From door-to-door to digital: How Avon transformed to a new way of selling
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From door-to-door to digital: How Avon transformed to a new way of selling

Mark Samuels — July 2020
When lockdowns were enforced across the world, cosmetics giant Avon had to rapidly rethink its well-established sales model. Nick Burton, VP Digital Platforms & eCommerce at Avon International, explains how an accelerated digital approach helped keep the company’s millions of representatives connected to customers.

Social distancing creates huge challenges for companies that rely on face-to-face sales. For Nick Burton, VP Digital Platforms & eCommerce at Avon International, it represented an opportunity for the global beauty brand to shift to digital channels and extend how it sells to customers.

Famously, Avon has historically sold its products via representatives calling at customers’ homes to discuss new products and collect orders placed from a catalog. It’s a tried-and-tested direct-selling model that has stood the test of time, but it’s also a model that is impossible to support at a time of household lockdowns due to Covid-19.

Avon’s answer has been to use a combination of different technological approaches to help the company support its representatives and its loyal customer base. This digital transformation, which has been underway over the last few years, represents a significant shift for the company.
Big dividends

While coronavirus has created major challenges for Avon, the rapid response of its IT team has helped the business not just cope but define the long-term benefits of digital transformation. “Our new digital approach removes the constraint of only being able to serve customers that we can physically deliver to,” says Burton.

““Nick Burton”
Nick Burton, VP Digital Platforms & eCommerce, Avon International

That dates back to September 2018 when Avon announced its plan to make its systems more open [to partners] and accelerate digital capability. These steps — which included tackling some legacy technology issues, embracing mobile apps and introducing ecommerce — paid big dividends as the impact of the pandemic became clear.

Burton joined UK-headquartered Avon as VP of digital products and architecture in January 2019. He says he was looking for a new challenge, having spent 15 years at vehicle glass repair specialist Belron, where he had latterly focused his organization on digitalization and enhancing the customer experience.

In comparison, Avon felt more like “a burning platform — somewhere where there’s a lot of appetite to really change things and do it quickly. And that has certainly proven to be the case,” he says.
Re-energizing digitalization

At the beginning of 2020, Avon was acquired by cosmetics giant Natura &Co as part of the Brazilian company’s global expansion strategy, which earlier saw it acquire Aesop of Australia and UK-founded The Body Shop. That resulted in Avon’s operations being split between the Latin America division and a new business unit, Avon International, which covers operations outside of the Americas, and where Burton is responsible for IT.

“It’s a broader remit because, in addition to the digital delivery and architecture, I now manage all the local market IT teams,” he says.  And while the businesses of windscreens and beauty products may seem worlds apart, the end goal of both is the same: creating digital products that help create great customer experiences.

At Avon, Burton manages an internal development factory creating digital products that can be re-used right across the international organization. His main challenge when it comes to delivering these involves dealing with a long-standing reliance on legacy systems.

“Avon

While digitalization had been a key priority at Avon through 2019 — as the company rolled out new capabilities across the globe — that was about to be further accelerated as the coronavirus took hold.

The digital team completed significantly more product go-lives in 2019, alongside reductions in operational costs and improving working efficiencies across the IT team.

“We did that by organizing ourselves in a fundamentally different way, moving to a much more product-centric way of working,” he says. “That involved developing much closer relationships with the different stakeholders, particularly with the sales team that manages Avon representatives.”

As a result, the business introduced a new mobile app for reps, which Burton refers to as “a one-stop-shop for everything a rep needs to do on a day-to-day basis,” including placing orders on behalf of their clients.  

The app also provides access to Avon’s Learning Hub, an online training platform for reps and social-sharing capabilities that allow reps to share content on new products and offers through their social media channels — and, critically, receive commission when customers click through and place an order.
Prescient moves

That digitalization program has proved critical in recent months, as the IT team put in place new processes to help Avon carry on selling despite the lockdown. They focused first on creating a mechanism to ensure product orders could be delivered directly to Avon customers rather than having to be hand-delivered by the representatives.

Their second task was to help bolster the firm’s ecommerce presence. Avon has been working hard to create a digital companion to the traditional door-to-door selling model. That includes customizable URLs for representatives, so  they can customize their store name and receive commission for driving sales. In the UK alone, says Burton, sales through that new ecommerce channel grew six times in the first three weeks of lockdown.

The final area of focus has been digital brochures. As a supplement to its traditional product catalogs, the company had already started to create digital versions during 2019; as lockdown hit, Avon started refreshing these on a weekly basis, complete with updated offers.

“The model still relies on our reps but digitalization is starting to change how it works,” says Burton. “A ring on the doorbell and a paper brochure have been replaced by a WhatsApp message with a link to a digital brochure, in many cases. The customers message back and the reps then use our web-based app to create a pending order in the system.”
Catalyst for change

Under normal circumstances, it might have been very difficult to convince Avon’s loyal community of representatives to move from face-to-face selling to ecommerce and digital brochures but the situation means that suddenly both reps and customers are now much more willing to embrace the digital model. Indeed, the impact of the immediate requirement to modify the firm’s selling approach could represent a long-term transition in its business model.

“The dynamic has changed,” acknowledges Burton. “Reps who might have been reticent to embrace digital before haven’t got as many alternatives now — and it’s worked really well, so the lockdown has triggered behavior change.”

As he underscores, the shift to digital seen during the pandemic has highlighted how the company can serve customers going forward and accelerated plans for further digitization.

 

First published July 2020
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