Commercials with A-list celebrities and talking frogs aren’t Avon’s style — the company doesn’t need funny billboards or catchy jingles to advertise its brand. Instead, a small army of sisters, cousins, aunts and friends carry the Avon name into homes around the world, using free makeovers, trial products and, of course, those little glossy catalogs to make their sales.
As the world’s largest direct sales organization, grossing $8 billion in annual revenue, Avon Products Inc. works with 5 million independent representatives around the globe. More than 640,000 of these sellers work in the United States, each coming to the organization with different skills, experiences and expectations.
The varying needs of this diverse workforce have compelled Avon to develop a comprehensive training program that features traditional corporate training techniques, a multilevel marketing/mentoring program and self-paced online courses.
The corporate side of Avon’s training and development program is typical of the average sales organization. About 1,400 district managers across the country are responsible for recruiting and training the company’s new representatives. Groups of 20 to 25 district managers then report to one of 71 division managers, who in turn report to their corporate leaders.
These learning leaders use a combination of classroom education, independent reading materials, virtual classes and blended learning programs to best serve their representative population. Yet, Avon’s representative high-turnover rate, coupled with a demand for individualized instruction, has made it necessary for the company to search for more innovative training solutions.
One solution Avon offers is a multilevel marketing program called Leadership, in which experienced representatives recruit, train and mentor new sellers in exchange for a percentage of their sales. They use training materials that Avon supplies, and they draw on personal experiences to educate the first three generations of representatives in their “downline.” This includes the sellers the leadership representatives recruit directly, the people those recruits enlist and the people their recruits bring onboard.
While leadership representatives’ training provides more personalized training for new agents, it creates a standardization problem for Avon’s U.S. Sales Training and Development team. Because 70 percent of new representatives are appointed and trained by Leadership members, it’s hard for corporate leaders to ensure everyone is learning at the same level.
“Leadership representatives aren’t employees, so we can’t tell them what to do,” explained Barbara Burlingame, director of U.S. Sales Training and Development. “We can only suggest to them, ‘Here’s what we recommend.’”
One such recommendation is that all new representatives go online and take the courses offered on Avon’s Beauty of Knowledge Web site and learning management system (LMS). This two-year-old LMS provides 19 courses on topics ranging from makeup application to money management, as well as assessment tools that show users what they have learned.
Once representatives finish a module, the system’s reporting function sends the data to their leadership mentor, sales managers and Burlingame’s team. This flow of information allows Avon’s training and development leaders to assess what parts of the training work best and where representatives might need more help. Best of all, it ensures all new representatives learn the fundamentals.
“It’s a lot easier for us to standardize the training and know that what’s being taught is the same all over the U.S. by using the Internet,” Burlingame said.
She also said Beauty of Knowledge, developed by Via Training and Allen Communications, was released to correspond with an increase in online representative activity. Since youravon.com, a Web site that allows sellers to do their business online, was launched in 2000, online activity rose from 17 percent to about 70 percent in 2005.
“Seeing the explosion of representatives’ online activity, I knew that it was time to really take a look at how we could provide the learning, knowledge and education to our representatives on an as-needed basis,” she said.
The response from representatives has been overwhelmingly positive, Burlingame said. In just a little less than seven months, more than 240,000 users have registered on the site, and nearly 850,000 courses have been completed.
Lisa Wilber, senior executive unit leader in Avon’s Leadership program, said being able to take courses at their own leisure, stopping and starting the classes at will, makes it possible for many of her team members to receive training for which they previously didn’t have time.
“A lot of my team members are working moms, a lot of single moms, and they just don’t have time to attend classes, so they weren’t getting anything,” Wilber said. “This way, on the Internet, they can go anytime they want.”
Wilber’s team is made up of 2,000 representatives across the country. Yet, no matter where they live, she is responsible for making sure they get the training and support they need. Wilber said Beauty of Knowledge has made this job easier because she doesn’t have to review every detail with each new team member. It also cuts down on the amount of traveling she has to do to train team members who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“It makes my life easier because I send them there first, and then I can coach them afterward with any questions or specifics they might not understand,” she said. “Tools like this make such a huge difference when you have a team of this size. Even when you have a small team, knowing that we’re all getting consistently the same training that’s available free, 24 hours a day — it’s just a whole new universe.”
Burlingame said this combination of online learning and personal coaching is ideal because of the interactive nature of direct sales.
“It’s a very relationship-driven business,” she explained. “So, you have to have the people element involved with the training. You still need to have the one-on-one training, you still need to have group environment training, but you can reinforce that with online training. You can make sure that people receive the basic level of education.”
One drawback of Beauty of Knowledge is the LMS was designed for users accessing the site with a high-speed Internet connection, so dial-up users have to wait long periods of time for the interactive Flash courses to download.
To address this problem, Burlingame and her team are beginning to put the courses on CDs, which will link users to assessments designed specifically for dial-up customers once they finish a course.
“We’re going to provide this at a very low cost to our dial-up users because we want to make sure that all areas of our representative population get the training,” she said. “Right now, they do it, but it’s a deterrent if it takes too long.”
The Beauty of Knowledge site has benefited the representative population in many ways, Burlingame said. An analysis comparing representatives who took the online training and those who did not showed that the online participants placed more orders, place larger orders and had a lower turnover rate. She also said Avon has a lot to gain from this new training solution.
“They took a look at the cost of developing the training and then maintaining it over a 10-year period, and there was a 300 percent return on investment,” she said.
With those kinds of results, it’s no surprise Avon has a new online training program in the works — the Beauty Advisor Training program will create representatives who are distinguished by their higher level of training.
“They take seven courses, and it’s really expanding their knowledge — product knowledge, skin care, beauty training, color, fragrance and personal care,” Burlingame explained. “And when they take this training, we tag them ‘Beauty Advisors’ because they’ve taken more extensive training than most representatives. And it will be offered free, 24×7, as is all of our online training.”
Avon also is working on a comprehensive training program for its leadership representatives. The classroom curriculum, featuring four sessions of two to four modules each, is expected to launch later this year.
Burlingame said her team hopes to increase online training for their leadership representatives and sales managers in the near future.
– Tegan Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org