Most of us share a common memory from elementary school days: the kid who struggled with his lessons from a desk in the back of the classroom.

Whether it was from a sense of embarrassment or a lack of awareness, he would not admit that he could not see the blackboard clearly. But once a perceptive teacher or engaged parent surmised that the problem might be solved with a prescription for corrective eyeglasses, lo and behold! A new and clearer world opened up for the child--and both his grades and outlook improved as a direct result.

Something New on the Blackboard

Something similar is occurring right now in business.

The pace of change and the advance of technology have resulted in paradigm shifts away from mass marketing, mass production and mass advertising in a brick-and-mortar retail environment to one of Internet e-commerce, business-to-business e-commerce, one-to-one marketing and "mass customization."

In over a quarter-century in the direct sales and network marketing field, I've never seen a greater potential to fundamentally change the nature, performance and expectations of our profession than that which exists right now.

Yet today, many in the direct sales and network marketing business are still able to view these concepts only as fuzzy images on a distant blackboard, confused as to what these concepts are or how they might be implemented successfully and profitably.

To clearly see that blackboard filled with new concepts and opportunities, you must have clarity of vision, understand the change occurring around you and take advantage of it.

Leading the Charge

I have been privileged to help lead this charge, combining the one-to-one marketing model we know and love with an approach to using the Internet to personally guide customers through their possibilities and choices--and as a conduit for valuable customer preference information that leads to "mass-customized" products. Such an approach frees up creative vision and the capacity for innovation in a business environment defined by constant and rapid change.

It allows us to serve as a "product brokerage" company, sourcing out market-driven products to innovative manufacturers who seek the kind of powerful, loyal customer base that network marketing companies can garner. Such a customer base, served by a well trained, educated and highly "customer-centric" distributor force of thousands, creates the kind of cohesive sales organization that manufacturers could never dream of finding anywhere else.

The legacy of the predatory multi-level marketing mindset that still haunts our profession is rendered irrelevant in the new model, because the modern compensation plan stresses mutual distributor support and accountability, an overriding emphasis on retail sales and networking only as a means of expanding distribution. This is not your uncle's concept of networking. The ethical standards of today's leading companies are above reproach and have signaled an entirely new era for the profession.

With a secure business model to work from and a clear objective to become a true one-to-one marketing force that can deliver exactly what customers want through mass customization, we can concentrate on using technology effectively to achieve our goals. As a result, we can see the concepts on the blackboard not as static abstractions, but as challenges that lead to opportunities. For example, a business Web portal presence with e-commerce capacity is not unique--but focused through the objectives I just described, of using the portal combined with a networking sales force to achieve unprecedented levels of customer-specific service and mass customization, this use of advanced technology becomes unique.

The Power of the Unique Customer

Through the power of one-to-one marketing, distributors can develop a portfolio of preferred customers, creating personal relationships and a unique shopping experience that secures customer loyalty and increases a distributor's customer share and share of customer--the lifetime value represented by a loyal customer. Such "preferred customers" are a crucial element in the effort to facilitate one-to-one marketing and mass customization through the Internet. It is like creating thousands of independent businesses. Preferred customers provide valuable preference data by means of surveys available through the portals, which the company collects, analyzes, warehouses and mines for the benefit of distributors. By utilizing this marriage of Internet "high tech" and one-to-one marketing "high touch," we then possess the foresight to develop trends and deliver quality products to satisfy growing demands in way no other business model can touch.

Renowned lecturer B. Joseph Pine II, co-founder of Strategic Horizons, LLP, in Aurora, Ohio, and author of the book Mass Customization, has acknowledged the validity and practicality of such a mass customization approach. Pine recently stated, "Mass customization will be as important in the 21st century as mass production was in the 20th century. It will become an imperative; every company will be faced with a need to give each customer exactly what they want at a price they are willing to pay."

Over the next decade, our ability to produce singular mass customized products will differentiate us from everyone else. Such leading-edge pioneering happens not through trial and error nor grudging acceptance of technology's role in the changing face of business, but only through embracing change--recognizing that those fuzzy concepts on the blackboard have practical and profitable considerations. The trends toward one-to-one marketing and mass customization through the Internet represent the future of business--and they are realities you can capitalize on today--if you possess the correct vision to see them clearly.

James H. Ridinger is President and CEO of a network marketing company and has been involved in network marketing for over 25 years.