The Best Way To Master Direct Sales, From Avon’s Betty Palm

Betty Palm Avon
Photo courtesy of Betty Palm

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for space and clarity.]

Kruse: What is the secret to success in the direct sales industry? Hello, everyone. I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to the LeadX show, where of course, we're the smartest way to start your day. And please, tell your managers, heck, tell all of your colleagues at work: You can watch a new, free training video every single day at Recent topics have been on ways to double your productivity, how to motivate your team members, and even tips for authentic leadership.

Today on the show, you're going to hear from the President of Social Selling at Avon. We get her career advice for young professionals, her management tips, and the key difference between those who just dabble in direct selling, and those who make it big with six-figure earnings.

Our challenge of the day comes from one of her early career lessons: Think of something you might like to try, maybe a little different, and go ask your boss, or even significant other, to support you in trying it out. Now, in our guest's case, you're going to hear that she actually changed her entire job. I'm not suggesting you do that, unless it sort of feels like that is what you want to do. But, maybe there's something at work that you're interested in, but your boss wouldn't know about it. Maybe you want to run the United Way campaign this year. Maybe you want to organize the summer picnic. Maybe you want to tag along on a sales call with a sales representative, just to learn more about that side of the business. Think of something different, a little daring, and go ask for permission to do it.

Our quote of the day comes from Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.”

And, before I introduce our guest, please be patient and understanding with the audio quality. You know, it's great whenever I can get a high-level company executive to talk to us. But, we always struggle to pin them down on a time and place, or even a Skype connection. So we, kind of, have to take what we can get. And a lot of times, it's on a, you know, poor-quality speaker phone, or even mobile phone, et cetera. So, just keep that in mind with this interview. The audio's a little less than what we like to do on the show.

With that in mind, our guest today started her career in the direct selling industry as a PR intern at Avon. And recently, she returned as President, Social Selling, for New Avon. Avon has been in business for 130 years, and has launched more female entrepreneurs than any other company. Our guest is Betty Palm. Betty, welcome to the show.

Betty Palm: Well, thank you, Kevin.

Kruse: So, I'm looking forward to this chat, Betty. And I don't think I shared with your team before that some of my earliest memories in life is my mom bringing me along as she was visiting our neighbors, and dropping off Avon catalogs, or dropping off products. And it's actually some of my earliest and most fond memories, going with her as she was making the rounds.

Palm: We love hearing that. We hear that often, actually. A lot of people can remember a mother, a grandparent, an aunt, having the Avon representative visit and drop off products. And we're happy to be part of people's happy memories.

Kruse: Oh, yeah. That's the way I put it. And some out there, you know, some listeners might say, “Well, it's kind of funny, as a guy he's talking about these fond Avon memories.” But as a little toddler, I can remember the bath toys that came from the Avon catalog, I can remember opening them up and smelling the perfume. I have great memories from the catalogs and that time. So this is, I'm excited for the interview.

Palm: Oh, we love to hear that.

Kruse: And this, the first question, Betty, is sort of a tradition I have. I ask all our guests the same first question, which is: I believe that our failures are stepping stones. Even if they hurt in the moment, they can lead to new things in the future. So I'm wondering if you'll share a story of one of your best failures, and what did you learn from it?

Palm: Well, that is a bit unusual. We normally like to talk about our successes. But I can remember a time. Actually, it's after I had worked for Avon for a number of years, and then I'd left. And I was working in New York City, and was recruited by two former Avon executives to a new business that was in Houston, Texas. And so, having left a very large, established company that had protocols, and ways of doing business, and certainly as a young woman, these are your impressionable years in terms of understanding how to operate within a business climate. And when I moved to Houston, then, first of all, it was a move from New York to Houston. I even had to get used to the language of business down there. So, in a business meeting, somebody would say, “Well this dog won't hunt.” And I'm thinking, “I don't even know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I'm not even sure I know what that means.” Or, they'd be using expressions like, “Well we're fixin' to get ready.” And, that was another one. It was like, “Well, what does that mean, exactly? Are you ready, or not?”

But it was a business that was run by an entrepreneur. And the entrepreneur had started a number of businesses as a young man, became quite successful, and then was in the business of starting a number of other businesses. And so, again, it was just a very different cultural environment from Avon, which was this established firm, to this entrepreneurial environment that was so different. You could make decisions on the spot, highly flexible, responsive to customer needs. You could hear something in the morning, and change it in the afternoon.

And so, at the time, I don't know that I had a full appreciation for that exposure. But I found myself, you know, even after I'd left that company, looking back many times, and actually have written to the founder of that particular company and said, “I feel that I earned my MBA from that exposure that I had with you.” And again, it was just a great experience. It was just so different, though, from what I had been used to. I have great admiration, and with any entrepreneurial environment, some of his businesses had failed. You have to pivot as you learn more of what works.

For this particular business, it started out as a precious jewelry business. But because we were selling, at that time, primarily to women, they were more interested in the fashion jewelry piece. And so, we had to change the inventory, move to more of a fashion-oriented type of approach, more affordable approach. And in the end, the business was sold. And so on the one hand, you could say, you know, “The business did not succeed, and therefore, I didn't succeed.” But, I will say that the lessons of being an entrepreneur, adjusting, even the language of the entrepreneur never used the word “failure.” It was more around “Here's what I learned. Here's what we'll do differently. Let's try this next time.” And again, to be able to make decisions so quickly, and to rely on your own instincts, to a large extent, as you're listening to the customer, and adapting, and changing.

So, they turned out to be valuable lessons, in the end, that have stayed with me throughout my career. But in the moment, probably as that young woman, I really wouldn't have seen it with the same set of eyes that I'm looking at it now.

Kruse: Yeah, well I love what you said there. It's learning the entrepreneurial mindset, where if you're going to do anything big or bold, then it comes with risk. And, it's not really failure, it's just lessons learned-

Palm: Yes.

Kruse: …You know, an experiment that didn't work out. And you mentioned, you actually started as an intern at Avon, and then since then, of course, you've had this incredible career reaching the highest levels of companies like Tupperware, Pampered Chef, Mars, Jones Apparel, and now back at Avon. So think back to your career span, your career arc, and what advice would you give to an intern today who wants to have a similar, successful career?

Palm: Yeah, probably, again, it's the theme that you just mentioned a few moments ago. But the willingness to take risks, and to try things that, you know, I had never tried before. And I think it was also a comfort around asking for what I wanted. So while my career started in a public relations department, after a while, I enjoyed it very much, I enjoyed exposure to lots of different aspects of the business, you know, product, publicity, people publicity, event marketing, all of those type of things were great. And also, learning the lesson of being prepared, because you never knew how something could turn out, so you had to think through both the positive and the negative, if there was an outcome that you weren't 100% sure of. That was also a good lesson there. But the other thing is it was really around asking for what you wanted. So, I knew, at that time, that while I enjoyed public relations, it was really writing a lot about the successes of other people. And I kind of said to myself, “I want to be the story, not the story writer.”

Kruse: Right.

Palm: And so, I asked, and said, “I would be very interested in becoming a Division Sales Manager.” And while I didn't have any experience in sales prior to that, I was given the opportunity. So I guess the lesson that I learned is that if you really are interested in something, you've got to express that interest and let other people know that you're willing to be a student, why you care about that. And then, the opportunity presented itself and I was the candidate for that. And that allowed me to really grow my career later, as a result of that experience.

Kruse: I love the way that you, that phrase you used, you decided you wanted to “be the story, not the story writer.”

Palm: Yeah.

Kruse: So, on the topic of leadership and management, what advice would you give to someone who now is just making that change, from individual contributor to first-time manager? What's a piece of advice you would tell them to keep in mind?

Palm: Yeah. Probably, I'd have the person think about some of the best bosses that they've ever had, and the attributes that made that boss a good boss. So, whether that was somebody who gave really helpful feedback, or whether they were somebody who gave public recognition for the work that you've done, or whether they conducted really good meetings that involved everybody, and everybody's contribution was valued, whether they served as the encourager, they helped you see your strengths and what potential you had, sometimes you need somebody to identify that and point that out to you. And it's, you know, even a good boss is somebody who gives you air cover when you need it. So, if you've made an error, or a mistake, again a good boss will help you both learn from it and help you recover from it if that's the case.

But I'd also tell the new manager or leader, “Think about some bad bosses as well. So, besides the good ones, if you've had a bad boss, that's the person you don't want to become.” So, sometimes a boss can be great when things are going along as planned, but when sometimes people are stressed, they can behave badly. And so, be mindful of those moments when you've had a bad boss, and if they didn't treat you in the way you would want to be treated, remember that feeling, and don't be that person.

Kruse: Yeah, learning from not just the positive examples, but the negative ones, as well. And, Betty, I've known a lot of people who have joined the direct selling industry. And many of them, they do it as a sort of, I guess the phrase these days is a “side hustle,” a part-time thing. They want to make a little extra money, or save up for some vacation, or the kids' college fund. And others have really, they dive in and they ended up building a thriving, full-time six-figure business for themselves. So, again, with all the experience you've had, all the success you've had, what's the secret? What does it take to be a top achiever in direct selling today?

Palm: Yeah, I think it's a couple of things. One is, for most folks, they do fall in love with the product. And so, they become a product of the product, and they know how to recommend products. They're users of it. They have their own personal testimonials. But they also have a service mindset. They care about meeting their customers' needs. And probably, if I had to wrap it up in one sentence, they're good listeners. They're always listening for clues from the customer, or from a team member. So, whether it's a customer who is looking for a perfect gift for the holidays, for whether it's stocking stuffers, or for other people in her life, whether it's the babysitter to the dog sitter, you know, if there's a need for gift-giving items, I'm listening for that.

But then, also approaching somebody new who tells me that maybe they're struggling to meet their family bills, or, maybe they want to buy a new car, or maybe they want to put braces on their children's teeth, or they’re not sure whether they can afford to send their child to a different school, then that's a person that could potentially become a representative on my team. And so, I would then talk to them about the business opportunity. Again, just being attuned to, listening to people, to what their needs are, and then realizing that I have solutions for them that could solve some of their problems.

Kruse: Great.

Palm: So, again, being product knowledgeable, service mindset, and a good listener.

Kruse: Great advice. So, what's the best way to find out more about Avon?

Palm: Yeah, that's easy.

Kruse: And I know I didn't have to ask, but just in case, there's those out there who wouldn't have thought that, then wanted to make sure. Hey, thanks again for taking the time to share your wisdom with our listeners here. Thanks so much for coming on the LeadX show.

Palm: Okay, well, Kevin, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at