Companies shift sales online, increase engagement as crisis continues
By: David Rauf
“We want to have open communication at a time when everyone is in lockdown.”
—Gary Gallant, chief information officer, Isagenix
It’s late in the afternoon one Friday in April, and Isagenix Chief Information Officer Gary Gallant is about to wrap up the work week. But Gallant is going to check one more item off his to-do list—a team meeting.
In normal circumstances, the team might huddle in a conference room somewhere in the company’s headquarters. But things are far from normal in the current environment. That’s why the Friday team session was adapted for a new routine during coronavirus-induced social distancing: a virtual happy hour via Zoom video conferencing.
“This helps us to stay connected and puts some normalcy to the current situation,” says Gallant, who recently was named permanent CIO after serving as interim IT division boss since September. “We can chat about the week and not have to focus on what happened in the office. This way we can end the week on a relaxing note.”
Across the country, while hundreds of millions of people are forced to huddle at home because of the pandemic, corporations are adjusting how they do everyday business as they’re forced to ramp up their digital footprints to try and thrive in a landscape that transformed to total e-commerce and work-from-home seemingly overnight.
Direct sellers are no different. And that fundamentally means adjusting on the fly for a decades-old business model built on a core principle of face-to-face interaction.
For some direct sellers, it will undoubtedly be more challenging: There are some entrenched in old-school ways and have moved at a crawl to incorporate digital savvy into their business models. For others, the transition will be much easier, falling back on years of established digital culture and know-how—whether through social media or with apps and specialized software for distributors—to guide them through the current crisis.
Adapt or Die
When exactly businesses can get back to normal is unknown. What’s also up in the air is the long-term impact the virus will have on the economy, which is already on the verge of not just a recession but possibly a full-blown depression as tens of millions of people file for unemployment.
This much, however, is clear: Whether sink or swim for individual companies, the changes to daily business brought by the coronavirus should propel the U.S. direct selling channel to a new level when it comes to innovation and tech adoption, even if it’s forced.
The key now for direct sellers is figuring out how to shift more sales online, while keeping their workforce and distributors engaged.
At Isagenix, Gallant says the virtual happy hours are just one example of how the company has used the current situation to focus on leveraging tech platforms to replace everyday interaction.
Company executives are holding video conferencing pow-wows with distributors, including Facebook Live sessions with CEO Travis Ogden every week, Monday through Friday.
Separately, a company meeting for employees held earlier this month drew attendees from every country where Isagenix has a footprint, says Gallant, noting it was the first time so many workers from North America, Europe and Asia had come together at once. And a two-day executive leadership strategy session held remotely and mostly through video conferences turned into “one of the best leadership meetings” Gallant says he’s experienced at the company.
There’s also virtual workout sessions using Microsoft Teams, online yoga and a “virtual spirit week,” in which employees uploaded photos to be entered into random prize drawings.
“We want to have open communication at a time when everyone is in lock down,” says Gallant.
Weathering the Storm, Together
According to an initial wave of survey data taken in March by the Direct Selling Association (DSA), in which roughly 51 direct selling companies responded, about 73 percent of respondents said they had put a new technology or digital strategy in place to transition more sales online following the coronavirus outbreak.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of respondents said they were taking action to keep distributors actively involved, including efforts through Zoom video conferencing, “going overtime on social media,” or setting up activity challenges.
The DSA started surveying direct sellers about coronavirus impacts on the domestic channel in mid-March, as the pandemic started to grip the country. States had started issuing stay-at-home-orders, effectively grinding the economy to a halt to stem the outbreak.
Since then, DSA has continued gathering perspectives from members in weekly surveys so that companies can keep learning from one another during an unprecedented time. DSA’s Industry Research Committee is creating a new interactive online dashboard for members to see the impact of coronavirus on the direct selling channel and expects it to be available by early May. DSA is encouraging participation in the weekly surveys from all direct selling companies.
Some of the insights from a DSA poll covering the week ending April 17:
The vast majority of companies—about 90 percent—believe business will return to normal in the U.S. by the end of this year.
More than half say that they expect business to return to normal in under five months.
Nearly 80 percent believe the coronavirus is having a “medium” to “high” impact on their business overall in the U.S.
About 63 percent responded that global event planning had been altered to make at least one in-person event virtual or remote, up from 48 percent a month earlier.
More than three-fourths of businesses say they have noticed global supply chain issues, up 12 percentage points from the week earlier.
DSA President Joseph Mariano says he’s spoken with hundreds of executives across the channel in recent weeks, many through webinars held by DSA, and what he’s hearing back anecdotally “is much more positive than what I would have thought.”
“Some companies are reporting stable or even increased sales year over year, at least in the month of March,” he says. “That astounds me.”
In particular, companies selling wine and health products are doing well, says Mariano. Since people are forced to stay home, they’re eating, drinking and working out more to pass time.
But Mariano cautions that the crisis is still seemingly in its early stages, and it’s not yet clear what the long-term effects of the coronavirus will be on the economy or for direct sellers. DSA’s 2020 Growth & Outlook market-sizing survey results will be unveiled in June. This report will show how the channel performed in 2019, early 2020, and provide an updated forecast.
Mariano says, “The reality is the economy will continue to be challenged. The anecdotal evidence suggests companies are doing better than anticipated. I’m optimistic.”
Technology to the Rescue
Gallant says his company has been quick to settle into the new business environment because of existing digital capabilities. He says the company benefited because “our leadership in the field is digitally savvy.”
But that’s not the case at every direct selling company, and Gallant says the coronavirus’ impact on business will be a wake-up call for direct sellers across the board.
“There’s going to be an awareness of the need to do things less face-to-face and increasingly by leveraging technologies,” he says.
Vince Han, founder and CEO of Mobile Coach, a cloud-based chatbot for businesses, says that since the pandemic has upended daily life and how businesses operate, more direct sellers have expressed increased interest in delivering services digitally.
“Some people are still in paralysis and not really ready to make a big investment,” Han says, “But our existing clients who are invested in digital seem to be thriving.”
Han says direct sellers are increasingly using technology and mobile apps to help onboard new customers and distributors, follow up on leads, enable social selling, teach the field about new promotions, and more. “Companies are now asking, ‘how do we better communicate with our field using technology?’ during the current crisis.”
“For companies tucked into the old ways,” says Han,“it’s going to take time for them to get their minds wrapped around how to make a transition to digital.”
Mariano says there has always been a segment of direct sellers that were resistant to adopting new technology. But that mindset is changing because of the pandemic, and some salesforce members are now finding themselves not only forced to adapt “but also much more amenable to the idea of using technology.”
In the long run, Mariano says “the core” of direct selling will remain based the personal relationships forged with customers.
“Folks are finding now there’s less to be afraid of,” he says. “We can find ways to incorporate technology that does not rob us as direct sellers of our core identity.”
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