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by DSN Staff
Technology is greatly impacting the direct selling experience—from how companies present their messages and products to how distributors employ new tools, to how consumers react to the speed of delivery on services. In the first of our three-part series, we look at how new technologies are changing the way direct sellers work and sell.
Coming in July: The Customer Service Experience
Coming in September: The Social Media Phenomenon
Technology: Best of Times, Most Challenging of Times for Direct Sellers
With the advent of the first personal computers and creation of the World Wide Web, there was great concern on the part of some that we would become a society bogged down by information overload.
What a difference a few decades makes.
Today, the abundance of information at our fingertips is considered a blessing by many of those previous detractors. Our thinking toward technology has evolved … because technology has evolved to bring a global community closer together. The mass of confusion that once “overloaded” our brains is now a helpful aggregation of thoughts and ideas that allows us to be smarter and to make smarter decisions.
For the direct selling industry, the access to information and the technology bringing it are providing both the best of times and the most challenging of times. While companies can more quickly and easily communicate with the global community, they can also find that the information glut allows customers to switch vendors more regularly than in the past; younger consumers, in particular, go where the information takes them.
The pervasive use of new technology tools presents new and different challenges for companies, from brand protection and corporate reputation to communication strategies. Sites like Google and Bing have changed everything. While companies can more easily get their brands and messages out to the public, they can more easily be derailed by criticisms or attacks that manage to find their way to the top of search engine results.
In addition to threats on a company’s reputation, new competitive threats have emerged. New channels have taken advantage of the game-changing uses of technology to reach consumers, causing declining revenues for retailers and direct sellers alike.
Ten years ago, the e-commerce channel of distribution did not exist. Today, it is a very sophisticated model that is changing the competitive landscape. The tools of e-commerce are rapidly becoming the new benchmarks of excellence, especially in the area of customer service. It is estimated that the e-commerce channel will reach $300 billion by the end of 2012 in the United States alone.
Mobile e-commerce, in particular, will assume greater importance for direct sales. Customers may become increasingly intolerant of brands that don’t have easy means of mobile commerce. Some companies are driving technologies that aim to replace a customer’s wallet with their mobile device. Mature brands may have even more pressure in the foreseable future to accommodate mobile payments and smooth mobile shopping experiences.
The good news is that every industry has competitive threats. If direct selling companies have solid foundational businesses with value-driven products and services—and if they employ new technologies to augment the personal relationships with consumers that the industry has been built on—they should be able to withstand these threats.
The New Business Model
The Internet has enabled a new form of business model where consumers have instant access to an endless source of information; therefore, the sharing of information and education in a personalized manner is no longer a competitive advantage.
The change in the way relationships are formed and nurtured is different and far reaching. Relationships go beyond the physical with the intervention of the Internet. Relationships are no longer dependent upon physical geographical reach. Internet relationships allow people to keep in touch 24/7, accelerating the speed of updates and information transfer (positively and negatively) and impacting the pace of life.
For direct sellers, the evolving role of the sales representative must be considered. There is not much value added by a salesperson who simply makes calls to provide product information. Positive new tools for direct sellers must be leveraged effectively by companies, and the salesforce in particular. The overall industry is in its formative stage of identifying how best to use these new tools, and many distributors may be distracted by them, believing that business can be built with these Internet tools alone.
New technology has also created a shift in power from supplier to consumer. Consumers are in control today as a result of the easy access to information. Today’s consumer is an “info-empowered” consumer, negating a lot of the competitive advantage of personal information sharing. This may be impacting the value of personal interaction from a consumer perspective and the productivity of direct sellers.
The manner in which customer service has evolved in most businesses incorporates a greater use of technology versus actual interaction with the customer. When consumers and distributors have to go through layers of technology in order to resolve issues, there may be growing negative perceptions of the direct selling customer/distributor experience.
Direct sales has always thrived on condensing messages into highly portable and professional storytelling mediums, and conducting the business-end with equally well-constructed business tools. So new technologies will continue to change the direct selling experience. It’s unavoidable.
Mobile devices will continue to evolve and enter the marketplace. Data networks will continue to get faster and achieve greater accessibility and availability. Consumer habits will continue to be influenced by the changing landscape of mobile web browsing technology (especially with the wave of new tablets), as will their expectations and demand. E-commerce on mobile platforms will inevitably develop along with the proliferation of mobile devices, and the direct selling industry can’t be left behind.
Distributors are already looking for technology that can augment their historical dependency on physical media. Salespeople and other road warriors across industries are turning to tablets such as the iPad to not only replace their laptops, but also to replace their order book, dayplanner and sample case (depending on their product category).
As the broader world is adopting these technologies, direct selling representatives are experimenting with social media, increased use of web-based multimedia prospecting tools (online video, audio), as well as training for their organizations, which end up being consumed on phones, iPods and iPads. Distributors are experimenting with these mediums, and are doubtless already searching the various app-stores for mobile tools they can use to augment their in-person and online business efforts. In the absence of native apps (and in addition to them), it remains likely that a company’s website and e-commerce site will be sought-after mobile resources.
Social sites like Facebook, which now has over 600 million participants, will continue to attract direct sellers who can easily connect with people anywhere, anytime. New and portable hardware, from smartphones to iPads, are “game changers” with respect to how consumers expect to be presented to and engaged. These tools will continue to impact the perceptions of prospective distributors; therefore, company research and product and tool development must keep pace, otherwise direct selling companies may not be perceived as being in tune with changing expectations and behaviors.
Technology, the Enabler
The new technology that has arrived over the last few years has helped many direct selling companies overcome boundaries of distance, equip their distributors with tools that help them more quickly address the needs of consumers—including the much sought-after younger generation—and, ultimately, add to their bottom line.
The difficulty for some companies is in understanding what is “trend” and what is “change,” as it relates to technology. It’s the difference between knowing what will help provide a competitive advantage and what will detract from the very core of direct selling: the personal experience.
Technology is, after all, an enabler of the best as well as worst practices. Direct selling can exploit the technology or be exploited by it. If a company makes the critical choice of being fundamentally sound, well-funded and able to build the business with determination, the technologies available will be adaptable and friendly to the enterprise. However, if quick success is the name of the game, the technology could facilitate rapid death.
Mobile Smartphones Bring on Golden Age in Social Media
by Michel Bayan
New technologies have never been more exciting for the direct selling industry. Since the very first days of selling goods from the back of a horse carriage, successful direct sellers have been mobile and social creatures. Because the power of technology is only now catching up to what the essence of direct selling is all about, many great minds in the industry are predicting a golden age on our horizon. Social media will be a huge factor here, but let’s zoom out for a second. Social media is only just entering its golden age because of one thing. And that thing is probably within two feet of you right now: a mobile smartphone.
Think mobile smartphones are just for the youngsters? Think again. A recent study by ComScore challenges conventional thought, showing that the generations are pretty well split in terms of smartphone adoption, and that 37 percent of smartphone users are over the age of 45. “Nothing is going to grow faster in the business world in the next two to three years than mobile apps,” says Brad Doyle, an independent consultant.
Why is mobile gathering so much steam so quickly and jumping the generational divide? It’s simple. Really good mobile apps are incredibly easy and intuitive to use. You can be up and running in just a few minutes nowadays, and as soon as you pick up an iPhone or Droid X, for example, you’ll find there are no big learning curves like in the ’90s and ’00s, when every new piece of technology required painful hours of learning. With mobile apps we have finally arrived at a point where these devices (calling them phones is kind of silly, really—they are more like ultra-small computers) have become so powerful and easy to use that, in most cases, all one has to do is spend a few minutes playing with the right apps and all of a sudden the light bulb goes on, and POW! Epiphany!
With more than 12 billion apps downloaded on the Apple app store alone (Android is right on their heels) and 1.7 billion mobile devices able to access the Internet worldwide, it’s clear that mobile apps are not only a massive, growing market, but here to stay. The time for action is now. With all of the excitement and billions in advertising dollars spent on marketing smartphone and mobile apps globally, companies have the opportunity to capitalize on the excitement. And in direct sales, keeping the field excited is an ongoing goal.
From genealogy tools and mobile sign-ups to shopping carts and marketing videos, the possibilities for increasing both production and distributor retention are very real. Companies like XANGO, Amway, Herbalife and lia sophia are already beginning to experiment with apps, and their distributors are loving them.
One company that is leading the mobile charge is Nu Skin, headed by forward-thinking Vice President of Business Technology Andrea Hayhurst. “Our group’s call to action is to remove technology as a barrier to doing the business. We are going to provide as much as possible to our distributors on the tech platforms that are used out in the world, and mobile is the hot one right now.”
One advantage Nu Skin sees in mobile apps is using them as a networking tool. Giving distributors an effective app is not only high-tech, but it’s also high-touch. The community aspect of apps is critical to their success.
“Anything that supports the story [of Nu Skin] is a strong ROI for us,” Hayhurst says. “These kinds of tools enable this mass of communicators [distributors] to tell our story. Everything we do is about feeding that story. It’s business essential to engage in this channel.” And what does their global salesforce in 50 countries think? “They love it because it’s fresh, it’s hip, it’s now; it’s what people are doing. We are offering our distributors an opportunity that is easy for them to also share with other people.”
In terms of ROI, that’s just the beginning, especially for networking companies. How’s that? Well think of it this way: One of the biggest hurdles in the industry is to get all those distributors of yours to actually take more action, right? An app with the right design and interface could give your distributors the information, clarity and motivation they need to take just one or two more actions a day. Multiply that by thousands, and you could be generating millions in additional revenue in no time—with the right app, of course. The industry is also well known for the massive disconnect between field and corporate. You’ll have to overcome that first so you can get into their heads and deliver a powerful and specific tool.
Ensuring Mobile Strategy Success
There are, of course, important pitfalls to avoid. The key to a successful mobile strategy is the right thinking. The Web and mobile arenas are not the same. Bring a website mindset to a mobile app and you are almost certainly bound for a big money pit with failure at the bottom. While lessons from Web experience will play a role, mobile is a whole new game. “Mobile apps put the power in the hands of the individual, and the direct seller is even more in need because they are constantly multitasking. Corporate has to cut through all the noise,” Doyle says.
The most important factors for success in mobile:
The User Interface: Given a much smaller screen to navigate, successfully creating an effective mobile tool requires creative thinking that is very different from the Web. Your app simply must be intuitive to use. The very first time a person uses your app, they should know exactly what it does and how to use it, immediately.
“The whole challenge in this industry is that the vast majority of your business comes from the newest people, and those people are the most challenged people,” says Jeff Olson, speaker, consultant and author of the distributor’s staple, The Slight Edge. “They have jobs, doubts and the least knowledge on how to do the business. So you better get where they are coming from. You have to have something easy for them to understand that can keep them plugged in with the tools they need on the go. And you also need to give their upline a quick and easy way to find them and stay in touch. You have to have people at the top who really get that, so the field can really be supported.” The app should simply guide distributors to the information they need to know, delivering the functionality they need in just a few touches of the screen.
Less Is More: “Keep it simple and know what to leave out,” Olson says. First and foremost, if it can wait until they get to their home computer, then let it wait! Don’t overwhelm them with tons of features they don’t need. Think mobile. If they are at Starbucks waiting for a latte and want to see who’s new to the team, for example, they should be on that screen in 2–5 seconds, having already processed the information they need to know about those new people without having to read much text. It has to be simple, quick, dynamic and interactive—all the essential qualities of a “sticky” app.
Make It Actionable: One of the big promises that bring a new person aboard direct sales is the promise of NET: No Extra Time. We promise them that they can fit their activity into their daily life, even if they are busy. “An app needs to not replace, but encourage smart interaction. It’s got to eliminate confusion and be a great tool for every level of distributor,” Olson says. “They’ve got to open it up and instantly know what they can do right now to move their business forward.” If the data delivered to them is instantly actionable, they can fit a ton of activity into moments where it wouldn’t have been so easy before: the unexpected traffic jam, waiting for the kids at school and so forth. With instant, actionable information, a direct seller can squeeze a ton of activity into those otherwise dead moments of the day, where they’d be using their phone to check Facebook or Twitter instead. It’s the same thing—grabbing for stimulation during downtime. Only those apps don’t get them paid. Your smartly designed app will!
Moving into mobile is a big deal, so it’s important to find the right professional team to help you navigate this brave new world.
“It’s really hard to keep up with mobile right now, with its growth curve being literally vertical,” Hayhurst says. Choose a partner who will be with you for the long haul and is committed to taking the time to get to know you, your leaders, your market and, most important, the field. Seeing from all perspectives is the key to a massively successful mobile strategy. “[Look for] experience with this and other technologies. A broad experience base and being able to work with the corporate IT department is vital,” she says. “You’ve got to pilot a few things.”
Another important thing to look for is a commitment to updates and upgrades. Once your first app gets out in to the field, ask for and welcome feedback. Listen to everyone’s perspective and make sure your partner is committed to frequent updates and upgrades. Keep it focused and keep it fresh.
Most important, remember that your distributors will be the power users here. Your mobile partner should have experience in the field. “Your development partner must understand the field’s perspective,” Olson says. “They are the ones who’ll be using it every day. Build it for them. They’ll love you for it and they’ll run with it.”
Michel Bayan is the Founder and CEO of Mingling Media, a digital marketing and development company with a custom mobile platform for direct selling companies.
Is Your Website Mobile Ready?
by Bill Murphy
Is your company website iPad ready? Even if it appears just fine on your desktop or laptop, that doesn’t necessarily mean it appears correctly or works at all on an iPad or other mobile device.
No company would knowingly launch a website with missing images, navigation menus that don’t work or broken shopping cart experiences—or one that was just a bunch of blank pages, right?
Unfortunately, that is what we found for many of the top direct selling companies.
Direct Selling News recently conducted a review of the websites of the DSN Global 100 companies and discovered that those exact negative experiences are present when viewed on an iPad.
Companies that spent a great deal of time and energy developing Flash-based Web experiences—complete with attention-grabbing animations, special effects, complex transitions between pages and sophisticated typographical effects—are in for an unpleasant surprise.
Those presentations won’t display correctly on most mobile devices, including the iPad and iPhone. Instead, what visitors to the websites see, in most cases, are great gaping holes on the pages. And the Flash-based navigation menus they had deployed so beautifully on desktops and laptops simply stopped working or didn’t render at all on an iPad.
Websites designed before the explosion of mobile devices may have been perfectly suited for the Web environment that flourished just a few short years ago. However, that time is over.
We discovered that there are a few sites of the DSN Global 100 companies that are fully functional on an iPad, but there are far more that had at least one of the following flaws:
- The site was not optimal for iPad viewing
- The site was visibly flawed in iPad viewing, due to Flash content
- The site was outright broken/not functional due to Flash content
Many of the sites also suffered from one or all of the technical flaws and incompatibilities for the mobile Web environment, most commonly:
- Missing rotating banners (due to Flash incompatibility)
- Poor dimensional layout (requires too much zooming in and out, also causing text illegibility and link-clicking issues)
Our research further uncovered:
- 14 sites had Flash-based videos that left empty spots in the site
- 24 sites had Flash-based banners and other non-video design elements that appeared as large empty spots in the site
- Only 19 sites had specifically iPad (and other mobile-device) tailored site variants
- Only 8 sites had HTML5 compatible (non-Flash) videos within top-level navigation pages
- Only 11 sites had HTML5 animations and transitions in the place of Flash-based components
A very slim minority of sites we tested had an exceptionally well-rendered mobile browsing variant of the pages. In these cases, the layout of the site fit well (without scrolling) within the dimension of the devices. Any instances of Flash slideshows or simple animations were gracefully replaced with HTML5 elements when viewed on an iPad. Any Flash-based videos were replaced with QuickTime formats that were particularly suited for iPads and iPhones. In some cases, there were even integrated app download links, or simplified checkout processes suited for the mobile device.
Kudos to the direct selling sites getting it right, for those sites are far too few, given how many distributors and customers are now accessing the Web over tablets and smartphones.
Bill Murphy is a researcher for the University of South Florida College of Business, and a Director of the Informing Science Institute. Matt Murphy contributed to this article.
How Does Your Company “Stack Up” in “The Cloud”?
by T. Ron Davis
Here comes the next stage in the evolution of computing technology: the Cloud.
True story: The CEO of a direct sales company was flying from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco aboard an airline that provided in-flight wireless connectivity. Using a single-source, Cloud-based application, he accessed up-to-the minute performance data—live in real time. He drilled down from a graphical interface to look at several of the top performers, and then examined their downlines to evaluate sales and product trends. He looked at a newly proposed website and marketing campaign awaiting his review and approval before being queued for automatic deployment. He then checked on pending orders and issued a field communication to a select group of contacts regarding a new promotion. Lastly, he reviewed current sales performance and other management reports.
He did all of this on his iPad at 38,000 feet.
What Is the Cloud?
Cloud computing enables us to take all the applications we’ve grown to love and depend on and place them in a remarkable virtual computer center called the Cloud. The Cloud provides us with the collective power of a virtually unlimited number of computers that serve up our information from faraway rooms distributed around the world. This results in enormous computing power and multiple layers of security, both globally accessible and infinitely expandable. It’s reliable, too—Cloud data centers are built safely away from earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes and urban unrest. Some centers are being located next to rivers so that they can generate their own hydroelectric power, eliminating their dependence on public utilities. Some use geothermal energy and are built in locations such as Iceland, so that the massive cooling capacity required can come from the surrounding environment. The Clouds are being operated by some of the largest companies in world—Amazon, Microsoft, Verizon/Terremark, RackSpace/NASA, Google, Joyvent/Dell and SalesForce.com, just to name a few.
Your business is relying on computing power more and more each day. Some of the significant advantages of the Cloud include constant global access, infinite growth with no downtime and the ability to pay for only the resources that you use. As your business grows and your computing needs ratchet up to a new level, increasing your computing power is as simple as having your Cloud provider slip a few more processors into a rack. Just like that, you have doubled or tripled your capacity without so much as a “please wait” message sent to your users.
What Is One-Stack?
The other fundamental shift in technology that will have a significant impact on the direct sales industry is the introduction of the one-stack solution. “One-stack” means that a single technology provider can now provide its customers with a highly integrated, modular, end-to-end solution. A more accurate name for this technology is “single-source.” This type of solution supports rapid growth and increased sales by speeding up and simplifying business operations and field deployment. It significantly reduces technological complexity and support costs. The single-source solution functions spectacularly when placed in the Cloud.
The Way It Used to Be
Direct sales companies used to rely on a collection of applications to run their businesses. Typically, a call-center application ran on a computer system in the call center—often linked through a complicated file-transfer process to a database server—that was tied to an inventory system, which was tied to an order processing system, which was tied to a commissions and genealogy application, which was tied to a reporting system that eventually received information from distributors trying to enter in their sales from PC-based party planning products or, worse yet, fax machines. This type of implementation required laptop and desktop PCs, database servers, Web servers, fax machines and multiple operating systems. Each system was constantly trying to maintain compatibility and synchrony with the other systems in a very complicated pipeline.
The Way It Will Be
Enter the single-source solution, a complete end-to-end solution that handles all aspects of direct sales operations, from supporting field representatives to corporate users. The single-source solution provides instantaneous, up-to-the-minute access to all required information—anytime, anyplace and from any device. This type of solution can be deployed on a company’s in-house system or in the Cloud.
The single-source solution permits total integration throughout the direct sales lifecycle. It supplies representatives with personal websites, party planning, performance reporting and order tracking. The application provides call-center support, ticket management and an industry-tailored CRM. It supports corporate users and field development personnel with access to commission tools, marketing support, catalog development, campaign/promotions materials and staging. Most important, it gives users instant access to the tools and information required to run their businesses while reducing demands on IT departments. It applies total brand control throughout the company and supports global growth simultaneously in multiple languages and currencies. This type of integrated solution is completely modular, so it can support any size business at any stage in its development. As the business grows, modules can be added and activated, eliminating concerns about obsolescence.
The Cloud for Medium, Small or Emerging Businesses
The benefits for small and medium businesses that embrace Cloud computing are potentially enormous, in addition to being affordable and easily implementable. The Cloud can be the “Great Equalizer” for smaller businesses. It allows such companies to have access to a new breed of applications that are Cloud-ready and offer scalable pricing that levels the competitive playing field with the enterprise companies. It provides technology “elasticity”—the capability to scale up or down rapidly based on their needs, only paying for the resources required as they are needed. Most important, companies are not required to purchase on-premises technology and build support organizations that can cost an enormous amount upfront. It allows companies to focus on their business rather than on their IT infrastructure.
It’s an exciting time in direct selling. Amazing technology is converging with the rapidly growing direct sales industry. Many of the capabilities did not exist as recently as 24 to 36 months ago. I think we can confidently say that, for this industry, things are “stacking up” extremely well in “the Cloud.”
T. Ron Davis is President/CEO of Intellect Marketing Group Inc., which offers consulting services in marketing, sales and technology, and Interim Vice President of Marketing for NetSteps.