Nicki Keohohou, CEO and co-founder of the Direct Selling World Alliance (DSWA), joins us to talk about international expansion, cultural awareness, inclusivity, and diversity in the domestic MLM market. She gives us her advice for expanding internationally from the perspectives of both corporate and the independent distributor. She also explains how proper communication can demonstrate your commitment to your sales force.
Kenny: Welcome to the MLM.com podcast. I’m your host Kenny Rawlins. On today’s episode, we are talking with Nicki Keohohou of the DSWA and we’ll be talking about international expansion and how you can adapt to the cultures of the countries you expand into. Nicki is a highly successful trainer and has spoken at conventions for companies around the world such as Avon, Mary Kay Cosmetics, USANA, Ignite, Thermomix, Juice Plus, Norwex, Tupperware, and hundreds more. She is the co-founder of the DSWA and contributed to the development of the DSWA Coach Excellence School, coaching audio programs, eBooks, and two number one best-selling books and the DSWA Principle-Centered Coaching programs. As you will hear Nicki has a deep passion for helping companies succeed as they expand around the world.
Good morning Nicki and thank you for joining us.
Nicki: Well, thanks Kenny and I’m excited to be here with you.
Kenny: Yeah, we’re very excited to have you on. To start I’d like to have you give us a brief background on yourself and the DSWA and the work you guys are doing.
Nicki: Thank you so much Kenny. I’ve been in the direct selling profession for about 40 years—that’s a long time—and I’ve loved every minute of it. Being in the field, building teams, being at corporate, consulting to the company, and then starting the Direct Selling World Alliance. I started about 16 years ago. We work with companies all over the world—training and supporting them in growing the business from the company perspective and some consulting work with build perspective. We have our coach excellence schools. We teach people how to be effective coaches and then we also have all types of training online and in-person—in present—and love what we do.
Kenny: Well that’s great and, you know, the service you guys provide is really valuable and I speak from experience in having seen it first hand with some of the clients that I’ve worked with that worked with you guys as well. So, I’m excited to get your perspective.
One of the things coming from kind of the software side of things is whenever I’m talking to somebody about implementing software or talking to them about compensation plans, one of the things that they’re always concerned about is: can your software and can this plan handle going internationally. And that’s something that is always on the forefront of people’s minds but then so often I see people who are technically set up to go international but stumble in executing it. And one of the things I’d like to get your insight on is what are some of the mistakes that you see companies make as they expand internationally?
Nicki: Thanks, Kenny, for that question because we do want all of our companies to be successful not just domestically but internationally because there’s huge opportunity out there, particularly right now. So, companies—the mistakes that they make are not understanding the cultural aspects of that country. This particularly happens when there are English speaking countries and they think they can just go in and be a U.S. based company that runs that country as another little U.S. And in reality there are very different things about each country and how they operate and how the people think. So, if we go in with that knowing of what are the cultural differences and thinking how can we support the people with that understanding and if we know that the executives that we’re bringing in have a clear understanding and acceptance by the people in that country, everything will go much smoother.
Kenny: You know, I appreciate that ‘cause I think—like you say—one of the biggest things is appreciating that there’s a difference. I think so often if you don’t even think about that and don’t acknowledge that—even though you’re very successful in the U.S.—there may be some things that you need to be open to in expanding. You know, that kind of pride—if it can call it that—or at least ignorance can really be a hindrance to success as you open it up. ‘Cause you’re not open to slightly different ways of doing things. Is that accurate?
Nicki: That’s accurate because what happens… like here’s an example. We do a lot of work in Australia, we’re there every month. So, we know that country inside out—as well as New Zealand and others. But that country particularly I’m bringing forth because it is an English speaking country but people may go into that country and not understand certain aspects.
There’s something in Australia called the tall poppy syndrome. Well you better understand what that’s about before you go there because even being given an award in front of the group—I watched this happen at a convention—and somebody said the dollar amount that that person had made in the last year. And that woman was mortified because with the tall poppy syndrome what happens is if you show your stuff, like if you brag—is what they think it is—about money or you tell people about all the things you’re earning and so on—and I don’t agree with this but I know it’s part of the culture so you got to work around it—everybody else wants to cut that poppy down. And so it’s not good to bring out how much money you make in front of the entire group.
The person that had that happen to her was crying backstage. I mean hysterically. And I thought how sad because I believe you don’t need to brag but people must have hope. They’ve got to know there’s possibilities of what you can do but they don’t even tell their external family when they earn a car. It’s not like that, that’s not how they operate. So, going in there, it’s understanding how to honor that yet to slightly make shifts over time—adjustments so that maybe they become more comfortable with it, meaning the field becomes more comfortable with how that works.
Kenny: So, when a company’s going into the international markets or going into a country, what are some of the ways that you recommend making yourself aware of those different cultural intricacies and how do you suggest adapting to those?
Nicki: Well, part of it is finding people that have operated in that country. People that understand how the people work and I mean… I guess I look at this: we have a real advantage because we’re with the field a lot. When we go into that event we stay in that audience, we come early, we work and coach with people all day long. So, we learn a lot. We go on a lot of incentive trips with those international companies. So, we’re with those people; we understand how they think.
So, it’s about finding someone that works in that country that understands. And sometimes it may be a distributor in a different company that you may know. It may be another executive that you connect with that has a noncompeting product. If it’s a competing product they might not want to talk to you; if it’s a noncompeting product they may be willing to. Contacting the DSA in that area to see if there are comments that they want to share or that they know about that country. It’s getting connected in a country.
Now sometimes what companies do is somebody comes to them and says, “Hey I really like your product, I want to license it in this country ‘cause I noticed you didn’t have one there” and so then the company licenses it without really understanding if that person knows that culture inside out. Are they there for the long haul or are they just there to make some money fast and move on? And could they destroy that market for you?
So particularly with licensing and selecting your leadership in that country, you want to make sure you have someone that understands the culture and that will be received and accepted by the people in that country or many times its region. In Europe, we deal with a man that oversees all of Europe. Now he happens to be a very sharp guy that knows a lot about each of the countries. Whether it Belgium, England, France, he knows about the countries and the culture and the people. And so, he is able to relate. Then he has a GM in each of the countries that is really responsible for that one but he’s got a good handle on what’s happening there.
So, I feel the people at the top are really important. They’ve got to be strong enough to be able to express to the American company, you know, what they know and not back down when it’s something that they really believe in because the company in the U.S. has got to understand it is a little different.
Kenny: You know and that is some great insight and that’s something that I’ve seen too many companies learn the hard way. And you’ve opened up a couple things I’d like to address real quickly. First of all, one of the things that in talking to different executives—and I’m curious on your take on this—is a lot of times I think companies feel pressure from their field to expand internationally, even before maybe they would choose to. How do you work with leaders so that the leadership of the company doesn’t undermine what the company is trying to do as they go into new markets?
Nicki: That’s a really good question because it is true. The field will pressure the company at length and then they’ll back door things many times by, you know, sending product to the people, getting them all excited in that country and then there’s a lot of pressure from that too. First of all, every company has got to have all their legal work done and do it properly before they go in there. And the leaders have got to know that that takes time and money to do that and particularly in specific types of countries—such as China. So, if the field is pressuring the company when they’re not ready, they’re going to go in and not have anything. So, what we work with the field on is how to communicate and also to understand the logistics and the legal side of that as well as warehousing, distribution, taxes, all the other things that come into mind when you go into another country. So, the field must be aware and before, you know, you get the horse ahead of the cart. It is not a good thing when that field is driving the company to make a decision that they’re not prepared to do because everybody will be frustrated in the end.
Kenny: Yeah, and I think that, like you’ve touched on, a lot of it comes down to communication ‘cause I think too often the field can feel like, “hey they’re holding us up, they’re preventing us from being successful,” and not understand that the company actually wants everybody to be successful, right? The company would love the growth but there’s work that has to be done, t’s that have to crossed and i’s that have to be dotted before you can just go rushing into a new market. So, it sounds to me like a lot of that comes down to the communication and transparency that you have with your leaders.
Nicki: You’re exactly right. I’d say the number one thing for any company for anything that they do is communication with the field and having an open dialogue and communication, especially with your leaders. They’ve got to know what’s working, what’s not working, and realistic timelines. If you believe it’s going to take you six months to get into that country, tell them a year. Don’t tell them six months ‘cause you don’t have control over everything and therefore the leaders are counting, “well six months to the date you didn’t do it. You let us down again.” So always, you know, overestimate the amount of time that it’s going to take and then surprise them by being early. That’s really the best approach.
And communication means all types of communication—whether it’s good, bad, or the ugly. So, having a communications expert on your team or reaching out to people—you know, such as Bobby Wash or many others—that are just really good in this type of languaging of things will make a big difference as you go forth and people will feel that you’re transparent.
The worst thing a company can do for a field is for them to feel you’re hiding things from them, you’re not being truthful with them, you have another agenda, you don’t have their best interest at heart. All those things come up for the field. I’ve heard it in all ways from multiple sources that that’s kind of what happens when there’s not good communication. And that goes even if you’re having product outages or, you know, you’re making a big shift in a department or something you’re doing differently, that communication to your field allows them to feel part of the family, not “us against them” and that is a real challenge in many companies. The field sees the corporate as against them versus with them and that is the last thing you want to have happen.
Kenny: Yeah. No I absolutely agree with you there and I’ve seen that, like I say, my primary work is in commissions and it’s amazing some of the work that you can see companies do to be fair and be on time but no matter how good your intentions are, if they’re not communicated well, it’s natural for the human mind to start wondering what’s going on. And so that’s true, I mean you can kind of break your back trying to do the right thing but without that transparency and that communication a lot of that work is going to be undermined.
So just switching gears I’d be curious what words of advice you’d have. So, a company is all ready to go into a new market. They’ve got their ducks in a row, they’re ready to go. What advice would you have to the field leadership in ensuring that their organization and their efforts in a new market will be successful as they try to expand their business from the U.S. into a new market?
Nicki: Great question. So, part of this is if the field has been communicated with properly they know in advance that they’re going to go into Mexico for some time in the next year, alright. So, those leaders are finding bilingual people in the United States who have family in Mexico so that they can have an entrée into that country. I would pick up Rosetta Stone or something else and learn some Spanish words so that you’re able to communicate somewhat because that really honors the people when you get there if you can speak some of their language. Otherwise you better have somebody with you all the time that is bilingual that can support you but it really does honor them if you know some of the language.
So, finding a bilingual person that can step in there—people who have family in that area—knowing learning everything you can about the culture. You know? And then start your plan of how you’re going to do this. How often will you go? Am I’m going to live there for a period of time? If so, where am I going to live? Where are the greatest… where’s the hub in that country? Find out where the largest influx of direct sellers is. So, Mexico, Mexico City is a big area. Guadalajara is a big area. Monterrey. Know where to go so that you make the right decisions of where you’re going to be located. Good place to be is in a central location, so you can go different directions. Know it’s going to cost you money to do this, it’s not going to be an inexpensive venture unless you find that leader of leaders in that country that can take the lead and you’re kind of going back and forth and supporting.
The worst thing that a leader can do is go into that country and they’re there for three months and sign up all these people then they leave and then they send them an email once a month. Those people feel abandoned. I’ve talked to many of them. I was just in Columbia a month ago and a leader had gone in there to build that country and they’ve never seen her again. Well that is not fair to those people. You’ve got to have a regular system of communication. Otherwise, they feel like orphans and they’re out there by themselves trying to figure it out. So, lots of things in preparation to go with a leader and be sure you’re going to be committed to staying the course versus abandoning the people.
Kenny: Yeah and that, I think, really goes to the mindset of how people go in. I think I kind of compare it to the gold rush here in the U.S. where people got word that, “hey you can go to California and just pick up gold out of the river and just become wealthy.” And it turns out that there was actually a lot more work to it. Right? And there was gold to be had but it was work and it took commitment. And I think too often people treat going internationally as just “I’m going to go there, I’m going to sign up a few people, and I going to keep getting residual checks from it.” When really, like you say, it’s about a commitment. It’s about a commitment to the people. It’s about a commitment financially to get it started. And it really has to be something that people shouldn’t venture into lightly because these are people’s livelihoods. You’re asking them to make a commitment and you need to be in it with them for the long run.
Nicki: You know it’s interesting, I live in Hawaii and so there’s a lot of work and a lot of good things happening in Asia whether it’s Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia’s going very strong right now, you know China of course, so all those countries. Well Hawaii is a great gateway into those countries. So, for leaders and companies just to find leaders in Hawaii because all of those other countries, they’re bilingual people. Many bilingual Chinese, many bilingual Japanese, you know, etcetera and that and the Philippines is strong. There’s a lot going on in the Philippines. We have a huge Filipino community. So, its finding somebody right here in Hawaii that you can groom, that has a desire to go do that.
I have a friend right now, a young man that I’ve worked with off the east coast that is Chinese and has moved to China. His wife stayed here in the U.S., he went to China to go build that country but he has made a huge commitment to be there for a long time to get that done. And it’s working for him but he also speaks the language, understands the culture, and has found a way to be committed to do this and his wife was in the game too because that’s the other part. If one partner goes and the other doesn’t, you better have a really strong commitment between the husband and wife that you understand how long this is going to take and know that you can hold it together while the other party is gone.
Kenny: Yeah and that is a fantastic point too. You need to have all your ducks in a row back here so that both your business but also your family are prepared for the commitment that you’re embarking on.
So, the next thing I’d like to get your insight on is something you touched on a little bit in one of your previous answers which is, how to maintain your corporate identity as you start to expand overseas? And one of the things that I hear when talking to companies is, you know, our brand is strong here in the U.S., people respect us here, they want us to come in and remain unchanged and we owe it to our brand to do that. And I fear that while they might be half-right, there is some tailoring that I would believe you need to do to the local culture that you’re going into, is that true or untrue?
Nicki: There is some tailoring. Of course, your labeling is a little different because the laws in each country are different. Many times the ingredients are different. And I just had someone—I think I was in London—and the person said “we expected this new product to be the exact same as it was I the U.S. and when we got it there were difference in the ingredients.” Well that’s because every country is different. Not every country, but most have differences in products and ingredients that they’re looking for. So of course, on your labeling there’s going to be some differences.
The branding itself, the color, the look, the feel that can all remain the same but by golly you better have photos of people that look like they live in that country. What companies do is they take the same catalog and just switch over the language. Well, no. The catalog has got to show, if you’re in Columbia, more people who have a look like that—dress and style—of those people. And same if you’re having people from Indonesia then and that’s the country you’re going into, you’d want to have some Indonesian people. So, there’s a little expense—more expense—for the company unless you can find, you know, through iStock or something like that categorized by, you know, the look of the individual ethnic culture.
And I find this right here in the United States, people will send me things and say will you take a look at this example, a flip chart or a catalog or something and they get all the way through it and then they realized “I’ve left out any African-American people. I’ve left out any Asian people. I’ve left out any Hispanic people.” Well no wonder you’re not attracting them to your company because they don’t feel they match. They don’t see themselves in that company. So, you want to be very aware that the imagery matches the people with wherever you’re going.
Kenny: And that leads perfectly to the last item I wanted to touch on which is a point that you made to me last week when we were talking, which is a lot of international expansion and adapting to cultures actually has nothing to do with international but has to do with just being culturally aware even here within the U.S. because we have so many different cultures and we are a melting pot of diversity. And this goes to what you were just saying about Hawaii being a gateway to other countries: It seems to me—in what I understood from our conversation in preparing for this recording—that a lot of the ground work that you’ll do has to do with the mindset and the way you do business here in the U.S.. Could you talk a little bit about what people need to do to make sure they’re not excluding cultures from right here at home?
Nicki: You know that’s interesting. I was at a very large convention here in the U.S. just a couple of months ago and I looked out at that audience and everybody was really white. I mean there was not another ethnic person anywhere in that room and I was out in the hall before and after and talking with people and I was pretty shocked. They gave me the new catalog after the event and I looked through it and part of what I noticed was there were no ethnic people in the catalog either. Some companies will say to me “we’re not attracting women to our business. We don’t know what it’s about.” Well what is the car they give away? A two-door red sport’s car. Well that’s not what mothers are going to shoot for. They want a car their family could fit in, you know? So, we make little mistakes without understanding what they even are.
So, every bit of our material shows different types of cultures. Your staff, who are the corporate team players? If you haven’t got anybody of ethnic background… I’m not saying don’t hire the right person. You always want to hire the right person. But if you had two equal candidates and one was of another culture, it would be very wise to bring that person in because it would let the people know that there’s more opportunity than what you see. And I know that sounds kind of strange but people have to see themselves in a room; they’ve got to see other people like them.
So, if you’re not attracting other ethnic backgrounds, make a mark to go after. Advertise in the Filipino LA magazine, you know, put something out to the Spanish Chamber of Commerce. Find ways to find these people. They are there. They just don’t know they fit. So, and that’s another thing: just going, having different people talking in front of the room. You know, you’re at your conference. Let people know that this is for all. It is everyone gets an opportunity here. So, look around and see what you can do to show diversity. Diversity in age, diversity in cultural background, you know, diversity in male/female. All is important to be a well-rounded company.
Kenny: You know and I don’t know that there’s any better place to end because I do think that, that is just so important. People aren’t going to want to be where they don’t feel represented and where they don’t feel listened to and where they don’t feel valued. And so much of that comes not from what we say and not from our direct contact with people but from the supporting material and the culture that we build. And I do think that long term success is built on a lot of the principals that you’ve hit on which is building a culture of inclusion and understanding. I appreciate so much your time Nicki. I know that you’re extremely busy but this is really valuable information that we need to get spread out more widely.
Nicki: Well thank you Kenny.
Kenny: That’s it for today’s episode of the MLM.com podcast. You can support us by rating us on iTunes or reaching out to us through MLM.com. We’d love to hear your feedback and the issues you would like to hear us address. A big thanks to Nicki for her time and expertise, and a thanks as always to the MLM.com staff and especially Jana Bangerter and Adam Holdaway for their production support. I’m Kenny Rawlins and look forward to you joining us the next time.