Brett Duncan is a “transitionist” who specializes in helping direct selling companies define their best next steps as they transition into the new era of direct selling. He is co-founder and managing partner of Strategic Choice Partners, a consulting firm that offers strategic support and services to direct selling companies.
Trust and Communication: The Foundation of Success in Direct Sales
I’ve discovered what lies at the foundation of every success, and every failure, in direct sales.
It’s not a sales tool, or a new product. It’s not a promotion, or a tweak to the compensation plan. It’s not a great executive, or even a great field leader. Those things are all important, but you can have them all and still come up short.
What lies at the foundation of every success in direct sales is “Trust & Communication”. And, what lies at the foundation of every failure in direct sales is (a lack of) “Trust & Communication”.
In my own corporate experiences, and in working with many other clients, this simple but profound truth cannot be ignored: Both success and failure are directly linked to the level of trust a company has established and the effectiveness of their communication.
It works in every possible relationship of our business: from corporate office to Distributor; from Distributor to Distributor; from office to customer; from Distributor to customer; and everything in between. For this article, I’m going to use the “office-to-Distributor” scenario for most of my examples.
Note that I have linked “Trust & Communication” together as a single component, not as two separate components. That’s on purpose, and here’s why: One impacts the other (both positively and negatively). They cannot be thought of separately, because they cannot exist separately. They are two sides of the same coin. Phases of a single cycle that continually feed off of each other.
Let’s break that thought down a little bit further, in a positive light. If you trust me, then you are more open to communication from me, right? You don’t spend time questioning my motives or wondering what’s really going on, what I’m really thinking. You just trust me, so you focus on the message being communicated. Likewise, because I communicate with you effectively, you trust me more. Which means you become even more open to communication, and so on and so on.
Now, let’s look at it in a more challenged situation. If you do not trust me, then you’re not very open to my communication efforts, and they are often received hesitantly and with skepticism. If I don’t communicate well, or often, or not at all, then your trust decreases, which then makes you less open to communication, and so on.
“Brett, why are you spending so much time making such a simple and seemingly obvious point?” Because every challenge in direct sales you’re facing now or will face in the future will at the least be indirectly impacted by Trust & Communication, and in many cases is actually caused by a breakdown in Trust & Communication. Put another way, while more specific issues may get the blame for any challenges a direct sales company is facing, more times than not the real guilty party is a lack of adequate Trust & Communication.
In rare occasions, the breakdown in Trust & Communication is deliberate; most of the time, it is accidental, due to a lack of preparation or awareness.
Here are just a few common examples:
Company A is set to launch a new back office system set to be a game changer for the business. They announce one date for launch, only to have to announce another date later, and then another date after that. Pretty soon, Company A stops talking about it so much, which leads the field to wonder what’s happening, which lowers trust moving forward. Because the communication was inaccurate, then less frequent, trust decreased.
You may be tempted to say the back office system is the issue here. But it’s not. Back office systems are always difficult to implement, and they never go as planned. But companies get through that. The real issue here was in Trust & Communication. It’s how the roll out of the new system was being handled that caused the biggest issues. If the Home Office tapped the brakes after the second or third push of the date, then explained that a) things haven’t gone exactly as planned, b) we don’t want to introduce anything to the field that hasn’t been properly tested, c) we will continue to update you on progress, d) we apologize for the confusion from this, and e) we ask that you focus on working your business right now and we will get this to you as soon as possible, then you still would have had some Distributors upset, but the “Trust” would not decrease anywhere near as much, which means they would continue to be open to your “Communication” as you worked through the issue.
If they stop trusting you, they stop listening to you. And if your tribe isn’t listening to you, it gets really hard to lead them anywhere.
Company B just revised their compensation plan, and significant changes were made in how leader’s will earn income that is less than their earning potential before (or at least it’s perceived that way). The Company announces the changes but doesn’t effectively communicate the reasons behind the changes. In addition, the Company has more of a “get on board” attitude about it. Because the communication falls short of helping people understand the reasons behind the change, and because it rushes past any form of empathy, a distrust is created with the field, which then makes any future communication hard to receive, which only further negatively impacts trust. Because the communication was “incomplete,” trust decreased.
In this instance, it’s the tone and style of communication that really makes the difference. The end result may be the same: you have to make the change to the compensation plan, and you have to do it no matter how many people get on board or not. Sometimes, this is just how it is. However, to have a well-planned schedule and approach to sharing this information with the right people at the right times, giving them a chance to understand and comprehend it all, and giving them a chance to share their thoughts (whether they can impact the end decision or not) drastically improves how the communication is received, and therefore drastically improves how these new programs are rolled out.
I bet you have your own stories. And I bet as you take a good look at them, you can see where Trust & Communication were the real key to success or failure in each one.
By the way, the Trust & Communication principle doesn’t just apply to direct sales. It appears to be universal.
The interesting thing here is that there isn’t such a thing as a “Trust Switch” that you can just flip on. It’s something you have to constantly attend to, recognizing the benefits of doing the work to build Trust today likely won’t be seen for months or even years to come. You have to do it anyway.
And while there are no shortcuts to trust, there is a pretty clear path: honest and ongoing communication. Your Distributors must have access to you in some form (be it in person, on Facebook lives or even simple emails) on a regular basis for trust to be built. So if you’re facing a challenge with trust between the Corporate Office and the field, start communicating constantly.
Here are just a few practical thoughts to keep in mind as you get more intentional about building Trust & Communication properly in your business (and life):
1. You can control how you communicate. Start here.
You don’t get to dictate if others trust in you or not; that’s up to them. You can do things to influence their trust journey, and that starts with communication. If you find yourself in a low-trust environment, go beyond what you feel is “normal” for communication, in terms of frequency and transparency. And remember that communication is a two-way street. Make sure you’re available and open to the communication of others. This often impacts their trust in you more than anything.
2. You can choose to trust others.
While you can’t force others to trust in you, you can decide to trust others. People have a way of instinctively sniffing out if you don’t trust them, which only makes them not trust you. Make the choice to trust others as much as possible, and set the example.Side note: “Trusting others” doesn’t mean you do whatever they want. Sometimes that’s just not possible.
3. Communicate more frequently with leaders.
This point is key for direct sales. Your field leaders don’t only have questions themselves, but they’re also getting questions from their team members. Invest time in this group, and over-communicate. “Over-communicate” means you communicate often, and you repeat important messages often. Inform them, equip them, empower them and include them. Not only will this open the opportunity to rebuild trust, but it will also help them share the correct message moving forward.
4. Don’t communicate messages that aren’t ready to be communicated.
We direct sellers are so guilty of this. Stop sharing dates for launches of stuff that’s not ready yet. Stop sharing info that’s not final yet. This is always good guidance, but it’s especially important when trust is low. Expectations for your communication are low when trust is low, so reset those expectations. Create an environment over time where people know that what you communicate can be counted on.
5. Be quick to apologize and correct.
No matter what, you’re going to make a mistake. Sometimes, it’s something you have absolutely zero control over. Other times, you did have control, and you just screwed up. It happens. When it does, apologize quickly, and communicate your plans moving forward.Sometimes, it makes sense (at the time) to break Point #4 above and communicate something a little early, only to see a need to change your plans. When it does, just apologize, and try to let be the exception instead of the rule. Sometimes an authentic apology for a mistake does more to build trust than doing it right in the first place.
6. Schedule time for proper communication.
As you plan for more frequent, more inclusive communication, make sure you allow the proper time for it. If you have something ready to launch on March 1, you may need to spend March 1 – March 31 communicating it properly with your different audiences, and launch it on April 1. Don’t skip the appropriate timelines for communication. It will make or break the success of whatever it is that you’re doing.
7. Trust comes from understanding your heart more than your head.
I’m guilty of diagramming and “Powerpointing” my audience to death at times. The details are important, and they need to be shared. But they don’t even compare to your heart.When it comes to building trust, people will connect with your heart, your emotions, your soul much more than anything else. For some of you, this comes naturally. For others, not so much. Regardless, people need to see it. Do what you need to do to share it. Direct sales is a very emotional business, so don’t ignore your own emotions when communicating.
As you navigate our way through so many new things in direct sales, it’s more important than ever to tend to Trust & Communication in a heightened way. Go the extra mile to intentionally do this well. You’ll not only love the results, but even the process.
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