Her thoughts on serving vs. selling and meeting people where they are
Jill Blashack Strahan, Tastefully Simple Founder & CEO, is a top female entrepreneur and inspiration to countless people across the nation. In 1995 Strahan launched Tastefully Simple offering high-quality, easy-to-prepare foods in a 1,200 square-foot shed with no running water. From packing orders on a pool table, to being a $143 million company within 13 years, to 11 years of declining sales, Strahan learned priceless business and life lessons. Recognized as an exceptional CEO, she has earned numerous awards for her achievements and unique philosophies. She published a book about her journey—Simply Shine: Stories That Stirred the Fire.
SSN: From owning a restaurant to having corporate and direct-mail clients to founding a direct selling company, you have gained a wealth of knowledge about sales and building relationships. What were the most valuable lessons you took from each of these previous experiences?
This is an excellent question. I realize there is a thread that connects everything to Tastefully Simple.
In the early 1980s I was 22 years old when I became the owner of our hometown café named Jill’s Grill. Our differentiator was having homemade quality—it was really good food! Fast forward to Tastefully Simple in 2012 where I had a valuable lesson based on market research. People perceived our products to be homemade. I was shocked. In my era, we considered homemade to be “made from scratch,” like at Jill’s Grill. Over the years, behaviors have shifted. Today, if we’re cooking at home and stir two ingredients into one of our Tastefully Simple mixes, it is homemade. Stirring is cooking.
An important lesson when I was a financial advisor (really a glorified salesperson) at First American Bank was that I did not see myself as a salesperson. My job was to cross-sell other services when someone opened an account with me. I had an excellent vertical sales index, and my supervisor told me I was a great salesperson. I told her, “I don’t look at it as ‘selling.’ I’m genuinely interested in helping our clients utilize services I believe they will value. If they have an overdraft, they’ll want Anytime Credit. If they need to access their account, they’ll want an ATM card. I tell our Tastefully Simple consultants that there is no swimming in Lake Me. If you make it about you, it’s not going to work. People sense it. They see through you. One of our four principles is “Be real,” which means be authentic. Care about people, and do the right thing for them. Like Simon T. Bailey says, “Serve vs. sell.” Amen, Simon! Help them solve a problem.
With my next business, Care with Flair Gifts & Gift Baskets, the most popular basket choices were the ones that had food in them. Because I don’t like to take time to cook, I only sold products that were easy to prepare. It was 1989–1994, and many women were working full time. They were busy. Convenience sold and, clearly, it still does today 30 years later. More than ever, people want high-quality that is fast and easy to prepare. Again, serve vs. sell. Help them solve a problem.
I also learned about the power of sampling in my home-based retail store. My clients appreciated the ability to “try before they buy.” The other lessons: People are willing to pay for creativity and personal touches—from a fun “Tummy Tickler” or “Bait & Bobbers” theme to a satin ribbon to secure their bag, or a thank-you card. It helps people feel special, builds relationships and retains clients.
In 1994, I closed the retail store and shifted sales channels—selling to business accounts and promoting open house events through direct mail to my client base. As they were in my retail store, these events were an experience—music, sampling, scents wafting, lovely displays. Some people would call this “fluff.” I have a different perspective. It creates energy. I’m a big believer in creating energy.
This is why I was so passionate about Tastefully Simple. I would tell guests at my tasting parties, “You get to hang out with your friends and taste fabulous products. It’s a beautiful thing. We give you an experience that uses all of your senses—your taste, your smell, your sight, your hearing, and your touch.” Lesson: Food is an experience.
SSN: You mentioned the concept of serve vs. sell. What do you tell your field about how to sell without selling?
Food can sell itself. You taste it, and you either like it or you don’t. It’s a blessing. However, that is a very slippery slope. When we solely rely on that approach, we miss opportunities to serve our customers in a bigger, more intentional way. It comes back to knowing what problem we’re helping them solve, whether it’s helping them decide what to eat or offering them more flavor, cash or fun with the business opportunity. The core of this is learning what they want. That is selling without selling.
SSN: What do you think of today’s anti-direct selling movement, and what roles do individual companies play in
reputational repair for the channel?
Candidly, we will never completely overcome negativity. We’re sellers. Some salespeople are too pushy. Some make inflammatory claims about their products or make it sound like it’s easy to earn income. These people are not serving.
I loudly applaud the anti-direct selling movement for their passion and hard work to affect change, and vehemently agree with their desire to drive new behaviors. Holding people accountable for their actions is imperative. Our government’s role is to protect its people, in this case, from unethical, deceptive companies who are driven by greed. Luring people in with false marketing and inflamed income claims is simply wrong. We are what we tolerate. They deserve to be penalized.
I am equally passionate about, and protective of, the direct selling industry and its incredibly powerful impact on people. I’m a dairy farmer’s daughter who started Tastefully Simple in a shed with no running water 27 years ago when my late husband and I had a $25,000 annual income. I know what it’s like for the vast majority of people in the United States, who have little or no discretionary income. I know how it feels to save money to purchase a patio set. And it’s not just the financial aspect. It’s the pride and confidence that is built through the experience of setting a goal and achieving it. It builds a muscle in our heart that beats stronger for our personal power and for not being a victim of our circumstances. Is it “life-changing” income? Maybe not in the eyes of the wealthy, but it certainly was in my case.
I pray decisions are made that are strategically balanced and with a win-win mindset.
Penalize unethical companies who entice people with false claims—and also mar the reputations of those of us who strive to do the right thing.
Protect integrity-filled companies who under-promise and over-deliver and are respected as difference-makers in the world.
Give people the opportunity to be an entrepreneur. Direct selling is a blessing to so many people who cannot afford to start their own business or don’t have the support they need. It is the American Dream.
What role do we play in repairing the reputation of our industry?
Be honest and transparent. Under-promise and over-deliver in your marketing. Income disclosure statements are critically important to post on your website. Do 80 percent of our TS consultants get involved because they love our products or want a sense of community? Absolutely. We meet people where they are.
Remain centered and ask questions when confronted by a naysayer. This is difficult for me. My fear kicks in, and I react defensively. When I take the time to stop and respond, not react, I can dive deeper. I can encourage them to share more about their stance. Have they had a bad experience with a direct selling company? That taints our perspective as people. It’s real.
Always make your products the lead dog. Over the years we’ve had the debate: What do we sell first, our products or the business opportunity? I don’t waiver in my response. It is our products. Do you really want a crap ton of salespeople who aren’t passionate about your products? I don’t.
SSN: Is having a C-suite corporate leader crucial to the growth of the company? Or can someone, such as a top field leader, initiate or combine with other field leaders to make that type of surge?
Strong C-suite leadership is critically important. Top field leaders are also key to the success of any company. They are your best advocates when they trust you. Leveraging their peer-to-peer influence is essential, especially in change management. When we rolled out our Amazon channel, we had our top leaders “hug and hole-shoot” our plan, and then they shared the message with their peers. It was a lot of work to execute, but it worked out beautifully. The juice was worth the squeeze.
Hiring field leaders can have its strengths and challenges. It depends on their experience with corporate positions. Do they know how to impact change within a corporate structure? Do they know how to collaborate with other teams to get the best results? Do they have experience with making tough decisions? Do they know how to deal with toxicity and silos? If so, seize the opportunity! If not, they may be better suited as an individual contributor.
SSN: COVID-19 opened the door for being able to hire across the country for executive and director roles. Many direct selling executives (as well as execs in traditional companies) look to Jim Collins’ Good to Great as a guide for only getting employees who are a good cultural fit and then being flexible until the “right seat on the bus” is found for them. What are your thoughts on finding the right seat on the bus for those who are good cultural fits?
Without a doubt, we hire for culture first. For over 20 years we have wrapped our interview questions around our four principles, and more recently, our 24 Behaviors. This is largely why we have such a fabulous HQ team.
Now, the question about moving awesome people around to find the right seat for them on the bus? Yes! Do it, when you can afford it. During our financial turnaround, we couldn’t afford that luxury. We had a very small bus with a limited number of seats. It was excruciatingly painful when we had humble, hungry and smart team members who got off the bus. I had an amazing executive assistant for many years. She would finish my sentences. She could read my mind. Deservedly so, she wanted to move into a leadership position. Unfortunately, we were laying off leaders, not adding more. Although Tresa loved Tastefully Simple, she accepted a leadership position elsewhere.
SSN: What do you think is the direct selling channel’s most overlooked or underutilized opportunity?
What if we worked together more with an abundance mentality? Think about how much we all spend on conferences, keynote speakers, technology, and incentives. How could we leverage our buying power? I know. It’s radical but only when we often have a scarcity mentality. How could that work? What would it look like? What I love about the Direct
Selling Association is how abundant people are and their willingness to share. Let’s use it to our advantage and build strength in numbers.
The other opportunity is channel diversification. A few years ago, many DSA conference attendees were talking about our competitor, Amazon. We had already launched our Amazon channel based on our philosophy of “let’s not beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Increasing our Amazon prices by 30 percent and providing a Brand Advocate Bonus helped us retain the trust of our consultants. We need to ask ourselves, how can we think outside the box to leverage more opportunities to reach new clients, without cannibalizing our direct sales channel?
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