How to design a training program that keeps distributors engaged and your company in line.
Freedom. It’s long been one of the direct selling industry’s strongest appeals. Our message has been one of freedom from nine-to-five job constraints, income ceilings and various physical conditions. For years we were one of few to offer people the chance to take charge of their lives in ways that no other channel could.
A culture that encourages and rewards independence can create unintended gaps in understanding, consistency and compliance. Our products catch on so quickly, and we believe our opportunities have such obvious potential, it can be easy to think that every prospect is one quick tutorial away from being a wildly successful distributor.
This mindset has to change. Our model has complexities that require more frequent, in-depth training than direct selling companies sometimes provide. Especially in a regulatory environment where rules are constantly changing, your training program must be deliberate and structured at every level—otherwise, your field teams will create their own version of best practices, and that rarely ends well for anyone.
The most successful direct selling training programs do four things well:
- They train distributors to stay compliant.
- They teach distributors how to prioritize retail sales.
- They differentiate lessons to accommodate distributors with diverse goals.
- They use technology strategically.
Regulatory pressures on our industry have never been greater. High-profile direct selling companies like AdvoCare, LuLaRoe and Neora have recently faced scrutiny and legal challenges on federal and state levels. Some companies, like Neora, are pushing back on what they believe are vague or unprecedented charges by regulators. Nevertheless, it’s better to steer clear of activity that could call your practices into question.
So, if your training program doesn’t lead with compliance, it needs to. From day one, a new distributor needs to know exactly what he or she can and can’t say about your products and your opportunity.
It might feel counterintuitive to come out of the gate talking about the somber topic of how to avoid getting in trouble with regulators. Most people would rather focus on the exciting parts, like the premium products and the prospect of building a business. “Compliance is not fun,” says Stuart MacMillan, President of Miami-based MONAT, which sells hair and skincare products. “But, it’s super important.”
MacMillan says MONAT’s training and compliance departments make compliance lessons as simple and easy to implement as possible. New MONAT Market Partners get basic information on compliance in the first batch of training modules they receive and can’t move to the next training level until they pass comprehension tests on the first level. The company also provides product and earnings claim disclaimer language for salespeople to use as well as templates for how to display “before” and “after” photos.
Think about compliance training as a way to empower your salespeople, says Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners, a direct selling consulting agency. If you present it as not just a regulatory necessity but a tool that will allow distributors to reach their goals, they may be more likely to pay attention and take it seriously. “Because you’re saying, ‘Here is how you are required to treat customers,’ but it’s also really good customer service.”
Prioritizing Retail Sales
Our industry will not survive if we don’t embrace retail customer acquisition as our driving force. It must be our top business development strategy. If you help distributors develop the skills they need to recruit and retain customers and you reward them for doing so, they will help you implement that strategy.
Compliance is not fun, but, it’s super important.” – Stuart MacMillan, President, MONAT
New distributors need tools and techniques to get organized and score quick-start wins. Show them the straightest, fastest route to making a sale and compensate them quickly for sharing products and recruiting retail customers.
“People will do what they get paid to do,” MacMillan says. MONAT’s compensation plan pays new Market Partners $60 for every four preferred customers (VIPs) they enroll during their Smart Start period. They certainly can earn rewards for growing their teams and finding new Market Partners, but if all they ever want to do is sell to customers, they can make money doing just that, MacMillan says.
During the onboarding period, training should also help new distributors learn to use tools that allow them to easily share information and samples with customers as well as place orders quickly. Later sessions can focus on more complex topics, like strategies for handling a growing customer base.
It’s also critical from the beginning to train your teams on how to appropriately prospect and interact with customers. (See “Smart Customer Service” sidebar.) Well-served customers become the loyal customers that keep our retail focus strong.
Direct sales training has historically skewed heavily toward how to advance in the ranks, but this doesn’t reflect what we’ve learned about the motivations of the majority of our distributors. We need to accept that most people come to us looking to make an extra $500 a month, and that’s it. They aren’t in it for luxury homes and cars or even full-time salaries. “We can’t assume everyone’s going for double diamond platinum level,” Duncan says. “The safer assumption is that they’re not going for that.”
Only one-sixth of the people involved in our industry want to sell to begin with, and only about half of those are in it for the long-term income potential. Your training program has to reach distributors where they are—and most of them are and will continue to be content focusing just on product sales. Direct selling consultant Gordon Hester calls this layer of distributors “micro-entrepreneurs”—they recruit most of your customers and usually don’t aspire to become leaders in your organization.
Those who break away from that pack are self-identifying as distributors who want to build downlines and move up in the ranks. Training for that layer looks different than training for other layers.
At MONAT, elite-level Market Partners have access to mentoring from leadership consultant and author John Maxwell and can earn a MONAT Maxwell certificate at the end of a year-long series of webinars with him. High-level distributors at Amway have access to a series of modules called “Amway Overtime,” developed in partnership with the American Football Coaches Association. Big-name college football coaches share their approaches to developing better players on the field.
Your training doesn’t have to focus exclusively on business building. Many direct selling companies offer personal development opportunities that are relevant for distributors at any level. Nu Skin provides financial education and estate planning education for all of its employees. Team National offers regular sessions in which executives give tips on how to grow at work and in one’s personal life. Total Life Changes distributors can choose from a range of online classes on such topics as financial wellness, substance abuse prevention and stress management.
Using Technology Strategically
Savvy direct selling companies know how to use technology to deliver effective training while minimizing interruptions to a distributor’s selling activities. Like many direct selling companies do, MONAT equips its Market Partners with a mobile app that lets them easily send samples to prospective and current customers. MONAT distributors also participate in online training through Market Partner Academy, an online learning management system.
“We can’t assume everyone’s going for double diamond platinum level. The safer assumption is that they’re not going for that.”
– Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal, Strategic Choice Partners
LMSes are a great option for some companies, Duncan says, but you have to keep them stocked with relevant material. “Budget for the content upfront while you’re assessing the technology you want to buy,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of good tools come and go not because the tool was bad but because the home office wasn’t able to keep up with it.”
The length of your training modules is just as critical as the platform that delivers them. You can’t afford to waste your distributors’ time, and they are the judge of how long is too long. “Our modules take six to 10 minutes,” MacMillan says. “And we keep them simple. If it’s too difficult, people will walk away from it.”
A good way to differentiate training is to use multiple delivery methods. MONAT distributors also participate in training sessions led by regional sales managers on Facebook groups, Zoom conference calls and webinars, and company events are packed with in-person training opportunities focused on products and personal development.
Freedom With Responsibility
Flexibility can exist within clear boundaries. As you review your training program and reflect on how to bring it in line with current industry priorities, don’t think that you have to stifle your distributors’ entrepreneurial spirits. They can bring their individuality to the table while still following a proven template that eliminates guesswork and keeps them and your company on the right track.
Smart Customer Service
At all levels, your distributors should receive regular reminders of the ethical standards they must follow in their business. The Direct Selling Association provides clear dos and don’ts for salespeople in all interactions with customers and prospects:
- DO contact customers at a convenient time.
- DO provide accurate information on products and services.
- DO provide company and salesperson contact information.
- DO protect customer privacy.
- DO ensure product and earnings claims are clearly documented and defined, and substantiated by competent and reliable evidence.
- Do NOT engage in unlawful or unethical recruiting practices.
- Do NOT encourage fellow salespeople to purchase unreasonable amounts of inventory or sales aids.
- Do NOT encourage the selling of products solely to qualify for downline commissions.