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As Americans seek ever greater autonomy over their working lives, the direct selling business model is perfectly structured to oblige. But how best to appeal to and recruit into our world those seeking independent work? If salespeople are the “lifeblood” of a direct selling company, recruitment of people who actually use and sell the product is the infusion of new blood that enables the company to survive and thrive. Direct selling companies expend considerable time and effort on recruitment, but a culture that places recruitment for recruitment’s sake above the needs of prospective distributors is not the most effective way to draw newcomers into direct selling. To truly capitalize on the increasing desire for independent work, we need to develop a far greater understanding of the motivations and expectations of would-be entrepreneurs.
Millennials, particularly, are drawn to an independent-work lifestyle for multiple reasons in addition to the purely financial. These include flexibility in terms of time and place of work; ability to define success on their own terms; no restraints based on gender, race or background; an ethically sound corporate culture to which they can subscribe; and opportunity for social interaction. These motivators have “direct selling business” written all over them; on top of which, consider the additional draw of access to our company’s products. DSA’s 2014 National Salesforce Study (NSFS), in fact, shows that flexibility to balance work and home life and the opportunity to obtain products at a discount are the top two motivators for becoming an independent representative. Is this what you present to prospective sellers?
The question I often pose is: “Are we selling products or a business opportunity?” While my answer remains “both,” we should lead with the product, even when recruiting. After all, who better to be an ambassador for our brands than somebody who faithfully uses the products? According to the NSFS, two-thirds of representatives used the company’s products before becoming reps themselves, and three-quarters of representatives recruit from among their current customers. Most reps spend less than 20 hours per week on direct selling, considering the venture to be a good source of supplemental income. If this is the intention, why not unashamedly pitch the opportunity accordingly, and not as a route to a lavish, full-time income. After all, you can be your own boss of even a modest business.
Entrepreneurs are enthusiastic, but they also are cautious. The media is not short of “advice” to fully vet a company before committing to it. Play devil’s advocate for a moment. When a potential distributor visits your company website, what perceptions will they form? Do you ensure frank information about the business opportunity is freely and directly available, including inventory purchasing, buy-back policies and other protections? Recruitment language doesn’t come just from the approved wording on your website, of course. Do your salespeople use only sanctioned materials that convey a proposition a person can see themselves really achieving, or do they employ their own language and tactics that could be at odds with your corporate culture? DSA’s Code of Ethics expressly prohibits members from making statements or promises that mislead prospective distributors.
While independent in nature, young entrepreneurs nevertheless value a company that has their personal and professional best interests at heart. Guidance and training are crucial—especially for those with no previous sales experience. It teaches entrepreneurs how to harness the latest technologies, develop time- and business-management skills, and nurture social and professional relationships to grow a customer base and potential downline. Recognizing the appeal of supplemental benefits for attracting, retaining and motivating distributors, DSA has made available a number of resources for member companies to offer their salesforces.
I am immensely proud of how willing DSA member companies are to extend a welcome to those looking to give direct selling a try. But let’s commit to attracting young entrepreneurs to direct selling by understanding more how our opportunity aligns with their culture and expectations. The Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) is working with a team of renowned academics on a study that examines why direct sellers join, stay and leave our companies. The insights gleaned from this groundbreaking study—expected to be completed this fall—can further help us more effectively attract and retain direct selling entrepreneurs. Watch this space!
Joseph N. Mariano is President of the U.S. Direct Selling Association and the Direct Selling Education Foundation.