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Q: I am just getting started in a network marketing program and want to make sure I do the right things in the beginning. How should I go about this?

A: Getting off to the right start takes some careful thought and planning. You should seek advice from your company, your sponsor and other industry professionals. Expect to get different recommendations from each advisor. They will not be all right, nor will they be all wrong. In fact, each advisor will give you their ideas based on their specific life experiences. You must determine what ideas fit your chosen opportunity, your own talents and personality. And you'll continually be experimenting to discover what does not work to get closer to what does work for you. Each time, you'll learn new success principles. So whether you're new to network marketing or you're recommitting yourself to your present company, you need to start with the right foundation.

Whether you're representing a product or a service, you should feel confident that the company delivers what it promises and that your upline sponsor can contribute to your success. Testing the product or service yourself to determine your own level of satisfaction is an obvious first step. But people rarely take the next important step: investigating the success and support of their sponsor. Most experts agree that network marketing is a people business more than it is a product business. Successful companies understand this--they know they grow their company by growing their people. The best distributors understand this principle as well, and will create an environment for downline growth and success. If you believe that many hands make for light work, you should make it a high priority to meet your sponsor's upline sponsor, that person's upline sponsor and so on. Their wisdom and experience can put you in high gear!

Before you sign the distributor application, make sure you don't become an orphan. Picking the right sponsor in the beginning is more important than thinking about whom you may sponsor later. And being directly under the company is usually not an asset, either. Company executives don't have the time to serve that function. They may place you under a good sponsor, but you won't have a choice in the matter. If you still have the choice, choose your sponsor carefully! You want a partnership that carries you through thick and thin.

If you're recommitting yourself to your current opportunity, I recommend that you find the most serious and committed upline person and build your relationship there. That may mean bypassing the support of your immediate upline in favor of someone who can be more supportive. This usually isn't a problem, since the company's compensation structure still rewards those in your upline tree. Maybe your sponsor or even his or her sponsor isn't as committed to success as you are.

Building a Foundation for Your Downline

Too many new distributors mistakenly believe that once the signature dries on the application, the bonus checks will sprout wings and fly into their mailbox. Maybe that's why some distributors foolishly purchase a stack of applications and send them to anyone who can fog a mirror. This is a business where you must create a relationship with your potential enrollees. Remember, nothing is ever as easy as it sounds, so expect to invest time in your own prospecting.

Start by building your library with the most highly recommended books, tapes and current information to help direct your efforts. Know when and where local distributors meet in your area and the time and phone number of the next company conference call. Never miss a meeting, and certainly never go alone. Make the company recruiting conference call a tool that becomes part of your system to get prospects to company meetings. New distributors carry fresh enthusiasm and will continually renew your own energy level.

Quality network marketing programs offer their customers money-back guarantees on their products and buy-back rules for distributor inventory if interest wanes. Getting started usually requires an investment in product inventory as well as your time. You'll need enough inventory and sales support materials to last a couple of weeks. Even if the company direct-ships to your downline or customers, offering immediate delivery of product for the initial order takes advantage of their immediate excitement or product samples may hold their interest until they receive their first order. The necessary capital might be $50 to $500, depending on how serious you are at this point. Realize that you are not spending money--you're investing it! And there isn't really too much risk involved. As I mentioned before, most companies offer a buy-back policy with a small restocking fee (usually 10 percent) if you feel overstocked or decide to get out of the business.

Now you must determine whether to "lead with the product" or "lead with the opportunity." This means you need to get into your prospects' head, determine what their "hot button" is and focus your approach on providing solutions to their problems, needs or desires.

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Most new distributors want to rush out the door with their product or service and sell everyone they know. While this "direct sales" approach works with direct selling companies, network marketing is usually a bit softer approach sometimes called "sharing." Selling is premeditated, and sharing is spontan-eous. You'll do better to find your prospects' need and desire for your product or program before you mention that you have it!

Of course, eventually finding a few serious distributors to personally sponsor is critical to getting started. Your upline should be willing to help you talk to prospects in person or on a three-way call. However, only the most naive think everyone they sponsor will be as committed as they are. It is not uncommon to sponsor 10 or 20 people before you find your first serious distributor. That's OK--percentages will improve as time goes on. But for now, concentrate on duplicating yourself at least two times per month and teaching them to do the same until you're at least four levels in depth. Eventually, you'll be able to sponsor, train and mentor more than two, but for your first six months, concentrate on quality, not quantity.

You can safely assume that most people don't believe they can "sell" and probably wouldn't even want to try. Most trainers say you should get a customer and simultaneously try to recruit them by asking if they'd like to earn more money. But the customer has probably heard this approach before. Before you utter another word, they suspect that you want them to go out and" sell" to their friends. While selling is an important part of any successful network marketing experience, you might be more successful if the process took on a softer focus. Think about your experiences to date. Could this be why you have trouble sponsoring? Perception is reality to your prospect. Preconceived notions can build mental roadblocks that are difficult to overcome. If the prospect seems cold to the opportunity offer, many companies have a Preferred Customer program that is in between becoming a retail customer and a distributor. This may be a good place to start, and you can then two-step them into a business opportunity offer later once they bond to your products.

Getting off on the right foot is based on understanding proper direction, making a serious commitment to a specified goal, following a proven plan of success, and then giving it 90 days or more of serious effort.

Michael L. Sheffield is the CEO of Sheffield Resource Network, a full-service direct sales and network marketing consulting firm. He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Multi Level Marketing International Association (MLMIA). He can be contacted through http://www.sheffieldnet.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.