little time for actual work, and say that is not advantageous to anyone. Instead, ranking distributors participate in information calls before major program rollouts. Corporate wants them to “punch holes” through plans and ask questions early on, so there is clarity when a program begins. They also reserve the right to un-invite those who break confidentiality.
Other companies utilize anonymous sales field feedback, believing it encourages greater candor, thoughtfulness, and transparency than face-to-face encounters. Anonymity also dissolves concerns about hierarchy that can keep lower-ranking field council members silent. It also ensures no one voice carries the day.
One example is a system, whereby distributors share topics via Post-it Notes placed on a digital wall. Sheer numbers tell corporate what field topics need attention. It’s also a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) exercise that enables people to post and push, what and when they want. For example, “Here’s corporate’s plan to increase enrollments. Give us your ten best ideas to accomplish this.”
“Today’s consumers want more than a transactional relationship with a brand, independent distributors want something more and can give value beyond their selling abilities.”
In much the same way today’s consumers want more than a transactional relationship with a brand, independent distributors—immersed in the daily rituals of product sales, recruitment and running a business—want something more and can give value beyond their selling abilities. Direct selling companies are wise to seek reciprocity and collaboration from their sales fields.
Success is a collaborative effort, and it’s important to remember that collaboration is perpetual and neverending. Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization, writes, “When going down the collaboration road within your organization, it’s important to make employees a part of the decision-making process from step one. Listen to their ideas, their needs, and their suggestions and integrate their feedback in your technology and strategy.”