S4DS - Technology Problems In Direct Selling?


This week’s article is from Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners. Brett has worked in direct selling since 2002, holding titles that include Vice President of Global Marketing and Sr. Director of Online Solutions. He works directly with direct selling companies as a strategic facilitator and corporate consultant, specializing in leading marketing, communications and digital teams and projects

Most Technology Problems in Direct Selling Are Not Actually Technology Problems 

direct selling companies

Having started my career in the direct selling industry in 2002, you can imagine the swift changes I’ve experienced in a relatively short period of time in how direct selling works. I’m sure many of you can say the same. As the model evolves and adapts, we found ourselves today rethinking components of direct selling that seemed like bedrocks of our business.

At the forefront of these changes you’ll find technology as an equal-opportunity provider of both opportunity and confusion in direct selling. Technology has opened many new doors while also creating countless new challenges for today’s direct selling company.

And here’s a truth we all know too well: these opportunities and challenges aren’t going away anytime soon.

Many of the projects I work on with direct selling companies incorporate the creation of what I call a “Digital Roadmap.” Companies are finally understanding the importance of matching their efforts in both development and online marketing to the company’s overall strategy.

In doing this work, I’ve noticed some extremely common challenges direct selling companies face related to technology and their digital presence. There are certainly obstacles for every company when it comes to understanding and improving how to leverage the capabilities of technology to support the business. However, as I look back on the challenges most clients face, I notice that the real issues are rarely the capability of the technology, but rather the management of the technology (and all that implies).

Put another way, the “technology problems” often aren’t “technology problems” at all.

Listed below are the key problems related to technology projects that most companies experience. It’s worth repeating that I definitely recognize how technology itself can be complicated and challenging. The point here is that how we think about it, manage it and implement it is much more often the issue than the technology itself.

1. Technology Problems Can Be Overrated.

It’s easy to look at how other direct selling companies operate and envy components of their digital presence. You may count the number of clicks it takes to enroll, or marvel at the layout of their back office dashboard, or covet their Distributor app. We’ve all done it.

But it would be wrong to think that direct selling success and best-in-class technology go hand-in-hand. They do not.

I often enroll with various direct selling companies just to stay on top of the industry and gain insights into new developments. I’m always interested in how companies handle the online enrollment process, on so many different levels.

Recently, I enrolled with a rather hot company in our industry right now. By all accounts, this company is adding new Distributors hand over fist every month, and has developed an impressive customer acquisition approach. This company is only a few years old, meaning it was able to incorporate social media, mobile marketing, e-commerce and so many other components of digital business that other companies have had to adapt.

So my assumption was that this company would have everything together when it comes to their online enrollment process. I was shocked to discover it was one of the worst online enrollment processes I’ve ever experience in direct selling!

I’ve seen this happen with other companies who are growing. Components of their technological footprint can be average at best. And yet it doesn’t stop them from enrolling. Shopping or enrolling may be clunky, and yet it doesn’t stop people from doing it.

When you aren’t growing, it’s very easy to blame technology (or a lack of it) for your woes. But I think one of the fascinating parts of direct selling is that the personal connections and support that occur between a Distributor and her customer is overwhelmingly strong and can overcome even the clunkiest process.

Should we strive to be excellent in the digital experience for our customers and prospects? Of course! But I can also tell you that it’s not the silver bullet we sometimes think it is. You may be overrating technology’s impact on your overall business right now. Put another way, your problems may be way more than just technology.

  1. We Become Slaves to the System.

Have you ever heard this phrase: “Oh, our system can’t do that.” Or, “Our system doesn’t allow that.”

Have you ever said a phrase like that?

I’ve never worked with a direct selling company that didn’t say that phrase. So many companies are still running on inflexible, poorly implemented systems at the foundation that it makes it very difficult to adapt to the ever-updating world of technology. We have homegrown systems that have been band-aided to keep up with today’s demands. We have out-of-the-box systems that cover 80% of our needs, but not 100%.

Sound familiar?

Some of the best guidance I’ve ever heard on managing technology projects states that you cannot let the system dictate the ultimate solution. We must think in terms of solving the problem at hand completely and innovatively. Then, we must develop the “system” to make it happen.

Are you a slave to your system? Do the constraints and current capabilities of your platforms dictate how you solve problems? How you innovate? Are you married to your system, for better or for worse?

If we must get nit-picky, then, yes, your “system” actually is a technology problem (technically speaking). But the real issue I see with companies is the underlying issue: they don’t have the courage or the commitment to address the system issues. They don’t want to take on the risk of making the necessary updates or changes. They want to keep slapping on another band-aid and hope the problem goes away.

I get all of that. But it’s an approach that will create more problems than it solves. And it’s an approach that’s extremely common in direct selling.

  1. Your Business Model May Be Too Clunky.

Operating a direct selling company can be a very complicated matter. Areas that seem so foundational to many of us, like compensation plans and replicated websites and promotions, can be rather taxing on standard technology platforms.On top of that, every direct selling company has its own idiosyncrasies that can both make it unique in the marketplace while also making it a unique technological challenge. On top of that, the impact a small change in one area can have in other areas can often be massive and go unnoticed, at least upfront. One domino leads to another.

What I’m saying is that the way your company chooses to do business may be the real issue, not the technology.

I’m not suggesting that you change your business model or methods (see point #2 above). But you may need to be a tad patient as your company investigates and maps out the best way to bring your business approach to life. From dates for commission payments to flexibility in auto-shipments to downline roll-ups to promotional codes and discounts, understand that direct selling has a way of putting a nice little twist on things that otherwise seem straightforward.

In other instances, your business method may not warrant the technological challenges that it creates. Rather than finding the right technology to fit certain components of your business, maybe the better decision is to rethink the business method itself.

  1. No One Knows How to Properly Prioritize Technology Projects.

Of all the challenges I see in direct selling companies, this one is hands down the most prevalent.

IT Directors work hard to manage timelines and scope projects, and keep their teams focused on the projects at hand. Other executives get frustrated at having to wait for their turn in line with IT, watching opportunity after opportunity seemingly pass by. Sales and marketing changes direction at the drop of a hat. Finance and operations swallow up a large chunk of IT resources just to keep the business running. And the IT team feels like they’re falling short and making no progress due to the company’s lack of respect for the prioritization process.

On top of this, because of past experiences with stated priorities not actually being “priorities,” there’s a lack of confidence within the company that you’ll even stick with your plan anyway. So why take it too seriously?

These issues can run deep and touch everyone. There is blame to go around, no doubt.

In this case, the real “technology” challenge occurs because the technology resources are never fully dedicated to the stated priorities, because so many other things keep coming up. It’s a matter of focus. It’s a lack of vision and planning. And because you don’t take the time to properly prioritize your projects, and respect those priorities, it has a compounded negative effect that touches virtually every part of your business.

  1. You Don’t Commit to the Proper Resources.

I’ve stated in other articles that I believe the most valuable resource for today’s direct selling company (at the corporate level) are developers. Everything we do, from incentive criteria to comp plan updates to email marketing, requires some form of development. Therefore, the companies with the best development wins.

As a general rule, I’ve noticed direct selling companies typically have some great talent in terms of developers. The skill level of the developers they have is high. The problem is that most direct selling companies don’t hire enough developers.

So many companies still operate under the approach of an IT staff that helps maintain the business. In 2002, it probably made sense to only have a developer or two. Today, that won’t cut it.Whether you hire full-time staff or outsource the work to third parties, you must consider increasing the number of developers you employ. If every project in the company is waiting on some form of development (and I would guess 80% of them are), and if those projects mean nothing until they are actually published, then increasing the bandwidth of your developers is your biggest “technology” challenge.

Put another way, it’s not the technology that’s the issue; it’s having enough people working on it that is the issue.

  1. Who Actually Owns Technology?

Many direct selling companies struggle with who “owns” technology at their company.

Is it IT? Is it a component of marketing? Is it something new, a “digital champion” that helps think through the lens of digital in all aspects of the business?

To be honest, I don’t think technology is one of those things that can be owned by any single department. It’s too big, and can imply too much.Because of that, I watch the ball get dropped at many companies because the ultimate ownership is unknown. A traditional IT mindset teaches that you’re a “service organization,” taking direction and prioritization from “the business,” and then simply doing the work.

However, most executives are expecting more out of the IT group. They are looking for innovation and strategic input and enhancements. At the same time, the “business” provides generic direction and scope to IT, hoping they somehow magically make it all make sense in the end.

There’s a large space between the traditional IT approach of “just tell us what to build” and the hectic executive visionary approach of “just go make something awesome.” And it’s a space most direct selling companies still haven’t figured out how to fill.

There’s no formulaic way to address this gap. Every company works differently, and therefore deserves a customized approach. But what is consistent is the need to identify who the person is for each project that truly owns it. Who owns the work necessary between “just tell us what to do” and “just go do it?” Who understands both the possibilities of technology today as well as the process to implement it properly? And who has the business acumen to know how it all fits within the confines of the company’s strategy?

  1. Expectations Are Not Clear from Beginning to End.

We’ve all heard many a CEO “learn the hard way” when it comes to establishing clear expectations regarding IT projects, be that with internal resources or third-party solutions. It seems like it’s almost a rite of passage, especially for founders.

What we all want is to take 15 minutes and give someone an exciting vision and brain dump of how we think something could work, then let them run off for a couple months, then come back and see it exactly the way we envisioned it, if not better.

This, of course, doesn’t happen. Not only can clear direction on any project of importance not be established in 15 minutes, but it’s also unreasonable to think everyone truly gets it after hearing it for the first time.

More importantly, it’s unreasonable to think that you will fully understand it at the beginning, much less anyone else.

Your biggest technology challenge may actually be a matter of clear and ongoing direction. If you have a vision for a specific project, you must stay involved in checking its status on a regular basis.

Your biggest technology challenge may actually be your schedule and your availability. It may be your belief that “you don’t need to see it until it’s done.” It may be your management style. It may be in assuming too much will go as planned (because it never does).

Too many executives shortchange their direction and involvement in a technology project, and then wonder why they are disappointed with the final results. When you don’t clarify expectations upfront, and then all along the way to the finish line, it’s impossible for them to be met.

By Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners.




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