Are We There?

I do not remember exactly when I first heard the question: Are we there? My memory is of a television commercial many years ago with two kids in the back seat of a car constantly asking their parents that very question.

The question is indeed an excellent one. It is full of anticipation and excitement for the arrival at a destination that is perceived to bring great joy. I have often asked myself the same question when thinking about the completion of a project, progress toward a goal and even the collective advancement of our direct selling community. Are we there? Have we arrived at that moment in time when marketplace perception is more than favorable and brings with it preferred entrepreneurial choices, an excellent customer service proposition, and unsurpassed use of technology to support independent contractors and customers? The list goes on. However, the preceding provides a glimpse into the thoughts of all of us who embrace and advocate direct selling as a channel of distribution.

Are we there yet? I think we are there simply because we must arrive at our destinations in our own mental community and feel like we are there, before we can make it a reality. The kids in the back seat of that car had a clear vision of what it was going to be like when they arrived at their destination, regardless of whether it was the home of relatives or an amusement park. The enthusiasm for the destination is what triggered the question.

Having observed this channel of distribution for many years, I do think we are there. I think we have arrived at a moment in time when we know our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. My thoughts are not based on recent financial information or company results, but instead are based on our collective experience as a channel of distribution. I believe we are gaining a clearer understanding of how we can improve marketplace perceptions and compete successfully in the gig economy. Improved perception will be the result of our collective marketing as individual companies as well as our channel as a whole. We know why some negative perceptions have existed and what is expected of our channel of distribution. Perhaps, the biggest lesson we have learned over the past few years is that it is not enough to simply say we sell and service customers through an organization of independent contractors. We must demonstrate that real customer acquisition is at the forefront of our business-building activities.

Having observed this channel of distribution for many years, I do think we are there. I think we have arrived at a moment in time when we know our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

We can choose the language that positions our brands, products, services and business opportunities. We have more capability and marketing savvy than ever because of the emergence of digital marketing and technology tools we never envisioned 15 short years ago. Our capabilities around brand-positioning are so very competitive and powerful. Direct selling companies can compete with giant brands when digital marketing is used effectively with the additional ingredient that independent contractors bring to the marketing mix—energy, enthusiasm, belief, authenticity and credibility. Today, we design and control our brand positioning more effectively than at any time in the history of the channel.

The business opportunities offered by companies who utilize the direct selling channel, regardless of preferred description—social selling, social entrepreneurship, networker, party plan, direct selling—do not separate us from the common denominator that binds us all. This channel of distribution engages independent contractors who become a primary link between company and consumer. Independent contractors are rewarded for customer acquisition and for attracting and helping other independent contractors succeed in their efforts to acquire customers. The rewards for those who invest time in learning and applying new skills is simply exciting, and the ease of entry is considered one of the most unique attributes of our business model.

Over the past two years, I have observed the phenomena of Uber. I also have interviewed more than 100 Uber drivers. Their primary reason for driving is flexibility and ease of entry. Uber drivers do not appear to receive a promise of income, only the promise of an opportunity to earn an income in proportion to time and effort invested. Uber drivers are equipped with basically one piece of technology, receive virtually no training, and they are in business. They also are rated by their customers immediately after they render their service, so only those who deliver excellence will survive. Uber created a simple model that disrupted the way we look at local transportation services. What is the purpose of this anecdote? Direct selling companies offer a better opportunity. However, there may be a lesson to learn from the Uber model. The evaluation and rating of the Uber driver by customers serves a valuable purpose. It represents and demonstrates how a simple evaluation by the consumer being served supports the desired behavior of the person delivering the service.

Websites, once thought to be a threat to direct selling, are now a basic staple to the channel, especially personalized websites that an independent contractor can have up and running within hours of engagement with the company of their choice. Some companies also support their independent contractors with landing pages and apps that allow those individuals to promote specific products to a targeted audience who can quickly learn about the products and make a purchase. Technology has empowered direct selling companies to present a more consistent message and professional presentation. Technology has not become a threat. Technology is a powerful asset when utilized effectively.

Direct selling companies overall have kept pace with the advancements in technology, and some are on the leading edge of how technology can serve the current marketplace. Direct selling companies that have kept pace utilize technology as well as any retailer, including Amazon. A rapidly growing segment of consumers is becoming more and more reliant upon technological tools as their primary and preferred method for purchasing products and services. For this very reason, keeping pace with and using technology effectively is an essential component of success when using direct selling as a channel of distribution.

Today, we can let the consumer know through an app if the product is in stock and when it will ship. No more waiting weeks for delivery. Companies providing a service as their product can now enable customers to complete their application process within minutes, a process that formerly took days. Is it possible for a direct selling company to provide the consumer with real-time product status, ship within hours and provide 99 percent order fulfillment and accuracy? Yes, this is possible, and it is happening within direct selling companies. This is another reason why I think we are there.

I should add that being there still takes good decision making, marketing and positioning that resonates with the marketplace. It also takes an impeccable ethical standard, excellence in leadership, profitability, good resource allocation, excellence in communication and excellence in execution of strategy. What is different is the availability of tools that would have been considered dreams less than 10 years ago. The tools are dominated by new and innovative technology; however, print remains relevant, and innovative design for literature and kits continues to make impressive first impressions. Print also has been impacted by technology making print-on-demand our new reality for sales collateral that once occupied much space in the warehouse. Chances are, you are reading this article in the print format because print is still a preferred choice for certain types of information.

Over the past 10 years, we have experienced exponential growth in technology and we should expect the same over the next 10 years. Access to everything important will become easier and faster. Most interesting is the fact that direct sellers are now using much of the same technology the retail competition is using. Retail competition is no longer the big gorilla that once overshadowed the attributes delivered by a direct selling company—personalized and caring service delivered in a fun, sometimes entertaining, manner, which offers information and education not found in traditional retail channel. These strong attributes remain a direct selling company’s competitive advantage, and today this advantage is even stronger because it is supported with technology.

I am personally of the opinion that we are there. We know from the experiences of the past few years what is smart when it comes to strategies and tactics. We know the importance of real customers and not overpromising on expectations, be they product claims or the potential associated with the business opportunity. We have arrived at a great time when the tools available have never been greater and our access is the same as the competition. We know the importance of an impeccable ethical standard for our companies and all independent contractors who are the ambassadors of the corporate brand. Analytics and analysis of historical performance as well as the ability to predict future performance based on desired behaviors has never been greater. We have a rich and historical experience in serving others in a personal manner, and we are better than ever before—or at least we can be.

We are there!

John Fleming

DSN Ambassador John Fleming, a retired direct selling executive and former Publisher/Editor in Chief of Direct Selling News, is the Direct Selling Association’s 2016 Hall of Fame Honoree and 2016 Direct Selling News Lifetime Achiever.