The Integrity of Direct Sales: Another Point of View

Millions of people work in direct selling around the world…do you really think they’ve all been fooled somehow?

I’ve been rolling this post around in my mind for a while now. Because I want to get the words just right.

Recently the attack dogs have been out again against the direct selling industry. In this case, a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute named Virginia Sole-Smith. She wrote a scathing review of Mary Kay Cosmetics, and has since seen fit to lump the rest of the industry with it.

The problem with the article? While I have no doubt that the experiences she relates are true, there is no balanced reporting. It feels very much like she went in with an opinion, and then found sources to support her point of view. Even though she has never worked in the industry before, so truly has no first-hand knowledge of the industry. Add to this the fact that reporters are supposed to look at both sides of an issue, and it makes me question both the integrity and the competence of the reporter in question.

And the thing is, I understand why there are people who don’t like the direct selling industry. It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone who tries it will be successful. Some people do invest more than they make (although if you’re strategic, there’s always a way to at least break even if you want to. And the DSA’s buy-back policy requires DSA member companies to refund your returned new inventory up to 90% within 12 months of purchase.)

For a large part of my life I was one of those haters. I refused to go to direct selling parties. I just assumed the whole thing was a scam. Until I got involved with the industry. And I began to understand the industry in a whole new light.

You see, it’s easy to find haters for any industry. Pharmaceuticals, Investment Bankers, Education, Tech…you name the industry, and you can find people that hate it. And the fact that so many people have the option of trying direct sales or being touched by it in some way means millions more opinions, some of which will be negative. Sometimes those opinions are grounded in fact. Sometimes not. But unless you sincerely look at both sides of the issues, you will never know the truth.

I have spent my recent career in direct selling trying to promote ethical marketing of the business opportunity we offer. Over-promising helps no one, and success requires work. But isn’t that true of any entrepreneurial venture?

I recently read an article on TechCrunch about founders of startups, and the challenges it presents. Typically founders (and I lived that life) put in a LOT of money and hours, trying to make a business work. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, no matter how hard you work. And at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, you’re out a lot of money. And sometimes you lose a lot of other things in the process.

The thing about direct sales, however, is that it gives many people an entrepreneurial option that doesn’t require nearly as much of a financial and hourly investment. The average direct seller only works about 5 hours per week and gets a lot of training and support from the parent company. But just like with any entrepreneurial venture, sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in direct sales, if you sell you get paid. That doesn’t always happen with your traditional entrepreneur. Will a direct seller sometimes invest more than they make? Yes, if they’re not careful. But at least they walk away with product. The traditional entrepreneur can walk away with nothing to show for their investment if it all goes wrong.

For a society that celebrates the entrepreneur, the startup, we’re really missing the boat when it comes to direct selling. It’s the lowest risk way I know to start a business. And what Ms. Sole-Smith refers to as “building an income on the backs of others” I see as providing additional opportunity. In an age where unemployment is rampant, those “backs” as she puts it are looking for a way to earn an income. Direct sales is an option that helps people make money. Those that don’t want to be there don’t have to do it. It’s that simple.

And I haven’t even begun to address all the business training and personal development that direct sellers receive. Or the recognition, which I sure didn’t receive when I worked in corporate America. Being recognized for your efforts is a good thing, and it builds people up. I, for one, am in favor of that.

In comments on one of the posts about this issue, people held up training that a direct sales leader gave to her team, and used it as a way to vilify the industry. Clearly these people have never worked in sales. Because the training is nearly the same as training I have written and seen in several industries I have worked in over the years. Concepts such as “overcoming objections” are not new, folks. This is classic sales training. Direct sales did not invent it, and the next time you talk to the cable company, see whether or not they use exactly the same techniques.

And so I’d like to issue an invitation to Ms. Sole-Smith: Work as a consultant in a direct selling company for a few months. Attend the trainings. Sell the product. Work with people. Watch what happens when someone achieves something they never thought they could, and is recognized for that. And enjoy the checks that come your way when you work hard and do your job.

Do I wish that every single one of the millions of people involved in direct sales did the right thing always? Absolutely. And through the work of organizations like the Direct Selling Association and the Direct Selling Education Foundation, along with ethical companies themselves, we work every day towards making that a reality.

But I will not stand by quietly while people try to discredit an industry I have come to love, when I have personally seen the difference it has made in the lives of people, including lives in my own family. I encourage direct sellers to stand up and tell their stories. Write about it on your own blogs. Share with your friends and neighbors. It doesn’t need hype. Just be honest about your struggles as well as your victories. And let people see why direct selling is a legitimate business model that has helped people reach their goals…whether it be a few hundred dollars a month, a full time income, or simply some great products and a night or two out of the house and away from the kids.

Direct selling is many things to many people. Don’t let the uneducated try to characterize what you do based on THEIR assumptions of what you want. Speak up and tell your own story. Let’s fill the web with the good news of direct selling.

Your thoughts?

Jennifer Fong is a former direct sales company founder and president who currently consults with direct selling companies, helping them and their salesforces market their businesses effectively and ethically online. Jennifer’s former direct sales company donated 100% of its corporate profits to charity, and was presented with the Direct Selling Association’s Vision for Tomorrow Award for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2008. This opinion piece is written to express Jennifer Fong’s personal views on the current attacks on the industry. She does not represent the views of any individual direct selling company or the Direct Selling Association, and is not compensated for writing this blog.

7 Responses to The Integrity of Direct Sales: Another Point of View
  1. Susan Shields
    August 3, 2012 | 7:52 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. It is great to see someone support the Direct Selling Business. I have been in direct selling for many years with two completely different line of products, and have loved being a part of their company. It is a great way to make extra income, get great training and support, make many new friends, and be able to have the products at a discount or free. Of course you have to work at your business. It is not all fun and games, but you can be successful and have fun along the way. Thank you!

  2. Natalie
    August 3, 2012 | 7:52 am

    What saddens me most about this article is here, is one woman, who has ‘infiltrated’ a beauty class with an objective of writing this article, forged ‘friendships’ and written such a mean-spirited article. Not nice.

    This could have been about any industry: teaching, nursing, any… but why would this journalist take precious time out of her schedule, to observe strong, independent women who are working hard to make a better lives for themselves and their family – and then to be so critical. Furthermore, her comments about they way the MK ladies were dressed and made-up added zero value to her article, yet served to show an ugly, spiteful side to her personality.

    Keep up the great work, Mary Kay ladies. This Avon gal is cheering you on!!!

  3. Dino Baskovic
    August 2, 2012 | 10:36 pm

    Some perspective here, Jen:

    Sole-Smith’s piece ran in Harper’s, which has a total annual circulation of barely a hair over 200,000, with only 20,000 Twitter followers and a less-than-respectable Facebook following of only 12,000 and change. I only need count my fingers how many shares, comments and retweets the piece garnered online. The Marketplace afternoon-drive pickup did more for the magazine’s anachronistic brand that it did for the actual subject matter. Had the piece run in Harper’s sister rag BAZAAR, with its slightly elevated eyeballs, then maybe there’d be more fuss. But let’s be honest: Harper’s, Atlantic and Economist just ain’t on the average direct seller’s collective radar.

    The Nation connection is mildly curious. Why they chose to cajole a freelancer less than a decade out of J-school with a horse of a slam that’s long been beaten dead is beyond me. The fact that Sole-Smith readily admits on her own website she is in their back pocket completely kills her credibility, let alone negates any neutrality in her “investigative” journalism of Mary Kay. Now why Nation has a hard-on for Mary Kay in particular is anybody’s guess, but again, leftist media interests only spark so much interest at your average Mary Kay Party.

    And this business that Sole-Smith had to defend her piece on a follow-up blog post and drag one of Ross’s henchmen into this as her credible source… I mean, I’m sorry, I’m just not seeing any cause for concern here.


  4. Hilary Bullock
    August 2, 2012 | 9:29 pm

    Jennifer –
    Thank you for this timely article. I read it about two weeks ago and agree that the reporter seemed to make no effort to contact a broad range of people within Mary Kay. I actually write to to let them know this article was on the news stands. It is a good suggestion on your part that perhaps she should have made the commitment to join the ranks of Mary Kay consultants for at least 46 months and start building a business of her own. It’s so easy to look at what others are doing (or not doing) and pass judgement. Again, thank you for taking the time to write this and post online.

  5. Jenny
    August 2, 2012 | 5:42 pm

    I remember my first direct sales job was selling Avon when I was in high school. I always seem to be involved with direct sales and find I do best when I am passionate about the product. Selling something you like and know about makes a big difference. People sense your enthusiasm and it is contagious.
    Jenny recently posted..Building Momentum in a New Business

  6. Kathleen Harrison
    August 2, 2012 | 5:42 pm

    Hi Jennifer! Awesome article! Thank you for writing this. It really puts Direct
    Selling in a whole new positive light. I come across negativity in this industry all the time. Your comparison of direct selling business to start-ups is brilliant.

  7. Rachel
    August 2, 2012 | 5:36 pm

    This is so disappointing! I too, have come to love the direct selling profession and everything it represents. It is unfortunate to see people such as reporters, who are relied on for the truth, misconstrue everything due to their uninformed, negative opinions. Direct selling provides amazing opportunities for everyone and I am very proud to be part of this industry!

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