From Tupperware parties to the doorbell ring of the Avon Lady, direct selling has been a fixture of American life for decades. Led by self-employed agents relying on personal contacts and word-of-mouth to earn commission, direct selling was, in a way, on of the earliest ways of using social networks to shift product.
Today, it is a huge market, driving annual revenues of around $22 billion last year in the United States alone, and it’s quickly going digital, as direct sellers look for new ways to engage with customers and prospects.
The 50,000 independent consultants who sell skin care products for beauty brand Rodan + Fields (R+F), for example, use a wide range of digital tools in the race to beat their sales and commission targets.
Each consultant has a personal website, which acts as a portal to the company’s e-commerce platform, and many use Twitter to promote their site. A Facebook widget provided by the company enables them to post R+F videos and images on their profile, also with links back to their website.
When they’re face-to-face with a customer or prospect, mobile apps enable them to guide the client through the company’s digital catalogue and make product suggestions based on specific skin care concerns. Mobile apps also provide consultants with tools to track and manage their leads and sales and to access training videos.
All these interactions create a wealth of data that helps R+F CEO Lori Bush and her team to have a good understanding who these consultants are: they’re typically educated women, in their late twenties and early thirties, who have left high-flying business careers to raise a family, but still want to make money and maintain an identity beyond home and family.
And their customers? They’re slightly older women with above-average disposable income (R+F products have a strong focus on anti-ageing).
More importantly for R+F, the data collected helps it to identify its most successful consultants are, as well as the products that get the most enthusiastic response from customers.
Insight more than skin deep
To get these insights, the R+F team uses a cloud-based business intelligence (BI) system from Birst, a provider based a short hop across Market Street from R+F’s downtown San Francisco headquarters. The implementation of Birst almost two years ago took only three months, according to Bush, “and since then, we’ve come a long way, as our level of understanding and sophistication has grown.”
Today, she says, R+F’s team can craft all sorts of reports from the data repository and tools that Birst provides. At first, these reports were largely descriptive, she says, “but we’re now getting far more predictive and prescriptive in our approach to analytics.”
Most importantly, Birst is helping R+F shed light on the behaviors and practices that distinguish the company’s highest performing consultants and develop the tools and training that will help the rest of the field replicate their success.
That approach stands in direct contradiction to the conventional wisdom that drives most direct-selling companies, says Bush. “Most work on the basis that you reward only on outcome: you dangle a few carrots and the most successful get those carrots.”
That approach, she says, overlooks those consultants who have the potential to improve with help and encouragement, through online and offline training - but who, without it, might fall by the wayside, exhausted and frustrated.
“Now that we can measure behaviors and correlate them to outcomes, we can also discover which types of training encourage the right behaviors and can also offer incentives to foster those behaviors,” she says.
“So, for example, I can develop a training video for consultants to watch on social media, track who views it and reward them on the viewing alone, and I can also analyse the recent results of those who watched it and compare them against the results of those who didn’t. The insights these kinds of analysis generate are what helps us shift our behavioral training programme to see where we need to apply more focus and where we’re already doing great.”
That insight will be essential as R+F, which had revenues of around $200 million in 2013, embarks on an ambitious global expansion plan, due to begin in Canada later this year. That will take the company into new markets, where sales tactics and customer propensity to buy may be markedly different from what it’s seen before on its US home ground.
“I can only see our use of BI expanding as we start to look at early adopters in new markets and which behaviors get the best results there,” says Bush. “And I want to create some predictive analytics to empower the field in new territories, giving them the information the need to recognize a good prospect when they see them.”