The lesson of the Vemma case appears to be that recruiting customers and calling them distributors is not a good idea. Under the old model, companies encouraged distributors to recruit everyone as a distributor and then see who turns into a sales person. We may see the focus of the industry return to the days when distributors joined a company to sell products. The key now is to identify those who have the potential qualities that would make them a good salesperson. What distinguishes a salesperson from a customer?
The first characteristic is product knowledge or understanding of how a particular type of product works. For example, a primary school teacher may have special knowledge about the importance of reading and so they might make a great book salesperson for Usborne Books. I research and teach in the area of communication. My specialized knowledge makes me a good salesperson candidate for a product designed to help people communicate. I would however be a horrible make-up sales person; I don’t wear make-up.
Do new salespeople need to already know about how a product works to be a good? Obviously not. One of the great aspects about direct selling is that new types of products come to the market. Products such as aloe, magnets, essential oils, herbal remedies, eco-friendly and organic products all started in direct selling. When new products come on the market, then the salesperson can learn about the unique features and attributes and uses of the product. Also in product knowledge, salespeople need to know about the competition. How is the product unique? How does the price compare?
The second characteristic appears to be optimism. Optimists believe positive outcomes will come. It is not just that they are positive or happy people. They believe that they can accomplish goals. Selling involves risk. Each sales encounter can end in rejection of the product. In the case of direct selling, where sales often occur in existing or new relationships, the rejection can feel personal. Sangtani and Murshed (2013) state that without optimism the repeated rejection can be too much and lead to a salesperson giving up. In direct selling, the salesperson is an independent contractor. Giving up can be even easier than in a traditional sales position at a company.
One of the big differences in highly optimistic people is that they see difficulties as challenges. They look for ways the product line helps solve problems for others. Less optimistic people see setbacks as out of their control. Feeling in control of some elements of the process is a key difference in optimistic people. I like to compare the two this way. Optimistic people see a sales rejection as a chance to learn what about the product did not fit for this customer. Less optimistic people interpret rejection as the competition being too great (something beyond their control). Optimists don’t think they can change everything. However, they do think they can change some things. When faced with a difficult situation, an optimist says “what options do I have here?” The other angle optimists take is to look for situations that fit the answer (product) they have already. An optimist does not necessarily knock on every door. They tend to pick the door for which they have a good solution in hand.
Can a salesperson be trained to be optimistic or are they born that way? Research by Loveland and colleagues (2015) suggests that salespeople are born with optimism. I do not agree. If I didn’t think we could help people develop critical thinking, I would need to quit my job. The whole purpose of education is to create critical thinkers. It may be true that you can’t change someone’s predisposition to be an optimist at the personality level, however, you can train people to think more critically and many of the benefits of optimism can be obtained through critical thinking. One aspect of effective critical thinkers is that they can evaluate situations given a set of criteria. This means that you train people to understand the needs of customers and then look for products that fit the customer. Find square holes and put the square pegs in them. In addition, you can train salespeople to look for areas over which they have control and to let go of areas over which they don’t have control. Teach people that rejection is a chance to check their problem solving skills.
In conclusion, not everyone is cut out to do the work that it takes to be a sales person. In this new post-Vemma era, finding the right salespeople will take more finesse. Sales is a demanding job. That is why not everyone wants to do it. However, good salespeople either have good knowledge about a product, and/or they develop good knowledge about products. The second aspect is that good salespeople are optimistic. They analyze situations and figure out the best solution.
Loveland, J. M., Lounsbury, J. W., Park, S. H., & Jackson, D. W. (2015). Are salespeople born or made? Biology, personality, and the career satisfaction of salespeople. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing,30(2), 233-240.
Sangtani, V., & Murshed, F. (2013). Product Knowledge, Optimism, and Salesperson Performance. Annals of the Society for Marketing Advances Volume 2, 229.