Company leaders push forward by strengthening connections with their field
By: Jenna Lang Warford
My team and I need to be in regular dialogue with [field leadership]. Sometimes I ask them to put cameras on. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the car with kids, or by the pool. We want to see their faces. And we want them to see ours.
— Clint McKinlay, CEO, Ruby Ribbon
As the COVID-19 pandemic passes the two-year mark, the field’s giddiness from the channel’s record growth has given way to the emotional and mental weight of coping with ongoing disruptions from the Omicron variant’s ubiquitous surge. And with this surge comes more changes and shifts in consumer and distributor patterns.
Executive leadership teams are meeting this challenge with a renewed focus on connection and communication with their sales teams to recharge their energy and positivity. Fresh perspectives and tools also are helping to carry the messages of product and sales strategy innovation to consumers.
National Sales Director for Jordan Essentials, Suzie Read, says that members of her field are not just showing signs of being weighed down by the pandemic, they’re often direct about their struggles.
“Consultants come out and tell you that they’re tired. And they’re discovering that what worked in 2020 no longer works in 2022.”
Read adds that many consumers have gone back to work, have gone back to shopping in stores, and are no longer available—or interested—in spending hours online.
Kate Rogers, director of field development and training at Traveling Vineyard, adds that her company’s corporate team has seen typical signs of distributors feeling burnt out.
“They ask, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And the thing is no leader is necessarily doing anything wrong unless they’re not staying engaged with their team,” Rogers says. “This is a completely new world where they have to remember that the lives our wine guides are living are very, very up in the air.”
She says that these field members are eager for in-person connection. “The other thing that we’re seeing that really told me people are struggling is how much people were asking for ways to connect with each other and ‘When can we get back to in-person events? When can we have some time for our teams to get together?’ ”
Clint McKinlay, CEO of Ruby Ribbon, has seen signs, too. “I don’t know if I’d call it burnout, but two years of the overall malaise of life in the pandemic has people feeling worn down generally. Much has been politicized, and there is a sense of exhaustion from disruptions in all quarters. Everyone is ready for more togetherness and happier times in the digital public square.”
Connect and Engage
What’s worked to drive engagement at Jordan Essentials has been meetings between the corporate team and field leaders. “One thing I admire about our company is we have a tight communication schedule with our leaders. Every Monday our corporate team connects with them,” Read says. By having the top three corporate executives lead meetings via Facebook Live or Zoom, the leaders have regular touchpoints for connection and information. “CEO Nancy Bogart is empathetic, but everything isn’t always rosy. She’s straight-forward with these leaders,” she adds.
Jordan Essentials has a connection strategy for field members as well as leaders. Bogart holds a community class every month, at which prospective customers are welcome. Consultants can order samples for their guests to have on hand during the class, which serves the purpose of training the consultants as well as helping them sell.
Bogart also invested in a new level of connection for the field, bringing on Read, in part, to
Consistent communication from corporate leaders is Pandemic 201 for Traveling Vineyard, too. “We now have a weekly call with our Team Leaders and above at the same time every single week. We tell them what we’re working on and ask for feedback on those things specifically. I think this has really helped them feel like they’re part of the solution going forward.”
Even better, Rogers says that the leaders have shared great ideas and even offered valuable redirection. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘We really don’t need that, but we need this tangential thing.’ And it will be one step away from what we thought they needed. Not one of us here thinks that our idea has to be right. Because hearing from 30 of our top leaders is much more important than hearing it from our corporate team.”
Ruby Ribbon’s McKinlay says his team meets with various field leadership councils an average of three times a week.
“My team and I need to be in regular dialogue with them. Sometimes I ask them to put cameras on. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the car with kids, or by the pool. We want to see their faces. And we want them to see ours. Even for two minutes, this changes a meeting. Beyond this simple act of connection, we like to hold court with field leadership regularly.
This approach to solutions with field leadership has worked well for Ruby Ribbon. McKinlay says that’s because listening to the field and regularly engaging them in dialogue engenders trust. Often even when a top leader disagrees with the final decision, they are on board because of the trust that has been built.
Product Innovation Generates Excitement in Difficult Times
Despite possible supplier-related issues caused by the pandemic, these companies say that continuing to innovate can be key to creating excitement in the field, which helps them lean out of the struggle they may be facing from the disheartening aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“One of the trends in wine right now is cans and smaller bottles,” Rogers says. “We’ve introduced a mini sample pack of three bottles so customers can do the tasting either virtually or by themselves. It’s exciting also because once you actually get it out into the field, they’re like, ‘Ooh, what if we did this, or what if we did that?”
For Traveling Vineyard, a company that was able to ship wines when some alcoholic beverage stores were shut down state-wide, flash sales or strong programming hasn’t been part of its strategy.
“We feel like our brand and the amount that we charge for our wines is a really strong value proposition. But we were able to do something really fun with an advent calendar-type box, which people have been dying for. That type of product innovation not only keeps us relevant with other direct selling companies, but with the wine industry as a whole,” says Rogers
Taking a cue from online retailers, Jordan Essentials now has a monthly subscription box available to consumers that pays commission to the consultants. Read says that by offering what it calls “Wow” sales, the company is able to deplete existing inventory that is no longer available in the current catalog.
Ruby Ribbon’s latest innovation is more of a renovation: They returned to market a category with previously unimpressive results. “When you have the shaping technologies, and what you’re good at is creating silhouettes women love, you can’t think about yourself solely in terms of camis. This includes swimwear, which we relaunched in January 2022, and leggings, for example.” This time around, swimwear sold through triple the January forecast, and McKinlay and his team have the satisfaction of giving the field what it demanded.
Inspiring a Fresh Perspective on Existing Business
Another way corporate teams are helping the field cope with the stress of the pandemic is to help them gain a new perspective on their business. One-on-one conversations are a strategy each of these three executives say is crucial to helping leaders deal with the weight of COVID-19.
After the record-breaking sales of 2020, and in some cases part of 2021, companies in this story say it’s not surprising that leaders are discouraged when they don’t have big recruiting and sales numbers. On coaching calls, Read says she explains: “2020 was an anomaly; you can’t compare your business now to what happened in 2020. So let’s compare it to 2019.” Usually, the leaders are able to identify growth and now have a more realistic perspective on
Another thing she does is listen to and acknowledge the difficulty the leader faces, and then let them know they’re not alone. After that she walks them through a simple exercise where they define what parts of their challenge they can, and cannot, impact. “People love to think they have control over their lives when, in actuality, we don’t,” Read says. “COVID really showed a lot of people this, and that’s unsettling.”
Traveling Vineyard helps the field shift their mindsets by actively discovering what innovations are working, and then goes “live” online with those distributors so they can share the details of challenges they’ve overcome and what they did to succeed.
McKinlay says, “We cannot control the macro, but we can ‘adjust the sails,’ as Lori Bush (board member) often reminds us, quoting Dolly Parton. We can own our micro. The macro world has uncontrollable negative externalities, so we focus on the micro; I’m not going to obsess about the big, bad wolf outside. We can make sure our house is in order, and we can own how we are going to behave. The macro winds may blow, but in the micro we are controlling what we can control. ‘Owning your micro’ has been our mantra for the past six months.”
Leading in 2022
What guidance does this all boil down to? McKinlay says, “I think every corporate leader in our channel needs to be aware that regardless of how smart their team is, the fact of the matter is the field created the victory during the first half of the pandemic.
“Since the second half of the pandemic, and moving forward, I believe the companies who own their micro best, and lead their salesforce into redefining the business model, will be the ultimate winners. We make the business model stronger when we keep learning, keep innovating, and keep sharpening ‘the how.’ ”
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