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Unformatted text preview: The Success Factors for Direct Selling Business Der-Fa Robert Chen, Shu-Yin Wang, Shiuh-Tarng Cheng Department of Business Management National Sun Yat-Sen University Tel: 07-525-2000 ext.4621 Fax:07-525-4695 derfa@bm.nsysu.edu.tw The Success Factors for Multi-level Marketing Business Abstract According to the survey conducted by the Fair Trade Commission (1997), by the end of 1996, the number of registered multi-level marketing (network marketing) enterprises operated in Taiwan has increased to758, the total population participating in direct selling has reached 2.36 million, and the industry has amusingly created a total annual sale of NT$ 40.8 billion. From the figures above, it may be hard to believe that it was just 16 years ago when Amway, an American multi-level marketing company, started its direct sales operation in Taiwan. Today, with its excellent performance, the direct selling industry have not only shaken off the negative image of money-sucking schemes, but also successfully proven itself to be an innovative, formidable marketing channel. Examining its success factors, we found out that the multi-level marketing industry is very keen at exploring marketing niches in a changing society and at developing strategies that utilize its existing channel advantages, unique product characteristics, effective information flows, innovative benefit offerings, and all-out corporate efforts to achieve its current market dominance. In probing the industry’s future development, several trends are worth noticing. That includes the extension of targeted segments, the market demands for innovative products and services, the needs to widen and deepen the product mixes, the supplementary sales efforts, new products for leisure-related and female-oriented market opportunities, and finally, the development of company image and public relations strategies. All these areas require special attention and devoted marketing efforts by multi-level marketing companies who want to maintain their competitiveness and continue to excel in tomorrow’s market place. Key Words: Direct Selling, Multi-level Marketing, Success Factors, Consumers Behavior, Environmental Factors. 1 1. Introduction Multi-level marketing is one of the direct selling methods. According to Fair Trade Laws, multi-level marketing(MLM) is defined as marketing activities in which participants pay a certain amount of fees in order to gain the membership from a sales or promotional organization who grant its members the right to sell/distribute the product and service, to recruit other new members, and to obtain economic rewards. From data released by the Fair Trade Commission, in 1997, the total number of registered MLM enterprises has increased to 758, the total participants has reached 2.36 million and the total sales revenue of the industry was estimated to be NT$ 40.8 billion. Known by its unique way of connecting the end user and the producer, today’s MLM industry has not only won increased acceptance among general public but also made itself an innovative, powerful marketing channel that generates robust revenue growth. It was just about 16 years ago when Amway, a well-established American household product producer, started its multi-level marketing operation in Taiwan. And since then, the multi-level marketing industry has firmly rooted itself in this island and flourished in an amusing speed. This paper is aimed at examining all the factors that contribute to the industry’s success with a special focus on product-related determinants. The structure of this paper is in the following sequences: First, an academic overview of consumer behavior theories and the impacts of environmental factors on purchasing decisions are presented. Second, several important environmental factors affecting today’s multi-level marketing industry are investigated. Third, the success attributes and causing factors of multi-level marketing companies are analyzed. Finally, suggestions are proposed based on future trends. 2 2. Literature Review The success of a marketing strategy depends largely upon a company’s ability to effectively utilize its organizational and human resources toward the goal of fulfilling the needs of its target customers in a dynamic environment. And through repeating this process in an innovative way, a company can create a dominant market presence, customer loyalty and satisfaction. practitioners. This is much the same for the direct selling Before studying the success factors for the industry, we first focus briefly on purchasing behavior theories and external factors affecting buying decisions which would lay the groundwork for the further discussion. Theories of consumer behaviors provide useful insights for explaining the consumer’s evaluation process as well as predicting purchasing behaviors. For example, The Black Box Theory (Jung Tai-Sheng, 1991) views a customer as an entity that receives external stimuli which provokes evaluation processes and generates responses. The theory stresses a person’s motivations, family influence, cultural background, attitude, and social class as factors that affect one’s buying decision. Additionally, according to Philip Kotler’s(1995) view, a purchasing decision is mainly determined by the consumer’s personal traits and evaluation process, along with stimuli from the external environment. Since various economic, social, cultural, political, and technological factors can all have different degree of influences on consumers’ buying decisions, studying each of these factors individually are crucial for understanding their possible impacts on the market success of an industry as well as for forming an effective marketing strategy. 3 3. The Changes of the Consuming Environment The consuming environment in Taiwan has had significant changes in the past 20 years. A successful business must have realized the change and adapted a policy to meet it. In this section, we start with the discussion and analysis of the external environment changes, followed by the discussion of the consumers’ behavior changes. 3.1 The analysis of external environment factors The population and demographic factor, economic factor, natural factor, technological factor, legal and political factor, and cultural/social factor are six important external environment stimuli to the consumers’ purchasing behavior(Kotler, 1995, Keegan, 1995). Their changes in the past 20 years in Taiwan are discussed and analyzed in this section, respectively. 3.1.1 The population and demographic factor (1) The increased educational level of general public in recent years, as a result of the implementation of the nine-year civil obligatory education program, has positively changed consumers’ attitude and perception toward products having a complex nature. In addition, as a result of the rapid development of the mass media, the free flow of new product information has made today’s consumers more knowledgeable than ever before and therefore, has enhanced their ability to make a good judgement. This is especially evidenced by the increasing acceptance of consumers toward non-traditional marketing method such as direct selling as well as their knowledge to distinguish between legitimate multi-level marketing operation and the illegal “pyramid” schemes. (2) The coming of an aging society has increased the needs for health care products. According to the data released by the Ministry of Interior, as of 1994, the total retired 4 population in Taiwan has accounted for 4% of the entire population. This trend is reflected by the increasing market demands for health-related products such as nutrition supplement and health-enhancing/fitness equipment. Additionally, more and more people in their young age have realized the importance of preventing illness from happening in the first place. They too are taking measures to maintain a good health, especially for those who live a busy lifestyle. (3) Taking a sociological approach, the changing family structure of the society could also be a good predictor for possible changes in purchasing patterns and behaviors (Yu Su-Chu 1995). Families in different stages of social development usually have different needs to be fulfilled. For instance, the small size families with little children spend a big proportion of their money on educational goods and basic necessities for the children. As the small size families constitute the majority of the society, two trends of consumer behaviors are worth noticing: First, parents are paying more and more attention on their children’s intellectual as well as physical development. their spending on the children will increase dramatically. As a result, Second, as many elderly people no longer live with their offspring under the same roof, their daily needs of health care are calling for a well-round social welfare system and a comfortable health care providing environment. (4) In the traditional job market, male has always played the role of “bread-earner”. However, as the society evolves and the long-existing gap between two sexes narrows, female’s participation in the job market are taking a big leap. Considering the increase of the percentage of double-income families, which has sharply jumped to 30.42% in 1993, up from 7.62% in 1948, there is no doubt that the merging female workforce will have a profound impact on the consumer market. 5 On the other hand, while the buying power increases, the time available for house works will be shortened. All these effects induce demands for more time-saving products and efficient shopping methods. 3.1.2 The economic factor The average annual income per capita in Taiwan has reached US$12,439 in 1995. This will lead to a bigger share of consumer spending on high quality and luxury items. In addition, as the society matures, people tend to place more emphasis on their leisure needs. This can be seen from the booming of overseas travelling and the mushrooming urban and rural recreational facilities built in recent years. Balancing a fast-pace lifestyle in a dynamic economic environment, innovative products and services that provide consumers with desired convenience and benefits will certainly take a big lead in the market place. 3.1.3. The natural factor The excessive pursuit of economic glory has taken its toll on the nature environment. As incomes and education level increase, people nowadays are less tolerate toward the polluted air, piggish environment, and the overly-used artificial ingredients in the things they consume. As a result, the rising environment consciousness and concerns for the nature will promote more nature-friendly materials used in producing and packaging goods on the store shelves. 3.1.4 The technological factor In the last two decades, the successfully commercialized applications of many modern technologies have significantly changed the patterns of market competition. Three major effects brought by advanced technologies are observed: First, the life cycle of a product is shortened as a result of abundant market supply and enhanced R&D capacity. In order to compete for bigger market share, product attributes 6 that stress certain uniqueness are often added by manufacturers to increase consumers’ perceived product value. Second, as the market competition intensifies, companies are now narrowing the market focus on well-defined segments and developing strategies exclusively aimed at cultivating their targeted customers. One example of this development is the various usage applications of cosmetic products developed and marketed to different age groups of consumers. Third, the widely-applied modern technologies have also made a profound impact on conventional marketing channels. Equipped with state-of-the-art computer devices, companies who practicing direct marketing, direct selling, home purchasing and electronic shopping are reaping big success in the market. What’s more, as the boundaries of information flows collapse, the effectiveness of communication channels is no longer defined by “coverage” but by to what degree the message is digested by the targeted market segments. To ensure the effectiveness of the communication flows, face-to-face selling that provides advantages such as direct customer contact and market information feedback are regaining its popularity. 3.1.5 The legal and political factor The growing power of consumerism in the last decade has also produced a great influence on both market place and government regulation. For manufacturers, safety designs and features of a product have become a standard offering. For different and channel members, a hassle-free shopping atmosphere no-question-to-ask refund policy have also become a promotional weapon. For government, the establishment of the Consumer Protection Foundation and the birth of Consumer Protection Laws have set a milestone not only in promoting fair trade 7 concepts but in guarding consumers with protective measures. 3.1.6 The cultural/social factor Influenced by the waves of global economy, consumers nowadays are more receptive and adaptable in new concepts and trends. behavior is more than a way of satisfying needs. For many, purchasing It has also become an expression of one’s social background, status, and personal values. For instance, many consumers today may place the same importance upon the overall image and reputation of a company they are buying from and the product and service it provides. A healthy public image is specially important for companies who want to build a long-term relationship with their customers. 3.2 The analysis of consumers’ behavior changes 3.2.1 Trends in purchasing consideration According to the latest market researches (Hsieh Pang-Chang, 1995), today’s consumers value convenience above many other purchasing consideration and prefer products that contains multiple attributes to those perform only few functions. This is especially true when the market is overwhelmingly flown with various new products and inventions. Since most consumers perceive the multi-attribute products deliver more values for their money, adding attributes desirable by the consumers are becoming another market imperative. 3.2.2 Social influence factors Reference groups have always been a major determinant influencing purchasing behaviors. While advertising is loosing its magic in an information over-flown market place, the word-of-mouth reputation is gaining its importance. As consumers become more educated and sophisticated, they consult the opinions of 8 experts and the experienced product users around them when making the decision. Moreover, using the product demonstration to prove its effectiveness has become a useful way in increasing creditability and persuading consumers. Combined with a sound word-of-mouth reputation, effective product display and demonstration can be used as a great tool for achieving market success. Facing a rich supply of product information, the channels of information flows which consumers have access to influence the buying decision in many ways. From a psychological point of view, people are often consciously aware of his or her own status in relation to others. In making efforts to form the group conformity, consumers obtain new product information not only for satisfying their own needs but also for fulfilling expectations from others. Since today’s consumers are often time-deprived, a well-informed product consultant could be an influential member in their reference circle. 4. The Key Success Factors of Multi-Level Marketing Business As the society and market mature, the needs of consumers become more and more diverse. For companies who want to gain an edge over competition, studies of consumer tastes, needs, purchasing habits, and changing market trends are critically important. In the last 16 years, the development of the MLM industry, with its immense organizational and sales growth, has undoubtedly been proven to be a huge market success. The success reflects people’s increasing acceptance to buying MLM products as well as participating in its marketing and selling process. Through close examination, we discover a linkage between the industry’s success and its very ability to seize the merging opportunities in a changing social and economic environment. The following analyses details four major contributing factors to the success of the 9 industry. 4.1 Attributes that meet needs In selling, the attributes of a product and/or service are the most essential part of the offering. Based on researches done by the Fair Trade Commission and some academic researchers (Fu Hsien-Fang, Lee Yueh, 1993), eight special characteristics of directing selling products were discovered. A. High Quality Level Since the previous usage experience and the product’s effectiveness are still a major concern for buying decisions, a superior level of product quality has uniformly become a “must-have” for direct selling products. A favorable word-of-mouth reputation would not only enhance customer loyalty but also encourage the first time customers. To establish a sound brand name reputation, the importance of maintaining an above-standard product quality can never be over-emphasized. With the rising level of living standards and purchasing power, consumers today acknowledge products that deliver promised values and are more willing to pay for the premium. Even more, for many time-short working population, a good word-of-mouth reputation is usually the best time-saving buying guideline. B. Ease of Use and Operation Products that are easy to use, operate, and demonstrate have a merit for attracting customers. Using water filtering machines as an example, the demonstration of the machine provides a great opportunity not only for showing prospective customers how the machine operates but also for instructing consumers the proper operation. 10 C. Health-oriented Nature According to a survey conducted by the Fair Trade Commission(1997), the top three categories of direct selling products are: health and nutrition products(42.15%), cosmetic products(16.89%), and health-enhancing and fitness equipment(14.35%). Accounting for roughly 73 percent of the total sales volume, products containing health-oriented nature have clearly reflected the society’s demands for maintaining a balanced, healthy lifestyle as well as the anxiety for coping with the aging trend. D. Concerns for Natural Environment The rising voice for natural preservation and environment protection in recent years has also made products made from natural ingredients a big star in the market place. To accommodate this trend, many companies are rushing to developing natural-based, ecological-concerned health foods, cosmetic products, and fitness equipment to capture this market opportunity. E. Well-thought-out After Sales Service The rise of consumerism has inevitably changed the attitude and expectation of consumers. Not only do factors such as product safety and effectiveness become a basic consideration for purchasing decisions, a well-thought-out after sales service package and refund policy are also becoming a standard buying offer. As mandated clearly in the Fair Trade Laws, legitimate MLM companies are all obligated to provide their customers with adequate after-sales service as well as refund policies. Since this kind of services can often be performed by the direct selling agents at the customer’s house, it largely eliminates the customer travelling 11 time and efforts and at the same time, reduces the consumer’s perceived buying risks. F. The Multi-Functional Nature of the Product Facing abundant new product offerings and market information, the total value of a product has become a often-used criterion in the consumer’s decision making. Compared with multi-functional ones, products that perform only limited functions are destined to be less competitive. In an attempt to cultivate this market opportunity, many MLM companies are adding product features desired by consumers to make their offerings more appealing. G. Ease of Carrying Living a busy lifestyle, effective time management has its very importance. When it comes to the product design, the concept of “keeping it light, thin, short, and small”, that frees consumers from both space and time limitation, has somehow become a main stream. For products that can be used frequently, the easy-to-carry design can even lead to an increase in product usage. This is also why most direct selling companies accompany their products with easy-to-carry packs. H. Nature of Repurchasing Distributors and sales volumes of all levels are essential working elements for a multi-level marketing organization. To maintain a sustainable long term growth, repeat consumption made by customers plays a vital role. For this reason, the non-durable products, which contains unlimited potentials for repurchasing, have been the major items sold by most direct sales companies. This can especially be seen from the top selling items of the industry such as skin-care, health, and cleaning products that require frequent uses. 12 4.2 An effective information provider Face-to-face communication between a direct sales person and his/her clients provides many advantages that the conventional marketing endeavors such as product designing, flexible pricing, and market segmenting can not easily match. Among all others, three distinct advantages of face-to-face selling are worth of discussing: A. Meeting Consumers’ Thirst for New Product Information As the society turning multi-faced, consumers nowadays are more aware of knowledge concerning new inventions, technologies, and trends. Through proper training, multi-level companies can made their sales people well-prepared in informing their clients the latest product-related trends as well as answering their questions. B. Gathering Market Feedback By using face-to-face communication, companies can know more about how the customer respond to their offerings and can also find out the causes for their dissatisfaction. And through the feedback made by the field sales, MLM companies can use these first hand market information for strategic decision making in the area of production, pricing, quality control, and after sales service. C. Providing Purchasing Consultation Occupied by busy work schedules and family activities, most consumers have only limited time left for gathering the product information they need. Under such conditions, a real life consultant who offers a wide range of product-related advice can save consumers tremendous time and efforts. 13 In the direct selling business, this merging role of product consultant is normally assumed by the field distributor in serving his or her busy customers. 4.3 The innovative benefits of direct selling While the term “marketing channels” has been redefined by rapid technological and economic development, various channel inventions have also been putting into practice. With its unique nature, the multi-level marketing industry is especially seen as an effective marketing channel. Thanks to the rise in educational level and the wide media coverage, the industry has gradually detached itself from the negative image of the so-called “pyramid scheme” and developed into a multi-billion-dollars-in-sales giant. The followings are the analysis of contributing factors for its success. A. Efficient Shopping Pattern Since direct sales people usually serve the clients at the clients’ house, they provide a time-efficient way of satisfying needs. Moreover, by serving the client at home, the direct sales people have the opportunity to explain the benefits of their offerings thoroughly and could also reduce the client’s inconvenience for after sales service. Compared with traditional market channels, the shopping pattern of direct sales products is far more time-efficient and flexible. B. Long-term Relationship Building Through continuous sales and service contacting, the direct sales people can establish a long-term relationship with their clients. And this long-time-cultivated relationship will be a valuable asset for generating future sales. Even when the client is unsatisfied with the product or the level of 14 service, direct contacts can be a very productive way in diminishing the client’s discontent. C. Quick Response Marketing Mechanism Resulting form the progresses in new technologies and mass media, the current consumer market is greatly shaped by manifold demands and supplies in the market place. To sustain the market competitiveness, tasks involving assessing the changing needs and demands of consumers have become crucially important. Compared with traditional marketing methods which rely largely on using questionnaires to gain market feedback, direct customer approach provides a far more effective, accurate information stream for strategic decision making. D. Narrowing the Distance Between People Acting out the belief of “sharing good things with good friends,” direct sales people are often eager to introduce well-reputed products to those around them. This unique channel of business transaction provides not only various benefits associated with better products and services, but also much-needed interpersonal ties in the modern society. E. Turning Passive to Active Conventional marketing channels generally rely on fixed locations for product distribution. Under such systems, the interaction between a company and its customers is passive in nature. In direct selling, however, the field sales people need to adopt a more aggressive method in approaching their prospective customers. This “push” approach will undoubtedly widen the client base of a company and contributes to the increase in sales performance. 15 4.4 The combined strategies for achieving success In addition to factors mentioned above, strategies used by companies to achieve synergy of their every marketing effort should not be ignored. To gain an edge over fierce competition, it is very advisable for companies to measure their success not only in the area of sales and profits, but in their employee training, public relations, and promotional management. Only through a balanced strategy forming and implementing, can a multi-level marketing enterprise ensure a sustainable long-term success. 5. The Future Trends of Direct Selling Products To succeed in the market place, companies of any industry must have a clear market-driven focus and always keep a constant touch with changes in its operating environment. To a large extent, the success of the multi-level marketing industry lies on its ability to match the needs arise from a changing society with its every strength. Nevertheless, facing with the increasing competitive pressure from both newly-developed and conventional market sectors, today’s accomplishment will not guarantee tomorrow’s prosperity. To conquer the challenges ahead, strategies should be developed to further discover those under-served market opportunities. The followings are areas that are currently under-cultivated and deserve more attention. 5.1 The extension of target markets Based on survey done to the top-10 MLM companies (The Fair Trade Commission, 1997), the cluster of the main target segments are most commonly aimed at adult customers. Nevertheless, as small size families become a norm in the society, parents are investing more in their children. 16 This would leads to opportunities for expanding sales volume as well as distribution networks. Through using the corporate and training resources more productively, multi-level marketing companies should start to cultivate the hidden potentials of the expanding market segments. 5.2 Developing innovative products and services According to the Fair Trade Commission(1997), during the period of 1993 to 1996, health-related products have topped the sales rank among other categories. These data clearly indicate the concern for better health has its irreplaceable importance for local consumers. Further, with the increased income, educational level and medical awareness, we can predict that the market demands for health-related products will grow even greater. In addition to the already existed health foods, nutritional supplement, and fitness equipment, the health checkup service is also getting its popularity. Providing its members with a warm ambience, privacy, and professional caretakers, health care service providers create a comfortable medical environment. In addition, through cooperating with local medical care institutes, multi-level marketing companies can even take a further step in developing themselves into professional health care consulting agents that benefit a wide range of people. 5.3 Developing the width and depth of product mix Due to rapid technological advancement, the life cycle of new products has been dramatically shortened. To maintain market competitiveness, companies need to have a system that enables them to adjust their offerings precisely to meet the merging demands. much truth. For multi-level marketing companies, the above statement has In order to accommodate the diverse demands of the modern consumers, MLM companies should develop strategies to broaden both the width 17 and depth of their competitive offerings. Even more, efforts devoted to create a professional brand name image and investment made to enhance the productivity of human resources will all play crucial roles in tomorrow’s success. 5.4 The use of intelligent marketing database To effectively broaden customer base and expand marketing network, many companies are now taking advantage of the use of the intelligent market information database. This advanced data collecting system can yield many benefits from facilitating sales transaction, making performance prediction, to supporting field sales efforts. 5.5 Opportunities for leisure-oriented product and service With the rise in living standards, consumers nowadays place more emphasis on leisure needs and personal privacy. This is especially evidenced by the increasing demands for recreational activities in recent years. marketing resources, multi-level marketing While utilizing their existing companies can incorporate leisure-oriented products and services such as vacation-center chains, travel planning service, and health clubs that can be fit easily into their current operations. 5.6 The growing importance of sound pubic relations The development of corporate image and PR efforts have long been put in the back burner for the sake of pursuing short-term profits. However, today’s consumers have more to ask than simply have their needs satisfied. In the eyes of sophisticated consumers, a healthy company image, measured by both social and environmental aspects, has been seen as important as the products themselves. To flow with this trend, multi-level marketing companies should involve themselves in activities that promote better social welfare and environmental concerns. 18 5.7 Products for Female Consumers In the process of purchase evaluation, female consumers generally tend to rely more on reference groups around them (Kuo Kun-Mo, 1991). easy to be affected by certain outside stimuli. They are also more Even though over the years the female consumers have form a representing voice in the market place, finding out their exact needs and tailoring marketing programs to serve them is no easy task. However, the rewards should outweigh the efforts in the long run. 6. Conclusion It was just 16 years ago when Amway set up its multi-level marketing operation in Taiwan. Today, with more than 2.3 million participants, the multi-level marketing enterprises has flourished into a NT$ 40.8 billion in sales industry. After studying factors that contribute to its amusing rate of growth, we conclude that the industry has succeeded in finding niches characterized by changes in the society and in developing strategies that incorporate genuine market and customer focuses with relentless entrepreneurial spirits. With prompt government guidance, the multi-level marketing industry has successfully reborn from the image of ill-reputed money-sucking schemes and proven itself to be an innovative, powerful marketing force. Despite its formidable market presence, the industry is also facing challenges of coping with the intensifying competitive pressures in its operating environment. To gain an edge over competition, the concrete efforts made to find out the needs of consumers and to serve the target segments at an exceptional level will make a big difference. Putting them into practices, companies should cautiously tailor strategies aimed to widening the customer reach, broadening the product line, developing the winning 19 product mix, supporting field sales efforts, cultivating leisure and female-oriented market opportunities, and building up the company’s public image. In Japan, the annual sales generated by a direct sales person is approximately ten times of those in Taiwan. growth. The figure is a clear indication that there is still room for As the industry moving into a mature stage, how to reinvent itself and remain competitive is a challenging task. To ensure future survival, multi-level marketing companies have a lot more to do than just boosting their bottom-lines. 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