At the DSA ENGAGE 2021 annual meeting held last month in New Orleans, Sunwest Communications CEO Crayton Webb led a panel discussion on sustaining business success and, specifically, what is working in the person-to-person model. Panelists were Al Bala, CEO and President of Mannatech; Mauricio Domenzain, CEO of Immunotec Research; and Russ Fletcher, CEO of Xyngular.
WEBB: Can you give us an example of how your organization pivoted, and if it worked?
DOMENZAIN: At Immunotec, we pivoted very fast. We changed our way of doing business. We were heavily oriented on in-person events, so when pandemic hit us, we needed to pivot quickly to virtual, online events only. We did very well, but what we didn't do well is that when we saw that working, we started pushing more. We ended up doing sometimes twenty events in a month. We were talking to one audience like it was the same as others. During the pandemic, countries were in different stages of the crisis. Instead of doing one global event, we needed to be more specific, customizing our events. That's where we didn't do well—but now we have switched over to be more specific for events.
BALA: We definitely changed the event model, and actually found out that it worked out pretty well. We could interact with people during these virtual events in ways we couldn't when we were backstage in a green room and separated from the audience. We could actually interact with the audience through chats. So we learned very quickly that even sixty-year-old people could adapt to the idea of chatting online and engage people into the conversation. It also allowed us to find out exactly how they were feeling about what we were presenting to them. But I think the best thing about it was you didn't have the pressure because you had videotaped it already. So you could actually sit back and relax and actually enjoy the event while really engaging with people in a way we never could before.
FLETCHER: How do you have a business that's based on recognition and community when you can't do recognition or get together in a community? Someone at our company had an idea: what if we took the recognition to them one at a time? So we actually armed our staff, two by two, to go out. We had thirteen or fourteen routes around the country. We would land in an airport, then take cash rewards or recognition to their houses. So what would normally have happened at a big event was now a huge excursion around the country. And it was so wonderful because we hadn't seen them, and they hadn't seen us. Yes, we were careful. We didn't go in their doors if they didn't want us to come in. We would leave it at the doorstep. But just the fact that we went to them and took the recognition and the community to them, that was a huge hit.
WEBB: It's equally interesting to hear about what you tried that didn't work. Can you give an example of a total flop?
FLETCHER: We were trying to deal with the supply chain issues and kept reminding ourselves that we weren't alone in the supply chain world. But we had a case where we knew if we launched, not too specific, but if we launched a flavor-specific product, it would cannibalize the sale of our traditional product. And since we're running out of that, we thought, “This will be great! We'll launch the flavor, and we'll get a little ease on our supply chain for the regular product.” Instead, they sold out of the flavor in forty-eight hours and overburdened our supply chain with an additional product that it didn't need. Then, on a Zoom call with my management team, the head of our supply chain said, “By the way, that warehouse caught on fire today.” We have a pandemic, we shipped product we shouldn't ship, and now the warehouse is on fire.
BALA: Everything's a process. Sometimes good strategies take more than twelve months to really get implemented. We looked around in the early stage of the pandemic and realized that we had to go digital. The average age of associates was fifty-seven. So I took it on personally to sit down with the group of about eighty on a weekly basis to take them through add-tag-messaging and building a Facebook Group. It helped us move a fairly large group of people into this digital world—and then when Facebook changed the algorithm, which delayed definitely the effects we were expecting from that. But certainly, it was the right initiative and is still the right initiative. We got through that digital chasm with our folks, and it actually engaged them on a weekly basis—every Tuesday night for two hours for fifty-two weeks. So the byproduct was engagement. People showed up and stayed in the game. And that was a positive out of something that was really not as positive as what we expected.
DOMENZAIN: We are very incentive-driven with our trips. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were hoping the trip was going to happen. Nobody knew how long the pandemic would last. So we never communicated correctly to the field whether the trip was going to happen or not. The biggest lesson learned is that you need to be as transparent as you can. With not knowing what was happening, we needed to be transparent and say we don't know what is going to happen. And if it happens, good. If not, we're going to be there for you.
WEBB: What change that you thought was going to come with the pandemic has not stuck or will not stick?
BALA: I think when we first started staying at home, it worked out pretty well. We were very effective, and meetings were very effective. In fact, the most effective meetings we ever had was when we were on Zoom. You're in, you're out, you get your business done. Eventually, we realized that leveraging the intelligence of the entire group cannot happen on Zoom. We're going to be very flexible, but there are certain times you must be in the office. You can't build harmony on Zoom. We have to be together. And that is something that maybe I didn't anticipate at first but realize today. We are definitely going to make sure we are together as often as we can.
FLETCHER: I have a word that I like. It's a good Scrabble word. The word is propinquity, and propinquity is the value derived from proximity. So when you're near people, you just get value, a certain amount of information lives in the ether. And we found that when we were 100 percent on Zoom and everybody was working from home virtually, there was information that normally would have been shared that wasn't getting shared. So while I agree our meetings were very efficient, we were almost able to measure how information was shared outside of meetings, because it wasn't getting shared at all. The stuff that you just get from walking down the hall or you just hear as people are walking out of a meeting—none of that was happening. And so, as we're almost completely back, we have discovered that there are some functions that can continue to do very well virtually, but we're eager to get back in the office and try to just make sure that the safety protocols are in place to do that.