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Tech for Corporate, Consultants, and Consumers with Brian Palmer

Recently, the Modern Direct Seller Podcast was all about tech! Brian Palmer is the CEO of Think Box HQ, which specializes in bringing emerging and innovative technologies to direct sales companies, and he joined us to share what conversations are happening at the corporate level, how new tech will benefit consultants and consumers, and what we might expect to see on the horizon to keep direct sales moving forward.

I’m so excited for our conversation today, and for you to share a little glimpse into the work that you’re doing in the industry with our larger audience. Why don’t we just start by sharing a little bit of your story in the direct sales industry? How did you get started? Why did you end up in direct sales? All the things?

Well, like a lot of people, I ended up in direct selling through blind luck. My first real experience in the industry was as the CEO and founder of a jewelry company that we launched back in 2012. And that company just blew up; it grew really, really fast. And, we ended up actually selling that company to a larger entity. Since then, we’ve been involved in a number of different startups over the years. Some of the ones we’re most proud of is Mascara Beauty, where I was the president for a number of years and had the honor of serving and working for Cara through that whole launch process. And, we’ve been involved in all kinds of different brands, from CBD, to health and wellness, and we really gained a lot of experience as operators of direct selling companies and builders of new brands.

And then, we made the transition into serving those brands and creating offerings for them. And so, we entered the direct selling industry as operators, but now we are service providers to other direct selling companies. And, what we do is we try to help them leverage the latest and greatest technology that we often see from outside of our industry, but help them leverage it inside our industry to better serve their distributors, consultants, and team members.

I think most people listening probably have had some tech struggles over the course of being in direct sales. So, I love that you’re infusing that innovation and some of those things that are happening outside the industry and really bringing it to the inside of direct sales companies. And, I also love that you’ve spent a lot of time inside direct sales companies. So, you’re not, like, a tech guy that came out of nowhere that’s developing things without really understanding what the needs of the market are. And, the fact that you’ve seen it on both sides is probably really helpful for you as you’re working with your corporate clients, and then also understanding that ripple effect and how, in the end, you have thousands of people that are truly boots on the ground out there doing the work that are going to have something to say.

So, there’s probably a lot of behind the scenes that our average direct seller really isn’t aware of, and I think you’ll be able to bridge that gap and share some of those insights or some of those conversations around technology that are really happening at the corporate level. So, can you clue us in on a little bit of what companies are talking about in the tech space right now?

So, what we’re seeing most is very strong desire to adopt leading technologies that haven’t been commonly used inside direct selling. As an example, if we go back in time, just briefly, like when technology was first coming into the industry, our brands didn’t know how to deal with it. So, what happened is a lot of custom management systems were built specifically for industry, because we have needs around compensation plans and payout that other brands may not have. And then, fast-forward to today, what we’re now seeing is more that companies want to bring in applications, like Shopify.

And, in the past, direct selling companies sometimes could get away with not having a best-of-breed shopping experience and user experience for the customer. And, what we’re seeing now is that these brands have totally pivoted, and they’re really focused on providing the most frictionless, smoothest experience for customers to keep them coming back. So, one example would be using Shopify. Another example could be things like customer referral programs. We’re seeing more companies adopt that Give 10, Get 10, and how that fits with distributors. And then, we’re also seeing more and more them wanting to add adjunct affiliate marketing programs to their direct selling program. So, I think this is a trend that’s going to really continue. What’s happening behind the scenes that some people might not be familiar with is that these companies that we’re working with in the direct selling, MLM industry are taking a very innovative approach at talking every day about what is that leading tech, what is that leading application that they can now leverage to help make your life better and help you grow your businesses?

You know, when you’re talking around the history there, I think back to my early days in direct sales. And, when I got my starter kit in the mail, it included the carbon copy order forms, because there was this assumption that you were launching your business in person, with people, in your living room. And, it was a requirement to give everyone three receipts, and you’d have all of those to input after the party, and you would log into your clunky back office, find the right spot, and put those orders in. And now, the average shopper can order with one click on Amazon. They’re used to the easy button of just clicking through a live site, finding what they need, ordering, and then being reminded when it’s time to order again. All of those things are happening very seamlessly.

So, in some sense, I feel like direct sales had a little bit of catch-up work to do once we pivoted to more of the online space, and there’s definitely this opportunity to streamline that shopping experience.

It’s so true. My first company, the jewelry company, was a party-planning company. And, our starter kit had all kinds of displays. It had the ordering receipt, where you could take orders at the party. We had concepts of cash and carry versus, you know, ordering on the party tool. And, it’s funny to think about, now.

It has really evolved so, so much. And, that user experience is really interesting. I mean, we have the corporate side, where there’s reports, and there’s data, and there’s things that they need. But then, you also have direct sellers that are out there selling, and they have tools that they need to have easily accessible. But, when you also think about that customer experience, one thing that I’ve been sharing at a lot of the events I’ve been speaking at is just that our customers have become so much more sophisticated, right? Like, the things that we’re seeing now as a consumer have really changed dramatically in the last three years. Is that your experience, too? That the last couple of years have pushed a lot of that technology forward?

Yes, it really has. And, I think the demands of the end user have increased exponentially, the expectations have increased exponentially, and as brands what we’re seeing is, if you don’t meet that expectation, then it creates hesitation with the buyer. And, that’s why that experience has to feel familiar. Even if you’re being innovated with your flows, it has to be something they’re comfortable with. Anything else is going to cause hesitation.

I feel like these are the things that companies are thinking about, but for those out in the field, they’re just out there selling, and they’re like, “I don’t know what’s happening at the corporate table and what they’re thinking about.” What are the other things that you’re hearing? I know you mentioned affiliate programs that are running alongside a direct sales program. I’m definitely seeing a lot of referral and loyalty programs popping up, as well. Are there any other themes or trends that you’re seeing that companies are exploring just to stay more relevant?

So, I think a couple of themes that we’re seeing be very consistent at the DSA and within companies that we’re speaking to is a much heavier focus on customer acquisition. If we go back in time, there might have been more balance or even some focus on distributor-consultant acquisition. If you look at today, it’s really about customer acquisition. So, we’re seeing more and more companies invest in enabling consultants to expand beyond their networks of friends and family and acquire those customers.

We’ve also seen a shift from the old-school mindset of the distributor-consultant being tasked with filling gaps. The idea used to be, “Well, if there’s a customer service issue, they can step in and handle it. They’re kind of an extension of the company.” And, they still are, but the company wants to unburden the distributor-consultant as much as possible so that they can focus on customer acquisition. And, I think that comes back to the affiliate program. The affiliate program is intended to help be a new tool to acquire more customers. Or, we’re seeing the customer referral programs, the Give 10, Get 10 programs, again, trying to help you acquire more customers. And, I think that’s to the resellers benefit.

I could not agree more. I think that you’re exactly right, that there’s definitely been a season of the direct seller, the one out there in the field, bridging that gap or taking care of anything that isn’t being fulfilled by the company. But, I really feel like the more tools, the more sophisticated shopping experiences, the more the company can do to give that support to the direct seller, the more they can focus on what they’re really good at.

And, I feel like new customers is the answer to everything, right? Even if you are part of a party plan company, if you get more customers, that’s going to feed into more hosts. If you get more hosts, that’s going to feed right into more people that are going to join your team. So, if you can get in front of more people and have those conversations and really focus on that relationship-building and that connecting and that customer acquisition, then you’re doing your job, and you don’t have to worry about all the other bells and whistles that, in the past, direct sellers have had to figure out on their own.

So, what do you see on the horizon? I know we’ve touched on this a little bit already, but what do you see in the next year? Looking forward to 2024? Looking beyond that? How is direct sales going to continue to stay relevant? What kind of tech advances are we going to see? How do we stay ahead of the curve?

One of the big macro trends I’m seeing is almost a merging of direct selling and affiliate marketing, or some sort of equilibrium between the two emerging. If we look at just affiliate marketing, it’s everywhere. There are so many millions of people representing products. And, generally speaking, it’s viewed as a very positive experience, where sometimes if you look at direct selling, we haven’t had always the best reputation historically. But, they’re both about customer acquisition. The goals and the outcomes that we’re seeking are very similar. And, what I believe is that we’re going to see more technologies typically used in affiliate marketing being used in direct selling. We’re going to see more methodologies for selling and going to market from affiliate happening in direct selling, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

My hope is that some of the most valuable things in direct selling continue to persevere—and I believe they will. One of them being community. If we look at affiliate marketing, they really don’t have the community we have. As someone who has run direct selling companies, had top leaders with big teams, and done conferences and done retreats, I’ve firsthand witnessed the power of those communities and those relationships, and you kind of lose that in affiliate marketing. The other thing you lose is this thirst for training, thirst for enablement, thirst for uplifting. We get that more in direct selling. So, I think what we’re going to have is some sort of hybrid between the two, where you’re bringing the best elements of direct selling, you’re bringing the best elements of affiliate marketing income, and you’re blending them for this kind of new world, direct selling, MLM-type brand.

I love that thought process. And, we’re already seeing companies making some of those shifts in even the terminology that they’re using and what they’re calling their representatives or distributors. I think that it’s such an interesting shift.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on one other differentiation from a tech perspective. We represent a number of brands as an affiliate. And, you’re absolutely right, there’s not community. I mean, I get emails from them, and we recommend their products, but we don’t have a training conference. We don’t have a retreat. I don’t have biz besties that are also affiliates for those other brands. But, one thing that I see different in affiliates versus a traditional direct sales model is that customer experience piece. So, are you envisioning in the future that the technology in some ways fills that gap? Like, you know, that there’s emails, there’s automation, there’s tools, there’s things happening that might be provided from the company behind the scenes to support that ongoing customer service and retention?

I think AI has a huge potential here. One of the things we’ve been doing is plugging in a very simple AI. So, you could text in; you can change your Subscribe and Save. I mean, you can do an amazing amount of stuff already. In the past, we’ve also had a haircare brand, who was a client, who we built a product selector recommender for based on customers’ hair type and hair goals. So, what we’re seeing is more AI and more tools specific to that particular brand in practice.

Traditionally, going back to the direct selling startup consultants, they would always say the products that require explanation are the ones that are perfect for our industry. And, it’s true. And, I do think that with AI, we’re going to see more and more plug-ins to help support those explanations and the client and the customer.

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