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It has been slightly over two years since I retired after 40 years with the Direct Selling Association (DSA), first as a staff attorney and lobbyist and eventually as President and CEO. In addition, I was there at the creation of the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) and the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA), serving as Vice Chairman and Secretary General, respectively, of those two organizations. I have spent some 42 years in our industry—the reality is that it’s a method of distribution more than an industry per se—representing it, protecting it, promoting it and policing it. To say the least, I have seen much change, much adaptation, and much growth and innovation during that period. At the same time, I have seen the industry’s core values remain focused on empowering people one individual at a time, seen it being led by women and men of integrity and high moral character, and seen a continuing commitment to and passion for our distributors by corporate management.
I have also witnessed a spirit of service by our industry and its companies, their personnel and their representatives in the field in the various communities in which they operate. Given all of the good that our industry represents, it is disappointing to see the negative attacks on it. At this juncture in the road, the direct selling industry faces the question: Do we let our critics define us or do we take steps to make sure we better control our own reputation?
To explain what I mean, I will be focusing on four areas. One disclaimer that I need to make at the outset is that I am speaking for myself and only myself. I am not representing the DSA, the WFDSA or any other entity.
The four areas I will discuss are the industry’s attributes, the negative myths and canards leveled against it, the actions that can harm the reputation of the industry, and finally, what I see as possible solutions and courses of action that will continue to protect, promote and enhance the reputation of the direct selling industry. I use the terms sales persons, consultants, distributors and representatives interchangeably throughout the article.
Do we let our critics define us or do we take steps to make sure we better control our own reputation?
Direct Selling Attributes: What Are They?
Neil H. Offen served as President and CEO of the 100-year-old Direct Selling Association from 1978 to 2011. He also served as Secretary General of the 63-nation World Federation of Direct Selling Associations and as Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Education Foundation. In 1994, Offen was appointed by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the United States Senate as Vice Chairman of the board of directors of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), a U.S. government foreign-aid agency working in Latin America and the Caribbean, through which he held senior U.S. government diplomatic status. IAF has distributed approximately $1 billion to non-governmental organizations exclusively for micro-entrepreneurial endeavors.
Offen has also served on the boards of numerous organizations and councils. In addition to being inducted into the Direct Selling Hall of Fame and the DSEF’s Circle of Honor, he is also the recipient of the WFDSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Offen received his Juris Doctor degree from George Washington University and his Bachelor of Arts degree from Queens College where he was a New York State Regents Scholar. He resides with his wife, Carolyn Jennings, in Chevy Chase, Md. He has a daughter, Meredith, and a son, Michael; a daughter-in-law, Dana; and two poodles, Jasmin and Phineas Biscuit, better known as PB and J.
All of us working in direct selling believe in its positive attributes. I’ve listed here those truths about the direct selling opportunity that I believe are most powerful:
- It empowers people. Its diversity is without bounds. It offers opportunities for people to set their own objectives, great or small, through full- or part-time efforts, for career opportunities or merely for supplemental income. It is an industry that directly ties reward to effort. It does not discriminate based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age, physical condition, educational background, political beliefs or financial resources;
- It provides unlimited flexibility for the individual to achieve her or his own goals and control the time spent in the business as well as how that time is spent;
- It drives micro-enterprise development wherever it operates—in a world seeking and needing such enterprises—and is a robust, grassroots source of business skills education, guidance and training;
- It motivates people through providing recognition, quality products and services, technical resources and an overall nurturing environment with ongoing symbiotic support;
- It provides opportunities with minimal capital investment or risk of loss;
- It provides consumers with outstanding product warranties and guarantees in each marketplace in which it operates;
- Its rules and standards, through company policies and through the independently administered direct selling associations’ codes of ethics, protect both salespeople and their consumers from abuse;
- It is a simple business, though not necessarily an easy one, and due to the independent contractor status of each salesperson, it allows great ease of entry and egress;
- It is global in nature and borderless in promotion of common core values and ethical standards;
- It is innovative, adaptive and technologically friendly;
- It has a strong public service and corporate social responsibility orientation at both the corporate management and the individual distributor levels;
- It offers social contacts in a world where more and more people are becoming isolated from one another;
- It is cause-oriented where its distributors believe in the product or service or opportunity and that they are helping to fill a valuable need of friends, family, neighbors and the public at large; and
- It is a source of social and economic stability and opportunity within all its markets.
Direct selling motivates people through providing recognition, quality products and services, technical resources and an overall nurturing environment with ongoing symbiotic support.
Myths and Canards
Several untrue assertions regarding our industry permeate the Internet and mainstream news media. The following are some of the misstatements or outright lies often attributed to our business model.
Myth No. 1: All—or almost all—people who participate in direct selling lose money.
In my experience, the reality is that an overwhelming majority of people who join a direct selling company to sell products and build a business do profit from it. DSA research shows that over 80 percent of business-oriented recruits have very modest goals when joining a company and the vast majority, whether still with the firm or no longer in the industry, have their expectations met or exceeded. The distributors earning the highest level of income are the business builders who typically spend significant time on the business selling, recruiting, motivating and training distributors and consumers in their organizations. They generally constitute between 10 percent and 20 percent of the salesforce. There is nothing wrong or unethical about this model, and this is similar to most non-direct selling retail sales organizations.
In addition, the industry has implemented safeguards against financial loss. The biggest protection against financial loss for all participating in our business is the unconditional product money-back guarantees for consumers and, for sales people, our minimum 90 percent inventory buy-back. All DSAs require their member companies to offer buy-back protection to all their distributors. Membership in a DSA is an added protection from abuse for sales people, potential sales people and consumers.
Myth No. 2: Self-consumption by sales persons is a problematic practice.
In fact, there is no binding precedent that establishes that a set amount of sales must be sold to persons outside the sales organization. The seminal FTC/Amway case in 1979 created a “70% rule,” but that rule only applied to the requirement that the distributors certify that they had sold at least 70 percent of their inventory in the prior month before they could be permitted to buy additional inventory. (Note: This case was long before the industry adopted the 90 percent inventory buy-back standard as part of the DSA Code of Ethics, which occurred in the mid-1990s.)
Our industry’s standard of the buy-back removes the possibility of inventory loading if the firm is bound by the buy-back and it is properly administered. A distributor who purchases a product to personally consume it is a “consumer,” and there is nothing inherently wrong with paying compensation on these product sales.
Myth No. 3: Multilevel direct sales firms will fail due to geometric progression and turnover rates.
This simply may seem logical mathematically, but only if you start with the assumption that everyone is purchasing products solely to qualify to earn large amounts of compensation by creating a network and earning compensation on similar downline purchases. It does not occur in the real world because the assumption is faulty. Most persons signing up as salespeople in our industry are either seeking to buy product at a discount or for supplemental income, putting in less than 11 hours per week, and not that much in every week.
The FTC tried to make the geometric progression argument to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Ger-Ro-Mar Inc. vs. FTC case back in 1975. Ger-Ro-Mar sold bras and lingerie. In the words of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals:
“We find no flaw in the mathematics or the extrapolation [presented by the FTC] and agree that the prospect of a quarter of a billion brassiere and girdle hawkers is not only impossible but frightening to contemplate, particularly since it is in excess of the present population of the Nation, only about half of whom hopefully are prospective lingerie consumers. However, we live in a real world and not fantasyland (emphasis added).”
As stated above, the reality is that a majority join a direct sales firm either after having been a customer or wishing to buy its products at a discounted price. Most sales people and most direct sales firms market low-ticket, consumable products, and my educated guess is that over 50 percent of such sales people are sales people in name only. They buy the firms’ products at a discounted price for personal consumption and do not sell products or recruit other distributors. This percentage of “discount buyers” may approach over 90 percent of the salesforce of some firms and account for over 90 percent of product sales.
As with any sales organization, the industry experiences a high rate of turnover in its salesforce, but people join and leave a salesforce for a variety of reasons. For example, if a woman was working only one month before Christmas to earn Christmas present money, she would contribute to the high turnover rate even though she might return year after year for decades during the Christmas season. In addition, based on data that I have seen over the years, many sales people sell for more than one direct sales firm during the year, either simultaneously or at different times. I believe that between 10 percent and 20 percent of the sales organization falls into this category, thereby overstating turnover rates.
One final point on the geometric progression canard: I believe that the turnover rate of retail store personnel and franchise employees is very high. Strange that we don’t hear more about that and the fact that some work in retail stores because they are given employee discounts as part of their compensation plan. According to recent data, retail store employee discounts are often extended to the employee’s family and even sometimes to friends.
Actions That Can Harm the Reputation of the Industry
The reputation of our industry can be negatively impacted by a number of factors including the following:
1. Misconduct by a Member of a Salesforce
As sales people in any industry, most participants in direct selling conduct business in an ethical and consumer- and recruit-friendly manner. It is unfortunate but true that the reputation of the industry is negatively impacted if a participant inappropriately markets products or the income opportunity in a misleading way. Given the millions of participants in the direct selling industry, even the acts of a small percentage of participants can create significant reputational harm. Examples of acts that can damage the industry’s reputation include:
- Exaggerated earnings claims made to prospective recruits;
- Exaggerated or false product claims;
- High-pressure recruiting and sales tactics; and
- Excessive non-corporate training/motivational expenses.
2. Business Practices
It is also important that companies properly evaluate business initiatives and compensation incentives before they are implemented to make sure they do not motivate or incentivize problematic behavior. For example, I believe that compensating the salesforce for sign-up fees—which is one strong indicator of a possible pyramid scheme—as well as sales kits and aids, samples, and training fees and materials can create an incentive that increases the cost of the investment to join the business and the associated potential risk of loss to a new participant.
3. Enforcement of Distributor Policies and Codes of Ethics
If a company fails to diligently monitor the activities of its salesforce and enforce its ethical standards, regulations and policies, it will ultimately contribute to inappropriate actions that damage not only the reputation of the company but also the industry. A large number of participants join our industry each month, which makes it an imperative that companies adequately train the salesforce on marketing claims, legal requirements and the industry’s code of ethics. Companies cannot be passive in this effort.
Having touched upon some of the attributes, myths and problematic practices, let me now turn to a view of the future that maximizes our positive attributes and potentially helps quash some of the negative stereotypes and myths that presently afflict us. Here are my high-level recommendations for the industry that I believe will further strengthen the industry and its reputation.
1. Continue to Enhance Consumer Protective Measures
I believe our industry has done a remarkable job developing consumer and distributor protective policies and codes of ethics. The industry standard of a 12-month return policy plays a critical role in protecting distributors from inventory loading risks. Unconditional 100 percent consumer product money-back guarantees should continue to be encouraged.
The DSA Code of Ethics establishes a baseline of important ethical practices for companies to follow. It is important that we continue to evaluate whether there are additional measures that can be adopted to further enhance the protection of consumers and distributors. The following are areas where I think additional protections may be beneficial to consumers, distributors and the industry:
Compensation Summary: I believe the industry should adopt and implement an industry-wide standard of transparency and disclosure regarding various relevant aspects of compensation earned by its salesforce members. Many of our companies already make such disclosures, which provide prospective recruits with protection from misleading claims that could be made by a participant in the salesforce. No one can criticize us if we provide full disclosure of earnings. Presenting prospective recruits with detailed distributor earnings data during the recruiting process as well as on our websites and in our literature will eliminate most of the risk of the salesforce exaggerating the opportunities we are offering.
It is important that such disclosure be complete and provide sufficient information to furnish a fair overview of the earnings potential. Creating an industry standard will assist other companies and provide a norm they can follow. Once in place, all companies taking this transparency approach would be free from any charges of financially misleading members and prospective members of the salesforce.
Minimizing Risk of Loss: A critical component of the industry’s code of ethics is its 12-month inventory return policy, which was adopted to reduce the risk of loss for new participants. Salespeople utilizing the return policies should be able to do so easily and expeditiously. The industry also needs to remain diligent in monitoring and evaluating trends and developments in business practices and activities of direct sellers to identify additional measures that should be adopted to ensure the industry always has comprehensive measures to protect consumers and distributors.
For example, I recommend that it should be made more clear that the current buy-back policy includes other purchases by new participants in the business such as sales aids, training costs and starter kits. I believe that DSAs should promulgate code provisions to codify some of the best practices in the industry, including restricting payments on certain types of compensation.
2. Educate Our Constituencies
- Members in the DSAs should take the opportunity to participate in industry research and surveys done by outside third-party firms retained by DSAs so that the industry will have accurate and credible data for use with the press, governmental entities, academia and other constituencies.
- Member companies can further increase their focus on educating their salesforce and customers regarding compliance policies and codes of ethics. Having a salesforce that is knowledgeable about the code of ethics—and their responsibilities under such code—is important to the long-term success of our industry. Member companies should have the necessary compliance staff and provide the training to accomplish this. I believe the head of this function should report to the CEO or general counsel. Companies should also have a whistle-blower system in place.
- Member companies should work to further improve their customer relations departments with a philosophy of total consumer and distributor satisfaction and excellent service. This is not just good business, it’s also smart business.
- There should be ongoing and significant public education efforts portraying the industry as it truly is, through public relations efforts based on solid data and useful information, public service activities, promotion of quality research, excellent use of social media channels and targeted projects to educate key influencers in society (e.g., legislators, regulators, the financial press, the “style” and general news media, academia, think tanks and consumer protection organizations). We have an opportunity to tell “our story,” much more effectively. This will require substantially increased financial commitments by the companies to those efforts.
- Annually, the WFDSA global “best practices” exchanges will ensure our industry is operating in all our markets on a consistent basis, at the highest ethical levels, and with the most effective ways to protect our corporate interests through taking the high road in building and sustaining our reputation, image and brand. Strengthening DSAs across the globe strengthens our industry. All industry firms should belong to the national DSA in the countries in which they operate.
Now is not the time to relax in our efforts to be a consumer-friendly, consumer-protective industry. This is critical to our long-term success and the success of the people who rely on this industry for income opportunities and life-enhancing products. We must constantly evaluate our business trends and practices and be willing to take additional steps to protect our industry and its participants.
Having worked in 50 countries throughout my career, I have seen that the DSAs that are most successful are those with the support of the majority of companies in the country. I believe strong DSAs are critical to success, and I can’t emphasize enough that all industry companies should be members of the association in the countries in which they do business to most effectively do the job necessary on behalf of the industry.
Our business model not only works, but it is also a good thing for free enterprise, society and individual freedom. Its success is built on maintaining existing and establishing new personal relationships based on truth and trust. We and our sales people want happy customers and satisfied recruits. We and our sales people want to be good corporate citizens and contribute to society. In other words, we and our sales people want to do well while doing good.