Product Knowledge Is Retention Power

As companies like Best Buy add local service and home consultation, direct sales organizations must train distributors on every aspect of the products they sell to remain competitive. The personalized in-home selling trend will reach every corner of the consumer market over the next five to ten years, placing the direct selling one-on-one customer relationship advantage in mortal peril. Product knowledge training is the basis for improved sales, faster product and business process innovation.

But most companies struggle to keep their reps trained, let alone ingest the ongoing feedback from the field that can ignite higher revenue and profits. Too often leadership’s expectations are based on ageing practices that are obsolete in the era of cloud services.

As selling becomes personalized, mobile, and mission-based in the hands of values-driven generations, the tools needed to successfully mine the data created through these interactions are the highest priority for a sales organization. In direct selling, the imperative to gather and analyze feedback from representatives is rising in the face of aggressive retail investment in personalization, not to mention improving distributor retention rates in an increasingly mobile workforce.

Product knowledge is the foundation of customer engagement and trust. “87 [percent] of consumers said they would be unlikely or very unlikely to make a repeat purchase with a retailer that provided inaccurate product information,” according to Shotfarm.com, a Chicago content management company. Each sales rep who flubs a fundamental product knowledge question because they are selling outside their area of competence due to poor coaching runs the risk of permanently losing a customer for the brand.

Combining content management with machine learning to deliver personalized product training to salespeople in the field redefines the challenge of keeping product knowledge up to date. “Smart” tools assist in building product knowledge and coach salespeople toward the products with which they are most likely to succeed. As marketing, training, and sales content libraries grow, machine librarians will be poised to help distributors tell a consistently expert story about products.

Augmenting a sales rep with appropriate content and sales process coaching ensures a brand can deliver the right content to a curious prospective buyer at the right time.

Today, sales and marketing leadership is challenged to rethink the training process to accelerate sales conversion rates while building higher customer retention rates based on distributor engagement in the branded selling process. Every salesperson-customer relationship is unique and companies today must treat them as such. This is a new opportunity, one born of the information era and utterly foreign to traditional sales strategy that uses one training program across the entire company.

Starting with achievable expectations

It is not necessary to try to train everyone in an organization about every product in the same way. Instead, training is conceived as a personalized experience that addresses the specific learning and selling styles of the salespeople in the field. This groundwork lays the tracks to personalization of customer experience.

Tracking sales activity using automation turns organization-wide product knowledge training into a tractable problem. Since direct-selling representatives tend to specialize in niche areas within a brand’s product portfolio, targeted training allows sales management to fine-tune product knowledge investments. Knowing precisely which products a direct sales distributor is trying to sell, machine learning enabled content platforms can identify knowledge gaps and serve up training that addresses the individual distributor and their customer’s needs.

Instead of aiming for 100 percent product knowledge across the company, the platform allows leadership to treat product knowledge challenges in isolation, using the sales coaching process to move distributors toward complete competence in their area of interest. People in the field experience less frustration because they receive more information that is relevant to them, which leads to a higher retention rate among distributors. That product knowledge competence extends to the customer experience as distributors become deep experts who can answer every customer question quickly and accurately.

When great distributors stay, they keep their customers with the company.

Diane Valenti writing for the Association of Talent Development suggests managers develop “return-on-investment” expectations as a baseline for training investments. “Assuming that sales reps are applying what they learned, you can measure whether what they are doing is getting results using sales metrics that you already have in place,” Valenti said. “Don’t invent anything new.”

Direct sales companies can start out with the content and process they have today and modify it, rather than try to reinvent themselves from scratch. Existing training video, audio, and documents can link to assessments of how well a sales rep has learned.

As a starting point, marketing and sales teams in direct selling organizations can base assessments of distributor competence on individual sales success, not just the all-up sales results for the organization. By capturing more feedback from each rep, such as asking them review questions a part of a daily or weekly briefing delivered to their phone or having them record customer interest level after each conversation, leadership can move quickly to refine training programs at the individual content asset level to improve overall performance.  This investment leads to improved conversion rates and average revenue per customer as the likelihood customers will become dissatisfied due to knowledge gaps in the organization is reduced because each representative is well trained.

Resisting investment in training is costly. Ignoring feedback from reps can be deadly. The Center for American Progress estimated that organizations with poor training see $13.5 million in costs due to poor skills, employee disengagement and higher turnover. For a direct selling network with 20,000 distributors, the direct costs and lost sales could be as high as $270 million annually.

Product knowledge training based on extensive feedback and personalization is a source of product and marketing ideas, not just a means to sell.

The ideas captured by listening intently to reps responding to customer needs can be used to redesign products and improve the customer journey. Insight at the field level will determine which companies win. Boston Consulting Group research in 2015 found that fast innovators are more successful, bringing new features and categories to market more quickly to generate as much as 30 percent of revenue annually from new products. Survivors of creative destruction don’t eke by, they thrive.

Successful training based on knowing “What’s Next?”

The training process itself is the map to organization-wide improvement.  An attribution modelling strategy systematically allows a company to lay out its expected sales journey and compare the resulting training and sales feedback with initial assumptions to pinpoint content and training gaps. The steps in the sales journey become a template for “What’s Next” in the representative’s day long after they have complete product knowledge. The same information used to train a rep can be repurposed to support their selling.

Product knowledge training linked to sales success or the setbacks experienced by reps in the field is also a leading indicator of customer issues. Following up on customer conversations with training material related to the engagement keeps the rep focused on learning and providing even more feedback about a product’s perceived value.

Automation leaves managers more time for understanding feedback, rapid, intuitive analysis of sales data, and improved content programming and product development. They can deliver more of what the field needs: Guidance and better resources. A What’s Next-based sales platform managed by a machine learner can experiment with the content delivery process, analyze the impact of small changes on conversion, and translate the findings into new sales journeys, as well as mine feedback for delivery to the product team.

A content platform with machine learning keeps the information stream to the distributor concentrated on what drives sales success for one person and one product, or an entire brand with minimal human oversight.

By making product knowledge the fulcrum of customer engagement, with personalized training for the distributor to help them move to better outcomes, a direct selling company reinforce its one-to-one relationship advantage in the market. Ultimately, the What’s Next design anticipates the customer’s questions, identifying their needs to give the representative greater insight into what drives the sales decision for each prospect.

The question every sales leader must confront is: “Are you confident that your sales team knows everything about your products that the customer will want to know before buying?” The answer at each step is found in laying out what the expected next step toward a close and measuring for success after each engagement.

The 70,000-ft. view of sales results is no longer sufficient in the personalized marketplace; managers must use automation to move along with their salespeople at the edge of the network.

See You In San Diego

Gig Economy Group and LifeVantage will be presenting at the upcoming Direct Selling Association 2018 Annual Meeting in San Diego, June 17 through 19. We look forward to meeting you at the event, where our team will be exploring critical questions about the future of direct selling. Schedule a demo or reach out to meet and talk at our suite during the event.

We would also appreciate your joining our blog team for a discussion at the event about the challenges facing the industry. We will be writing about direct-selling in the weeks before DSA 2018 and would like to include your thoughts in our reports. Send an email to schedule an interview.

 

Closing A Critical Gap: Marketing and Sales Alignment

The central role of one-to-one relationships in direct selling places unique demands on marketing and sales leadership. Together they can succeed spectacularly but misalignment reduces conversion rates, wasting valuable investment in lead generation and customer experience.

As sales practices evolve to emphasize pre-conversion communication and trust-building through mobile apps, direct sales companies can leverage their unique human connection with customers for unprecedented advantage over retail and online brands. Historically, however, marketing and sales have competed for resources within network marketing organizations instead of working together to establish and disseminate best practices.

Competition between marketing and sales teams opens a costly divide within a company that limits the ability to develop and share best practices. If marketing messages fail to move the sales process forward, valuable leads are lost. Sales teams in direct selling often rely on their marketing partners for training content, company messaging to distributors and, in many cases, sales collateral designed to convey overarching value propositions which are not communicated consistently during the sales process. Without iron-clad data to prove replicable sales success or that points to where conversions are lost, the quest for change can become futile.

Beyond creating discord in the messages prospects and customers receive, the struggle for dominance within direct selling companies hits the bottom line hard.

Organizations with Strong Marketing and Sales Alignment Outperform Their Peers in Current Metrics. Source: The Aberdeen Group

A lack of alignment between marketing and sales messaging results in 14 percent lower achievement of sales goals annually and lowers customer retention by 11.1 percent, the Aberdeen Group reported in April 2017. When sales and marketing collaborate successfully, Aberdeen Marketing and Sales Effectiveness analyst Andrew Moravick writes, companies “grow revenue at 64 percent greater rate” than poorly aligned organizations.

As retail and online marketers increase spending on personalization in 2018 by 54.2 percent year-over-year, according to technology market research firm IDC, direct sellers need to tighten marketing/sales alignment to keep up with the best brands in the world.

It is time to augment direct selling content and customer relationship management systems with machine learning, often referred to as “Artificial Intelligence.” These tools arm direct-selling distributors with the right content for a specific customer at the most opportune moment in their journey.

Customer-centric, mobile-first context is king

Content rules when it is delivered at the right time. Content without context, like a confusing value proposition, turns off the customer.

Sales has changed, placing a premium on providing pre-sales information based on situational awareness of the customer’s needs. As companies develop huge content libraries necessary to support a rich customer journey, machine intelligence can serve as a context-aware librarian that retrieves the message, video, or collateral needed. The salesperson’s intuition can blend seamlessly with a machine learning platform if the final choice is left to the human in the field.

In addition to targeting the customer’s needs, a next-generation direct selling platform requires awareness of the salesperson’s strengths, product knowledge, and relationship with a prospect. Depending on the level of trust established between representative and customer, different content and messages can save or close a sale.

Marketing and sales leaders should work together using an attribution modelling strategy when starting out with content platforms using machine learning. Harvard Business Review authors Werner Reinartz and Rajkumar Venkatesan write that the attribution modelling approach “allows companies to attribute appropriate credit to each online and offline contact and touch point in a customer’s purchase cycle, and understand its role in the revenues that ultimately result.”

Leadership can begin by identifying a single target customer persona, then mapping out their ideal customer journey and the rules for handling each critical engagement expected to move the sale forward. This exercise compels marketing and sales leaders to talk about the customer-salesperson relationship based on a mutual understanding of the company’s customer persona, the target’s needs, and established product value propositions.

The extra ingredient that transforms this work into an alignment tool is the use of measurable events within the marketing engagement and sales journey to establish accountability for each team.

Growing measurable best practices

A high degree of humility is required in the face of real-time reporting. Feedback from the field shines a light on critical content marketing gaps, as well as a faulty sales strategy. Organizations can use machine learning-augmented content platforms to move from annual or semi-annual content development and sales planning to a quarterly or faster pace to optimize their sales processes.

At first, the mapped process represents a collective but untested agreement. With the help of a machine learning algorithm that applies the rules to find, contextualize, and deliver marketing content that supports the sales process. Real-world feedback generated by salespeople in the field will tease out multiple customer journeys. After that a fine-grained range of personae can be addressed with targeted content, expanding the addressable market without high incremental content production costs.

When designing a target customer journey, the teams can start with an inventory of existing content and map it to key conversion points in the sales process to establish accountability for message consistency. Sales leaders can be confident that poor content targeting assumptions during the planning stage will be clearly visible in the resulting metrics while marketers will be able to point out how content is misused in the field. These trade-offs can energize the entire company.

The attribution modelling strategy also gives leadership the ability to assess how marketing investments impact revenue generation. Simple rules for attribution can be used by a machine learning algorithm to adjust messaging cadence, the order in which content is presented at key touchpoints in the customer journey. As distributors add their feedback about customer interest and objections through a mobile app, the algorithm can be enriched to deliver insights that drive an organizational emotional intelligence unprecedented in sales.

Prior to cloud-based big data services, the initial rules and data generated by executing the rules would have required predictive analysis to be useful, but a machine learning algorithm can accelerate and simplify the process for management.

Customer feedback drives rapid organizational optimization

As distributors choose different messages and adjust the language they use when communicating through a machine learning-enabled content platform, the algorithm watches and propagates the what works best to improve outcomes across the entire organization, from headquarters to the field. By testing relentlessly variations in the order content is presented, suggesting new text through email, SMS, and social interactions, sales and marketing leaders assisted by a machine learning platform can evolve best practices informed by actual distributor decisions.

Moreover, poor sales performers in need of more training, specific types of coaching or improved product knowledge will be identified more easily than in direct selling’s largely manual sales reporting process. An investment in content targeting exposes the opportunity to improve individual distributors’ sales skills, as well as enrollee retention and sales conversion rates.

Sales and marketing alignment grows revenue overall and keeps customers buying. The Aberdeen Group reported that “Best-in-Class” companies, which see consistent year-over-year reductions in the length of their sales cycles and improvement in company sales quota achievements, “have complete or strong marketing and sales alignment, compared to just 45 [percent] of All Others.”

Direct selling companies that embrace machine learning platforms must be prepared to iterate based on the discoveries of weaknesses in their initial, idealized process. The rewards are numerous, from lower training costs and higher distributor retention rates, growing revenue and long-term customer engagement.

As data accumulates, each customer engagement, in email, in-person, online, broadcast, and the phone is revealed to be more, or less, important than leadership expected. Content and messaging gaps will become obvious because conversion rate changes are immediately reported by the system.

See You In San Diego

Gig Economy Group and LifeVantage will be presenting at the upcoming Direct Selling Association 2018 Annual Meeting in San Diego, June 17 through 19. We look forward to meeting you at the event, where our team will be exploring critical questions about the future of direct selling. Schedule a demo or reach out to meet and talk at our suite during the event.

We would also appreciate your joining our blog team for a discussion at the event about the challenges facing the industry. We will be writing about direct-selling in the weeks before DSA 2018 and would like to include your thoughts in our reports. Send email to schedule an interview.

Onboarding: Turning Training Into First Sales

Direct-selling organizations have some advantages over traditional sales organizations during employee onboarding. Instead of being locked into a Human Resources-defined schedule, direct-sellers start people off in the field with experienced sponsors who collaborate daily. They can start to deliver training in many geographic locations every day.

Each direct-selling advantage also comes at a cost, especially as software and content delivery become central to onboarding. The lack of an established training program reduces consistency, which results in less effective communication of the brand and sales messaging, leading to poor conversion rates at a critical phase in the new employee’s experience.

If a sponsor fails to perform their training role, making the new distributor familiar with and committed to the company’s mission, the recruit is likely to leave within weeks of enrollment. A novice direct-selling representative, like 73 percent of employees who are brought onboard through a Human-Resources directed program, wants to start with an orientation to the company’s mission and policies. Early comprehensive orientation is essential to a new recruit’s sense of confidence.

Direct-selling organizations that have continued to rely on manual training tools and sales reporting leave management detached from individual training outcomes, unable to respond to gaps in the onboarding process with new content and process refinements. The result is an industry-wide distributor retention rate that trails the economy as a whole. Meanwhile, retail and brand marketing companies are rapidly adopting digital training tools, raising the stakes for direct-selling brands that want to remain competitive in the age of personalization.

According to Training Magazine, 22 percent of companies increased onboarding spending in 2017 while 17 percent added to ongoing product knowledge training expenditures. The same survey also found that sales onboarding using online tools was embraced by 91 percent of sales organizations last year, compared to 80 percent in 2016. Sales managers using platform technologies are tuning into each challenge faced by new reps and tracking how new hires perform overall to optimize their training programs.

Paper- and sponsor-based training don’t deliver the feedback required to continually improve onboarding outcomes. With emerging sales and personalization platforms direct-selling companies can transform sales training into sales activity, not hypothetical presentations and sales exercises, from the first day a distributor joins.

Onboarding First Action: Sell

Recruiting is expensive. Attrition steals valuable sponsor-distributor time that could be spent on revenue-generating selling. Quantum Workplace estimates that the cost of recruiting a new employee averaged $4,129 in 2017. For direct sales organizations, a lost recruit is a tax on the sponsor and the company. The fastest-growing sales networks focus new, often impatient, distributors on selling activities from Day One to reduce attrition.

The new distributor who makes a sale in the first two weeks is likely is likely to stay engaged with the company for six years, while almost all their recruitment cohort will depart the program within five years because of lack of success. Success breeds confidence in the program. Direct selling companies have 90 days to ensure their overall return on recruiting investments, they must engage with new distributors through mobile-first tools that maximize feedback and personalize training.

Sponsor-distributors also need tools to help engage, train, and retain new enrollees. Every moment spent on non-selling activity during that time is potentially wasted, so sponsors don’t have time to watch over each recruit’s shoulder to ensure they follow the training process. Platform-based software using machine-learning can step in to support sponsors during the onboarding process, offering the trainee supportive messages and video to address day-to-day process issues. Mobile tools connect sponsors to recruits based on data-driven insights about enrollees’ progress against goals, ensuring they receive human support when it is most needed. This augmented human training approach can extend systematic training for months, exceeding the Society of Human Resource Management’s recommended three-month minimum.

Blending real sales activity with content and sponsor messaging that reinforces company values and policies is an antidote to the high attrition rates in direct selling. The experience of selling a product can turn a doubtful recruit into a long-term contributor. Because most sales reps fail to follow-up with prospects more than once, rather than the five to six times engagements required to close a sale, early training must reinforce the importance of daily sales activity. Those actions and the conversions produced will sell the enrollee on the importance of following the company sales process.

The keystone of early sales success is consistent personalized training delivered in real-world sales tools.

Sandy, Utah-based LifeVantage provides new distributors free iPhone or Android apps that begin onboarding at enrollment, including real sales actions they can take on Day One. Serving a customized stream of video training combined with tasks such as entering contacts and sending outreach messages, the LifeVantage App encourages new distributors to take steps that help speed initial sales. The LifeVantage app alerts distributors immediately when a prospect responds to a message or media shared, an important factor in converting sales. The Harvard Business Review reports that sales follow-ups within an hour of an expression of interest are seven times more likely to have a meaningful conversation that moves the prospect toward a closing.

Constant Improvement

Today’s economy exacts a harsh toll on companies that fail to adapt. Younger workers are more inclined than previous generations to move on from organizations that cannot demonstrate a commitment to their success. Because it takes as long as eight months for employees to achieve their full productivity, “technology can save onboarding from itself” by extending training at scale, as Robert Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2015.

No company can afford to have an informal and unmeasured onboarding program. The rise of new technology platforms lets managers, marketers, and data scientists look into their onboarding process to understand where it works and where it falls down.

The combination of onboarding and real sales activity creates previously unimaginable incentives for the new recruit to concentrate on their training. Tools like the LifeVantage App provide actionable feedback about the new distributor’s progress. Smart salespeople know what to do with actionable information, they will use it to sell.

See You In San Diego

Gig Economy Group and LifeVantage will be presenting at the upcoming Direct Selling Association 2018 Annual Meeting in San Diego, June 17 through 19. We look forward to meeting you at the event, where our team will be exploring critical questions about the future of direct selling. Schedule a demo or reach out to meet and talk at our suite during the event.

We would also appreciate your joining our blog team for a discussion at the event about the challenges facing the industry. We will be writing about direct-selling in the weeks before DSA 2018 and would like to include your thoughts in our reports. Send email to schedule an interview.