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Imagine, if you will, that moment when a new independent representative opens a starter kit for the first time. What happens in that moment and in the moments that immediately follow are crucial. Until now, she hasn’t had much tangible evidence of her new business. It’s an idea on which a lot of hope may be riding. She’s imagining the scenarios in her head of where this new business will take her, the objectives that this venture could empower her to achieve—professional development, perhaps, or more self-determination over the hours she works or the speed with which she advances. Or maybe she just wants a bit of extra spending money. Regardless, she started her business for a reason.
When the new representative opens that box, do the contents inside either validate or question his decision to start a business? That’s the challenge all direct selling companies are attempting to conquer, and it’s a tough one, given changing demographics across the board, the diversity of ways in which consumers now prefer to receive information and the frantic pace of technology, not to mention the simple cost of starter kit design, production and distribution.
Another inevitable question: When he orders his starter kit, what should he expect?
Paul Adams, Senior Vice President of Strategic Marketing for SUCCESS Partners, has a few opinions on this. He’s spent 28 years working with direct selling companies on this very topic, advising them on best practices and making recommendations for their respective starter kit communication tools and strategies, design, content and delivery. He’s also audited and provided insight for a multitude of companies.
Regardless of the age or size of a company, salesforce demographics or the product they sell, every company’s starter kit should have three objectives, Adams says:
- First, it should validate the representative’s decision to start a business. The early days of any new business are critical. From time to time, especially if several days elapse between signing her agreement and receiving her kit in hand, that informational void could spur a bit of buyer’s remorse. It’s vital that her starter kit arrives early and that it provides assurance on her new venture.
- Second, the kit should validate the new business for the representative’s spouse, partner or significant other, especially if he or she isn’t familiar with the direct selling channel, and/or has preconceived notions.
- Third, a starter kit should provide a bit of “hand-holding” as representatives take their first steps in the business, because they most likely don’t know exactly what they signed up for. Simplicity is key here—more on that later.
The “good old days” before technology now seem awfully simple. Starter kits were, of course, printed and relatively straightforward. It was a one-size-fits-all approach that seemed to work, and if it didn’t, well, we made periodic changes to the contents. The occasional survey or focus group could help gauge reactions from representatives. It was difficult to trace with any certainty whether and how a starter kit affected a representative’s beliefs and actions. Updates were occasional, made mostly to reflect new products or changes to the existing product line, and the bones of a starter kit often remained static for years, unless a major rebranding necessitated it.
Components of a Great Kit
Getting Started Guide – The first 24 are very important, so create this guide with that in mind. It could be as simple as a single page stating “what to do right now.”
Basic Business Info – Policies and procedures (physical format as well as online access), along with other elements such as important numbers, event information, tools order and compensation plan information, are crucial to help the new person build confidence while providing best practices and understanding.
Product Brochures – 5 to 10 copies
Opportunity Brochures – 5 to 10 copies
Prospecting Tools – 5 to 10 copies
Corporate Credibility – Share the story that will back up your company’s credibility as the right choice for a direct selling venture. Whether it’s the history of the company, the science of the products, or commitment to philanthropy.
Basic Training – This includes 7-30 days’ worth of training materials focused on the person who knows NOTHING about your business or any business. Keep it very simple. Make more in-depth training available online or through other methods, but avoid too much information too quickly.
Customized Business Cards – A single page of 8-10 business cards with the ability to order more.
Personal Development Content – A single piece of wisdom or step in the right direction can give someone the little nudge they’re looking for and encourage them to reach their goals. Showing them their potential is a powerful motivator!
As technology began to infiltrate our information stream more predominantly, some companies began to toy with moving their starter kit materials online in part or, in more recent years, exclusively. However, remaining staunchly print or jumping ship to go all digital runs the risk of isolating potential team members. It’s a fine line that requires a bit of trial and error. And, as direct selling continues to increase in popularity—it’s now a $36 billion channel of distribution in the United States alone—companies are examining ways to cut costs. That’s a bit of a dilemma where the starter kit is involved.
As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You want a new representative to get the warm fuzzies from that starter kit, even with your knowledge that she may or may not be in the salesforce a year from now. You want her to be empowered with a streamlined action plan. And, perhaps above all else, you want her to become your brand advocate through exposure to your products.
That’s no easy task. So where should you focus your priorities when you’re either creating or revising your starter kit? How do you create maximum impact? To what extent should technology play a role? And are there supplemental actions you can take to reaffirm the new recruit’s decision, beyond the kit?
A Product-Focused Experience
We’ve seen that one of the most powerful ways to acquire and retain new customers, some of whom will become your next active, loyal distributors, is to lead with your products. And in today’s environment of increased regulatory scrutiny, keeping your products front and center is increasingly important.
That’s the approach Young Living took when the company launched a brand-new starter kit in summer 2015, following some 18 months of extensive research. It was “a game-changing moment,” says Eddie Silcock, Executive Vice President of Global Sales. Prior to that time, Young Living’s kit “fit the task, but it wasn’t an experience,” he says. It was the perfect time to make a change; between 50,000 and 100,000 new customers were joining Young Living every month, including millennials en masse, and essential oils were starting to generate traction in the market. “We needed a best-in-class kit,” he says. “We wanted our members’ first experience to represent how we feel as employees, and our previous kit didn’t do it.”
The result was a kit designed to unveil for Young Living’s new distributors, called Members, a classy, “Christmas morning” type of experience. Packaged in a sleek box and featuring images of nature, the box opens with a magnetic closure and resembles a book. Ten of the company’s best-selling essential oils are packaged on one side, while the other side contains a concise selection of literature. The emphasis is on members’ further exposure to Young Living’s product line, with the hope that sharing with friends and family will be a natural outgrowth of that experience.
Silcock adds that one of the company’s highest priorities with the redesign was to affirm in new members’ minds that they’ve invested their money well, not just with the kit, but also with the products, the business opportunity and their alignment with the company’s positive culture.
“We know full well that first impressions ultimately can affect retention,” Silcock says, adding that the company’s retention rates have increased since the rollout of the new kit.
The Power of Presentation
Whether you’re a new consultant or a potential customer, there’s often no substitute for holding a product in your hand. Call it tangible evidence of legitimacy. For those direct sellers whose products can be held in hand, an entirely digital starter kit simply can’t generate that critical first impression.
But it’s not just the mere presence of the products that counts; the manner in which those products are packaged also matters. There’s a bit of psychology at work here. As Young Living demonstrates, the starter kit’s job is to “wow” the new distributor, so that she, in turn, can wow potential customers in a natural, organic way. There’s nothing forced when a distributor is a sincere product user and brand advocate. And prospects can tell the difference. Conversation evolves more easily; there’s no hard sell.
LimeLight by Alcone faced an interesting conundrum when it attempted to change its business model to direct sales. This 65-year-old, family-owned company provides professional makeup and skincare to the stage and film industry, and it never intended to become a direct selling company. Over time, however, CEO and Founder Michele Gay wanted to compensate referrals from professional makeup artists, who were sending clients to Alcone to buy the products they had in their kits. Gay also wanted to expand her market to include makeup enthusiasts everywhere.
Creating more widespread appeal would prove challenging at first. Alcone products were presented in “generally minimal packaging,” says Gay. “It was a big problem when we tried to cross over. The packaging wasn’t appealing.” In fact, some consumers who sampled the products and were wowed ended up back at their department store cosmetic counters. What was happening here? Those consumers wanted something more: a product that looked as fabulous in the package as it did on the face. A consultant’s ability to sell those products to customers would hinge not just upon their efficacy, but also on their presentation.
The company found vendors to pour the makeup into metal pans, which are then placed into paper pallets for a more visually enticing experience. Eventually, the company’s transition to direct selling became official, and LimeLight by Alcone was born. For a while, its starter kits were personalized, but that proved to be too difficult to sustain as the company’s salesforce of Beauty Guides grew. Current starter kits take a more generalized approach, offering a choice of dark, medium and light complexions and including a sampling of makeup and skincare products, plus educational resources and access to an eight-day online training.
Initially, the company’s independent salesforce consisted primarily of professional makeup artists who could now be compensated for their brand loyalty and advocacy. Today, the LimeLight by Alcone opportunity has expanded to some 5,000 women from various demographics, actively working their businesses. Beauty Guides pay both a monthly fee for their respective websites and an annual renewal fee to maintain their businesses. Requiring a bit of financial skin in the game, Gay says, helps avoid “kit-nappers,” or those who start a business merely for the starter kit, and then abruptly quit.
Keeping It Simple
During the research phase for its new starter kit, Young Living sought feedback from its independent salesforce, including older and younger demographics. “There was a lot of pre-work and a lot of pain,” Silcock says. “Sometimes we thought we were onto something great, but our members didn’t agree. They offered feedback at every step.”
Chief among those learnings was a reminder about simplicity. “You want to put the kitchen sink in that box,” Silcock says, but you run the risk of overwhelming and ultimately losing new recruits. Young Living finally whittled the educational materials in their starter kit down to four simple pages, again based on feedback from its independent salesforce.
The company currently maintains a presence in 18 markets worldwide. Aside from the obvious translations, regional product availability and legislative factors, Young Living hasn’t had to make major revisions on its starter kit to accommodate demographic differences. “Simplicity translates across all markets,” Silcock says. “I think the time we took to develop our kit helped us.”
Keeping the process simple, however, can be complicated. It often means that a lot of information has to be distilled down to short, meaningful pieces that make it impactful. Too often, though, companies provide too much too fast.
“I’m certainly not a psychologist, but I do know that people can be easily persuaded not to do something if we make it seem long, daunting and complicated,” Adams says. Remembering that the salesforce is made up of volunteers, and many didn’t sign up to get a new job, can help provide guidance. Most recruits initially sign on because they believe they can make a few dollars by telling a few friends about a product or service they like, not to enter a burdensome training course.
Filling the Gap: Communication until the Starter Kit Arrives
While the starter kit is important, it’s not the only critical component of a consultant’s introduction to her new business. Most companies have an entire onboarding process. The challenge is engaging someone in a meaningful way so that he or she is willing and even anxious to participate in a developmental process, since the salesforce is voluntarily present. Email or push notifications, the back office, events, calls and webinars can all enhance the impact of the onboarding process. The key is to moderate the delivery to give the representative what they need, when they need it.
One area to address is the communication void that can take place between a consultant signing her independent business agreement and then receiving her starter kit, which should arrive on her doorstep as quickly as possible. During the early days of a new consultant’s business, a direct selling company should fill the silence with regular communication—brief, to the point, not overwhelming and including a link or two to concise online resources where the consultant can do some reading on her own time.
It’s tempting to turn on the fire hose of emails, texts and other forms of communication during those early days with the belief that the new person needs everything right away. However, if we put ourselves in his shoes, keeping in mind that he’s also receiving numerous other emails from a multitude of sources, it becomes easier to understand why a little restraint is necessary. Overload a new representative, and you run the risk of sending him into either analysis paralysis, or just plain old paralysis.
A new representative needs structure, or he’ll fill the gaps with his own suppositions, whether they’re valid or not. A schedule of regular, but not intrusive or excessive touchpoints will call attention to your company’s support until that package arrives. That communication should remind him of your support and your culture while directing him back to his recruiter for personal—and face-to-face, if possible—mentoring. The focus here is on walking the new representative through those early milestones and celebrating the wins at each step, which can help build confidence.
“If people are going to succeed in this business, they need flexibility,” Silcock says. “Some people do everything online after receiving a starter kit, and some prefer their materials in print. We allow them to do both.” Young Living is about to launch a new business suite app, including a 90-day game plan for those just starting a business. Members can focus their educational efforts online or receive the materials on paper, if they’d prefer. They also receive a series of strategically timed emails designed not to bombard, but rather point the way during these early days.
Think of it this way: What new representatives have really signed up for is direct selling “101” for that particular company—in other words, guidance, and regardless of whether their respective recruiters provide it. The company can help fill any gaps left by the recruiter through a series of methodical and strategically timed touchpoints. Best practices for the exact schedule and content of those touchpoints will vary according to your own company culture, but two points are worth considering: stating your frequency up front (for example, telling new distributors that they’ll receive an email from the company every Monday and Thursday); and keeping your content brief, with links to more content if applicable.
Ordering a starter kit isn’t the only way that direct selling companies are engaging new recruits.
Some companies offer the opportunity to purchase product packs of varying size and price points, after which enrollees may purchase a starter kit if they choose. Again, the emphasis being on exposure to the products.
Other direct sellers are rolling out options like a reduced sign-up fee without a starter kit. Thirty-One Gifts has implemented on two occasions a limited-time $1 enrollment for potential new consultants. Under the terms of this promotion, potential consultants in the United States may choose from either a $1 enrollment or the traditional $99 enrollment, which includes the company’s starter kit of products and marketing materials. The $1 enrollment option doesn’t include the starter kit, so it’s particularly vital for the recruiter to onboard her new recruits. However, new consultants receive access to a personal website for a monthly fee of $14.95, along with access to online versions of business, learning and marketing materials.
Under this model, the new consultant begins without a Thirty-One Gifts starter kit on hand, which includes several of the company’s best-selling totes, home organization products and purses. She then begins to earn products, which subsequently places her in a position to hold in-person and online parties.
The response to these offers has been positive. “We’ve had a lot more sign-ups during these $1 promotions,” says Julie Sutton, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Sales Strategy. “We’re still measuring how these consultants do in the long term versus those who make the initial starter kit purchase.”
At LimeLight, Gay adds that she and her company leadership are looking at some alternative ways to engage new Beauty Guides, including printed catalogs with product samples embedded in the page for easy trial. The company also has begun a crossover effort into beauty schools, presenting its starter kit as a student kit. Throughout their education, ongoing communication of the company’s close-knit community, unique culture and business opportunity helps establish LimeLight as a viable career choice upon the students’ graduation.
Print vs. Digital: Finding the Balance
At this point, most direct sales companies offer their starter kit materials, with the exception of their products, of course, in both print and online form to accommodate the learning preferences of all demographics.
A best practice these days is to incorporate digital delivery of some content along with the physical contents of a kit. Things that change quickly or don’t need to be physical can easily be delivered via email links or back office access. Policies and procedures, apps and order forms, for example, can be digitally delivered.
Very few companies have moved their kits entirely online. The cost-cutting benefits of an online kit are obvious, but in a channel in which personal connections are so critical, going purely digital has its limitations. “What’s important is that enrollers meet with recruits the day they receive their kits, go through it with them, and be excited for them,” says Brian Altman, Senior Vice President of Operations for Zurvita. In Altman’s own experience, he adds, “Paper components work best. We did a digital brochure kit that played videos, but it didn’t increase enrollments or retention. It was very expensive and looked cool, but there wasn’t any difference.”
Cultural differences, too, can put the brakes on the digital migration of starter kits. For example, the Spanish-speaking demographic. Adams mentions a company he worked with that rolled out a high-tech, flashy version of its starter kit. Its Spanish-speaking salesforce members were slow to embrace it. This brand-loyal segment wanted back the “heart and soul” of the previous physical kit with its DVDs, literature and other physical components. Nor did they necessarily want to refer to education on their smartphones. “They didn’t want too much change or flash,” Adams says. In fact, the “changes caused a lack of trust among their prospects.”
For now, whatever format a company chooses, the content should be relatively fluid, changing to reflect new product launches, training tools and branding. The challenge is to maintain a consistent message throughout all of those pieces, a concise message that inspires action and conveys the company’s distinct culture.
Personalization will remain a cornerstone of direct selling, so we may also see greater efforts to personalize starter kits using technology. For now, companies with print-on-demand capability are including personalized welcome letters, business cards and other printed pieces within their kits.
Will print ever go out of style? That depends on who you ask, but many direct selling executives can’t imagine it. The tactile experience is such a part of making the business feel real. Perhaps the upcoming generations of “digital natives” will demand less print. Only time will tell.