This article was created to support the integration of web tools in the direct selling environment.
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Ensemble: all the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole. (www.dictionary.com)
Distributor Web Tools.
If you want to be a successful direct selling organization, you have to have them, right? The field representatives certainly want them, and tools support the field reps in doing what they do best—recruiting and selling! But this article is not about Web tools technology or the features and functions of Web tools. This article is about what Integrated Management Services (IMS) calls the “ensemble.”
The “ensemble” project refers to all the activities on the periphery of an implementation. It’s the business rules, business processes, cross-functional teams and decision-making associated with the application features and technology. For a Web tools implementation to be successful, the ensemble pieces must be taken into consideration both during the planning phases and the project launch. They can make or break a technical project (and sometimes your career!). The ensemble is often neglected in the planning phases of Web tools project in favor of the technology alone.
A clear trend exists in which direct selling companies will spend money on the technology but certainly won’t spend the time or put in the human resources to make implementations successful. Ironic, considering how valuable implementation is in any business!
The most successful direct selling companies are providing Web-based tools to their field. The productivity of the salespeople is the lifeblood of the business, and no expense should be spared in delivering that support. Let’s take a look at some of the ensemble pieces:
Goals and Organizational Buy-In
No project discussion is complete without mentioning the importance of assembling an effective project team. Web tools require effort from all aspects of the business, including marketing, sales, field support, graphic design, customer service, I.T. and management. To have a successful product launch you need that critical cross-functional team, which includes professional-level project management.
What’s the goal of your implementation? Ancillary revenue? Field support? Field training? Product sales?
Whatever your objectives, the features of the Web tools should line up with actions that drive the business (sales, recruiting, retention, growing managers and leaders), with the overall content and messaging in line with corporate objectives.
A significantly overlooked aspect is the importance of corporate buy-in that starts with and filters down from senior management. If the message isn’t clear or there is a lack of cohesion around a strategy, conflicts will show up in the product, leading to confusion in the field. The results are supportive tools that fail to make an impact on improving performance. Performance metrics should be put in place to track progress against goals and, if metrics dictate, adjustments should be made to a plan.
Product Marketing and Content, Content, Content!
To keep the field engaged there must be targeted content…and lots of it! As we mentioned before, it must be content with a message that promotes the right field behaviors and supports the field in doing what they do best.
There has to be a very solid marketing strategy to keep the field interest up with a regular series of communications, e-mail, newsletters and training sessions keeping them excited and engaged. Promote the use of the tools with sales and marketing campaigns or other incentives. As a saleable product, have new features or reports lined up for each quarter and heavily advertise the benefits. The field will expect ongoing improvements and additional features such as new reports, Web page templates, e-newsletter templates or e-cards.
Field Steering Committee
A field steering committee is critical to the success of a Web tools implementation. Select a cross section of distributors who can provide feedback about the direction and the product offering. Make sure you get not only computer-savvy distributors, but include some who are not so computer-familiar. This will help flesh out areas of the tools that require additional training or online documentation. Also make sure that you have both leaders and nonleaders so you get the perspective of the various levels.
Communicate the business goals of the Web tools implementation to this steering committee, and let them help create a more effective plan for marketing. Cultivating a sense of ownership from this field group can create field advocates who will then help sell the product for you.
Field training is critical to succeed with the not-so-technical folks. The greatest and most sophisticated system in the world is wonderful, but if the field doesn’t understand it you can lose them all. There should be plenty of online documentation, help files and FAQs. There should be some Web tools training sessions at all events as well as new-consultant training and new-leader training. There should also be monthly Webinars and conference calls to keep the distributors updated. Consider adding in basic word processing (Word), spreadsheet (Excel) and presentation (Powerpoint) software training also. Close the loop by making sure that your field support function is up to speed and can answer any additional questions that come up as a result of the training.
Have your technical folks involved from Day One (even if they don’t want to be!). Nearly every Web tools feature requires an interchange of data from your internal distributor databases to the tools system. Creating a solid and scalable architecture up front is critical to success.
One of the key elements of the tools should be interactive reporting allowing the field to sort, filter and be alerted to changes in their key performance statistics and those of their downline. It is critical that the data used for the Web tools reporting is consistent with all other reporting, including commission reports and statements. These reports include personal volumes, group or unit volumes and earnings.
Product and Vendor Management
In some cases, businesses may build the Web tools application themselves using in-house resources. This is a pretty big and time consuming effort but affords the controls and flexibility you might not get otherwise. If you decide that software development is not your core competency, there are many vendors who can provide the desired application suite.
Field support is a fairly straightforward matter but is often created as an afterthought or rolled into some other customer-service function. You need to have a reliable and effective support mechanism for the field to get fast and simple answers to the questions they can’t get online or from training. You will need to provide not only online help, but phone support and an e-mail box to drop questions into.
The hard part about an implementation like this is usually not the technology. It’s the ensemble. And there are so many critical pieces to the ensemble that require just as much attention as getting the technology right does. Done correctly, company performance improves; done incorrectly, the field is in revolt. A bad product or product launch can destroy both field confidence and momentum. So are you confident in your plan for launching a Web tools initiative now? Let’s look at a final recommendation.
Consider these questions:
- Do you have plenty of cross-functional and dedicated headcount to successfully launch this product?
- Does this team have direct selling industry experience?
- Do they know how to design, launch and market products for a volunteer army?
- Do you have goals and a marketing plan to obtain your goals?
- Do you have a field steering committee?
Web tools can bring amazing performance and financial benefits both to an organization and the field. The ensemble takes a lot of work, the right resources and the right capabilities. It’s important to focus the necessary attention on the implementation from the start and through the life of the product to get the benefits.
Kris Shenk is a Vice President of Business and Technology with Integrated Management Services Inc., a strategic business consulting firm specialized in helping direct selling companies with technology, operations and sales/marketing support. Kris has completed numerous Web tools implementations and is partnered with many of the major Web tools suppliers as an approved project manager and integrator. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.