It’s never been more important to clarify your messaging while meeting the unfulfilled needs of your customers and distributors.
Ask any Chief Marketing Officer who’s most important to the business, and she’ll say the customer—or, in the case of direct sales, the distributor and the customer. Was there any doubt? What we say and what we do, however, may be at odds. For proof, look no further than the marketing messages of any company who’s having a tough time attracting and retaining customers. Do those messages put the customer (and the independent distributor) at the center of the universe, or is the company the real star here? If your marketing message isn’t clear and concise, the simple truth is no one will listen to what your website or independent distributors have to say, because the human brain is drawn toward clarity and away from confusion.
“If your message doesn’t resonate and connect with your customers’ unfulfilled needs, it becomes part of the noise.”
At no time in our collective history have we been inundated with as much extraneous information as we are today. However, we’re not passive recipients of this deluge. Quite the opposite. Deloitte’s 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: U.S. edition found that the average U.S. consumer checks his or her smartphone 47 times a day. For millennials, that number skyrockets to an average of 86 times a day. Collectively, the estimated 264 million Americans who own smartphones are checking them more than 12 billion times a day.
Before we go any further, let’s define whom we’re talking about when we say “customer.” Within the direct sales space, of course, the term “customer” can mean different things. It can be a customer of an independent distributor, the distributor themselves, and a preferred customer. So, for the sake of brevity, when I use “customer” or “consumer,” I’m referring to all three. And when referring to the needs and wants of the customer, I am also talking about the unique needs and wants of the distributor when it comes to building a business.
Solving Unfulfilled Needs
When a company is bringing a new product to market, the temptation may be to promote how incredible the product is—how it incorporates the latest science and technology, how it works better than the competition, or how it’s priced competitively. Those are all important details to be sure, but haven’t we heard that story before? Where’s the message about delivering on the customer’s unfulfilled needs in all of that product-speak? Truth be told, no one cares about your company story; consumers and distributors care about their own. Companies who are winning are establishing a healthy lead in the marketplace simply by identifying what their customers want and how their products and services will deliver on those needs.
With all of this opportunity for distraction, competition for our attention has never been fiercer. How on earth is a company supposed to peel consumers’ eyes away from those cat videos long enough to get their messages across? How do they not only get our attention but sustain it? More important, how do they convince us to make a purchase? And, most crucial, how do they gain that most coveted prize—our loyalty—so we’ll purchase from them again and again? It might seem counterintuitive, but simplicity can be an effective strategy for cutting through the noise.
A pared-down message stands out in a sea of excess, and it’s easy to remember and repeat. Given that humans process images much faster than they do text; visuals, too, are an extremely effective tool for marketers. In fact, when people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10 percent of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65 percent* of the information three days later. Relevancy is everything. If your message doesn’t resonate and connect with your customers’ unfulfilled needs, it becomes part of the noise. Creating that relevancy is a bit of an art. Sometimes, consumers aren’t aware that they have a need until you bring it to their attention.
But most important: Companies have to invest the time and effort necessary to know their customers. And that starts long before they actually want to sell them something.
Building the Relationship
In the past, the responsibility for maintaining communication with the customer mostly fell solely on the distributor, but now with the new regulatory reality, many companies are now taking a bigger role in helping engage with customers. In a past DSN cover story last year titled “Defining Distributors Versus Customers,” Direct Selling Association President Joseph Mariano said, “Direct sellers have always felt a special responsibility to their salespeople and customers.” “So, it only makes sense that the next step in the evolution of our business model is an even greater awareness of the ultimate consumers of our products.”
Modern consumers may be a distracted bunch, but the good news is that we’ve never had more tools at our disposal for engaging them than we do right now. Becoming a customer/distributor-first company isn’t a one-and-done pursuit. Customers are constantly evolving, adapting to new technologies and reshaping their buying preferences. To know and understand their customers, then, companies must maintain communication with them before, during and long after the purchase.
“Truth be told, no one cares about your company story; consumers and distributors care about their own.”
One of the most effective methods for building customer relationships often happens on social media, where brands build online communities not by sending customers to the online ordering page, but instead providing content of genuine value. The idea is to get customers to engage with each other as well as the brand. Over time, those community members may become loyal brand advocates. Should your company ever encounter a crisis—for example, an issue related to product quality or an incident in the field—your brand advocates are likely to speak up on your behalf, which can provide a buffer and some damage control.
Online communities also make it possible for brands to hear directly from consumers and problems quickly. However, a minor issue can easily mushroom into a full-blown reputational crisis if a company doesn’t monitor its online communities and address customer satisfaction issues immediately. Those companies who do take action right away, however, have the opportunity to provide exceptional service in a public forum. Peer reviews and recommendations carry significant weight in our current marketplace and can go viral very quickly, so in every sense, it’s to the company’s advantage to go the extra mile.
“It’s harder, but it’s also easier to correspond with consumers today,” says Vice President of Marketing, Strategy & Solutions for Princess House Victoria Vilbrandt. “It’s harder because information is coming at them from all angles, and to an extent that we don’t necessarily have control of the brand message anymore. It’s easier because consumers are constantly communicating and sharing their needs and wants, so as a brand we have an opportunity to respond and connect with them. They’re letting us know when we’re doing things right, but at the same time, they’re telling us when we’ve missed the mark. That instance gives us the opportunity to be the hero—we can fix it, and now we’ve got the chance to make that customer happy, who in turn will be sharing their experience with others. That’s information and a brand experience we would never have had otherwise. It keeps us on our toes.”
The Art of Storytelling
Seventy-seven percent of consumers have chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides a personalized service or experience, according to Forrester Research. Savvy marketers do just that by making the customer the center of their universe.
A “customer-centric” philosophy depends in large part upon storytelling or creating a narrative in which the customer can see himself. To attract attention and cut through the noise, companies must communicate in the simplest of terms how each of their products addresses a specific and pressing human need—and do it in a way that resonates not for a mass audience, but rather on an individual level.
The first step toward effective storytelling, of course, is knowing thy customer. What are her pain points? The typical story includes friction or some sort of problem the main character or characters are trying to resolve. Tension ensues as the protagonist seeks resolution. For marketers, of course, the product delivers that resolution effortlessly. Clarity of message delivery is an absolute must. If the story confuses the customer, there’s no second chance to explain it to her.
Where some companies get off track is the “product is the resolution” phase. They present their product, their company, themselves as the superhero who swoops in and saves the day. However, it’s not about the company; it’s about the customer. The trick to effective storytelling, then, is keeping the customer at the forefront—making the customer the superhero. The brand’s role in giving that customer his or her superpowers is understood, but not said overtly.
Knowing your own company’s values and purpose may be the most critical foundation for any successful story. “It’s easy for us to get caught up corporately in what we need and forget what the field needs, and for field members to forget what their customers need,” says CEO and Founder of Damsel in Defense Mindy Lin. Her company’s mission is to equip, empower and educate women to protect themselves and their families. “We have to step back and evaluate what the company, the field and especially their customers need so we don’t lose sight of where they’re at.” Approximately 78 percent of Damsel’s independent sales force has had direct and personal experience with sexual assault. They lead with their mission, and as a result, their field is comprised of assault survivors who have discovered healing through their alignment with the company and its mission. “New consultants may come to the company as victims, but soon discover a community of survivors,” Lin adds. “They find healing and purpose, take tragedies and turn them into triumphs.”
“We have to step back and evaluate what the company, the field and especially their customers need so we don’t lose sight of where they’re at.”
— Mindy Lin, CEO and Founder of Damsel in Defense
“Stories need to be relevant to the customer, but also be grounded in a deep understanding of the company knowing who they are and what the brand represents,” says Chief Marketing Officer for Scentsy Mark Stastny. “This only works if a company has a clear brand strategy. Foundational to customer-oriented marketing is companies knowing who they are. You don’t want to put that in your customers’ faces constantly, but it’s a backdrop—a consistent and familiar drumbeat that allows customers to decide whether they want to engage with the company or not.”
Data also drives storytelling, enabling marketers to test, tweak and carefully track the success of their messaging and analyze customers’ next steps.
“We constantly watch open rates of emails, opt-outs, bounce backs, track responses via social media, and count participation on group calls,” says President of Sales and Marketing at Plexus Worldwide Janice Jackson. “We’re careful to avoid marketing fatigue of our customers. Our goal is to do more of what works well and do less of what isn’t working. We track conversions from our marketing and communication channels to help make better business decisions and to better tailor our messaging.”
Distributors are Also Storytellers
Another reason why simplicity in marketing is so important: The field is passing your message along to their own customers. The more complex the story, the more likely consultants are to lose potential sales as the message becomes diluted—much like the proverbial game of “telephone.”
At Scentsy, marketing employees aren’t the only ones analyzing data to determine the success of campaigns. “We’re training consultants to do that on their own behalf—to mine customer data and market products to their customers with better results,” Stastny says, adding that company’s focus is on the conversion of first-time customers to second-time customers, and, ultimately, to recurring or subscription-based customers.
“In my mind, it all comes down to the product we’re offering,” Lin says. “The statistics don’t discriminate between the customer and the distributor. The mission we’ve set out before us is all about protecting people. When we’re assessing who needs our products, if you can fog a mirror, you deserve the protection products we offer.” In the market they are in, though, they have the challenge of avoiding coming across as opportunistic. Lin says everyone sees the news and what’s happening in the world, and there’s that urge to protect. They’re training their field not to be fearmongers. “Our approach is more preventative. If you don’t talk about it, you can’t protect yourself. The #MeToo campaign has really created a sense of relevancy in the marketplace because we’re so passionate about these causes. It amplifies our voice.”
Customer-led storytelling, arising from online communities, has proven to be a highly effective way of building brand advocacy. Take, for example, Airbnb. “Stories from the Airbnb Community,” a video series chronicling the adventures of Airbnb hosts and travelers, put customers on center stage and showed in a compelling and highly visual way how the brand is forging relationships and impacting lives for the better.
Marketers recognize that millennials, in particular, are drawn to brands that dedicate themselves to meaningful causes. Lin calls them “impact joiners, or people wanting to make a difference, who are looking for a sense of community.” Her own company, Damsel in Defense, is highly cause-oriented. “One in five women will be raped, and many of our field family members are that one in five,” she says. Lin says their salesforce connect with her company because they’re talking about something that wasn’t being talked about.
“In society as a whole, we’ve seen over the years a shift in focus from what’s happening under your roof to what’s happening out there in the world. There’s less emphasis on getting rich overnight, and instead of being able to pass on a legacy of service to our children. So, we as companies should always meet and serve those customers where they are.”
The Road Ahead
Approximately 80 percent of your future profits will come from just 20 percent of your existing customers, according to research conducted by the Gartner Group. Further, research conducted by Bain & Company found that increasing customer retention by just 5 percent increases profits between 25 percent and 95 percent. The bottom line is this: It’s time to put the customer at the center of every conversation.
As we continue down this path of customer and distributor first marketing, there are some challenges to consider.
“Stories need to be relevant to the customer, but also be grounded in a deep understanding of the company knowing who they are and what the brand represents.”
— Mark Stastny, Chief Marketing Officer for Scentsy
First, customers have become increasingly siloed. Direct selling companies, then, will have to devise innovative methods for expanding their reach.
“There’s a lot of noise out there, but consumers are becoming extremely savvy,” Vilbrandt says. “They go back to the brands and the social platforms and the media outlets they trust. They connect and respond to the ones that align with their positions and values. Of course, this is good from a brand standpoint, since it gives us a consistent insight into consumer targeting.”
Second, we have to keep an ear to the ground and remain flexible enough to make changes as technology’s evolution influences consumer preferences.
“We have to make sure that our products and the way we do business resonate with a generational shift in how people choose to engage with businesses and companies,” Stastny says. “This means that millennials need to be able to connect with companies in ways that make sense to them. If, for instance, you’ve built your communication strategy on a Facebook platform, and your focus is on getting millennials to engage with you, that platform won’t work because millennials are on Instagram now. Right now, our industry is spanning several generations, including some who are barely comfortable with social media and others who are entrenched. So, we have to be flexible enough to adapt to that.”
Though companies should seek to disseminate consistent messaging across all communication channels, considering the nuances of each platform—and the preferences of the audiences who congregate there—demand some degree of personalization. “There really is no one size fits all,” Vilbrandt adds. “What connects us all at Princess House is a passion for healthy cooking and a love for entertaining, but the lens through which customers see it and the way they go about it varies.”
“We’re careful to avoid marketing fatigue of our customers. Our goal is to do more of what works well and do less of what isn’t working.”
— Janice Jackson, President of Sales and Marketing at Plexus Worldwide
What is universal, however, is the growing expectation among consumers of all ages that the companies with whom they do business—either as an independent distributor or customer—listen, understand and respond to their needs and establish a relationship with them doesn’t end after the first purchase. There are no more walls between the C-suite and the public, and those companies who recognize this fact and engage their customers will likely be rewarded in both the short and long term.
Let’s face it: Amazon delivers a fast, convenient and relatively easy ordering experience, along with peer recommendations, which is why it’s given many brick-and-mortar retailers a run for their money. What Amazon can’t deliver, though, is an independent consultant who takes the time to know her customers, who recommends products with their tastes in mind, who’s available to answer questions, which provides a VIP shopping experience and even a business opportunity for those who want to take the next step. That highly personalized service is key to the future of the direct selling industry; it’s something no other e-commerce retailer can touch. We can capitalize on that by continuing to speak to our customers in direct and honest terms that speak to their needs and show them exactly how we can make their lives better. And if we succeed, we earn customers for life.