How do you keep 3 million reps happy? By realizing that many of these part-timers are in it as much for the recognition as the money.

You probably remember the old television commercial: "Ding-dong ... Avon calling." It even sounds old. But if you think this company's gone the way of the Good Humor man, think again. Today's Avon ladies (and some men) are ringing up sales in the billions all over the world. And thousands of these reps are remaining with the company for years, despite a world of opportunities that didn't exist for them back in the days when P.F.E. Albee, the original Avon lady, made her first house call.

As it heads into the 21st century, Avon Products Inc., the world's leading direct seller of beauty-care and related products, is a lesson in reinvention. Even as a majority of women have joined the workforce and the retail cosmetics landscape has been forever changed by the Web, Avon has flourished. Annual sales in 137 countries total more than $5 billion, and Avon's sales force numbers more than 3 million independent contractors, with about 500,000 in the United States.

Behind these numbers is a company skilled at motivating its reps, beginning with Avon's network of 85 regional vice presidents, who oversee nearly 2,000 district sales managers in the company's four U.S. regions, many of whom started as independent reps. "Their purpose is to serve as coaches, advocates and mentors, and to provide recognition, motivation, and assistance," says Jean Ford, Avon's director of events and motivation. "They're a live face and voice who are there to help our reps. Most other direct-sales companies don't have these extensive tiers of management."

Ford's title is instructive in understanding today's Avon. While income can soar well into six figures for full-time salespeople, the lion's share of Avon reps are still women who sell part-time and for whom money isn't necessarily the driving force. Recognition is - and people like Ford know it.

Meeting to the Max A fairly new motivational tool that Avon has put in place is its annual National Avon Representative Con-vention. The meeting was first held in Orlando in July 1998, returned to that city in '99, and moved to Las Vegas this past July. About 15,000 reps attended this year's convention - up 50 percent from last year.

"All of our meetings, whether district, regional or national, exist for the same reason - to make our representatives feel appreciated, to recognize their efforts and reward their success," Ford says. "The national convention does this to the max."

This is the place where the company brass communicates news and goals, and where new products are introduced. By all accounts, President/CEO Andrea Jung, COO/North America Susan Kropf, and President/Avon U.S. Brian Connolly don't just put in token appearances: They make themselves available and approachable to every attendee.

There's always a mix of celebrities to speak and perform (the Vegas convention offered Suzanne Somers as the keynote speaker, along with appearances by Richard Simmons and Englebert Humperdinck), motivational speakers to rev up the attendees, and an awards program for top sellers. But according to Ford, everyone is treated like a winner.

"Our senior management mingles with everybody and is very accessible," she says. "Our reps say this is what they appreciate most - that all the executives make sure the part-time rep from Maine knows she's as valued and appreciated as the award-winning rep from New York or California."

Some attendees say it's the educational aspect of the convention that sets it apart from those of other companies. Throughout the three-day event, Avon offers seminars on topics such as product knowledge, direct selling, beauty consulting, new-customer prospecting, recruiting, financial management, business planning, and personal image. The company also tracks post-training sales and has seen an average increase of 53 percent among reps who attended the '98 and '99 meetings.

Bob Dorsey, who along with his wife has attended all three conventions, is most interested in the learning that takes place. "The educational part of it, while not the fun part, is the real bread and butter. That's the substance you go away with. The enthusiasm you leave with only lasts so long - it's the product and business knowledge you get there that really lasts."

One Big Family Avon's meet-the-people philosophy doesn't end with the annual convention. There are monthly district sales meetings to acquaint reps with new products and communicate new procedures and company news - as well as to recognize them for sales efforts and even length of service, birthdays, and anniversaries. And there have always been annual regional meetings for the same purpose.

"The management is openly available to you, and that makes you feel important, like you're part of a big family," says Lauri Sampson, who started as a rep 13 years ago and is now a district sales manager in Riverside, Calif. "For instance, we have special panels that we put together where managers discuss issues, ideas, and concerns. The information gets filtered up to the senior management level, they address it, and then they communicate with us as to how it's being handled. I've received letters - even phone calls - from Brian Connolly to discuss various issues."

Avon also knows how to dangle carrots - or, in certain cases, karats - in front of reps to get results. Take the case of Rebecca Dorsey, a Sacramento, Calif., rep. Her husband, Bob - one of a growing number of husbands who have gone into business with their wives - reports that Rebecca began selling Avon products more as a way to buy them - "selling some here and there to her mother, her sister, and some friends."

After a while, her district sales manager persuaded her to go to a sales meeting ("She hadn't been to one in two years," he says), and offered her a chance to get into the Leadership Program, through which reps can make additional commissions by getting others to sign up as Avon reps. The manager offered her a brooch as incentive for signing up five potential reps.

"Rebecca's a jewelry fanatic, and she wanted that brooch," Bob recalls. "So lo and behold, after signing up five people, not only does she get the brooch, but she gets a check from Avon in the mail. It wasn't all that much, but it was a check."

That was eight years ago. Rebecca Dorsey earned $1,200 her first year, $18,000 the next, and $47,000 the next - at which point Bob quit his job and joined her in business. Today, the couple brings in more than $100,000 a year, mostly from commissions they receive on sales made by the 1,000 reps they've recruited. They've also won two incentive trips, to Mexico two years ago and the Bahamas last year, for their performance.

It's All About Recognition Many such incentives are awarded to the top sellers. They include two World Sales Leader awards to the top two divisional sales managers who generate the highest sales increases over the previous year. Avon has four U.S. regions, so eight district managers, plus a guest each, are sent on these five-day, all-expenses-paid trips to destinations such as Argentina (1999) and Bali (2000).

The Circle of Excellence Award goes to the top district sales managers in the U.S., based on sales increases over the previous year. Avon sends about 180 winners on these trips every year. The last two destinations were Maui and Paris.

The President's Council Award goes to independent Avon representatives who reach $95,000 in sales in a given year. These winners are treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to the Avon Representatives National Convention.

And finally, division sales managers set levels of achievement for the David H. McConnell Club, membership in which often includes all-expenses-paid weekend jaunts to destinations such as Atlantic City or Las Vegas.

Aside from the travel incentives, there are other tokens of recognition, such as the sought-after "Albee," a hand-painted porcelain figurine inspired by P.F.E. Albee, Avon's first rep (see more on these in the box below).

Money Isn't Everything But more important than these rewards, say reps like the Dorseys, is the support they get from the company. "They've always been right there for us," Bob says. "They offer training and support of every kind. There's no stress, no pressure. What's more, they're just great people. It really is a family feeling."

That theme resonates with Ford in the corporate offices in midtown Manhattan. "If I had to sum up our corporate philosophy, I'd say we truly live our vision of being a company for women - but not to the exclusion of men," she says. " When we approach reps with a new product, we don't tell them their customers will love the product - we tell them their customers will love them for selling such a good product. We aren't about products, we're about people and relationships - and that permeates within our culture and out through our reps to the customers."

While door-to-door selling remains the Avon way, reps now also sell now via the Internet. With e-Representative, Avon provides interested reps with personalized Web pages through which they can conduct business online, including order processing, inventory management, and the ability to service customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We think the Internet is having a very positive impact on our business," says Susan Lundstrom, a division manager based in Alta Loma, Calif. "We're not recruiting people just to go door-to-door; we're recruiting people to sell Avon products. We're trying to tie reps in to our online business, which I think shows that the company is changing with the times. If we were doing business like we did it 100 years ago, we'd be out of business."

- Half are between the ages of 18 and 45 (the same is true of their customers)

- 75 percent are married

- About half have children under the age of 18

- About half are either graduated from or attended college

- Less than 2 percent are men

When some people answer their doorbell in Denver, it's not the Avon lady they see standing there - It's the Avon man.

Adam Garcia, 38, has been an Avon representative for three years, though it's not exactly what he had in mind for his life's work. For 14 years, Garcia was a cook in a hotel restaurant, until a kitchen accident left him with severe burns on his arms, face, and chest - and the resulting scars. He says he tried various ointments to help heal the scarring, but that it wasn't until an Avon rep friend of his suggested a product called H-Block Daytime Defense Cream that he saw any results.

"I used the cream and it seemed to help more than any of the other things I tried," Garcia recalls. "My friend really enjoyed being a rep and told me all about it. `It looks like fun,' I said. She said, `Why don't you give it a try?' The idea of being able to work out of my house, having my own business, and setting my own hours really appealed to me. But I was a little leery of it - I mean, a man being an Avon rep?"

He gave it a shot. Today, he works 40 to 50 hours a week and has built a base of 450 customers in the Denver area. Seventeen of his customers are men, he says, adding that Avon's product line includes not only cosmetics but clothes, toys, and even videos and educational CD-ROMs. Last year, he sold $77,000 in Avon products, earning him his fifth Albee Award, a porcelain figure named in honor of Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, the New Hampshire woman who pioneered the company's door-to-door selling method in the late 19th century. The Albees, initiated 25 years ago to reward reps who reach a certain level in annual sales, aren't token mementos: The older statuettes (a different version is created every year) are valued at about $500.

Garcia says he plans on being an Avon man for years to come. "It's a job I've learned to love," he says. "I've never had any problems being `an Avon guy.' It's true that Avon's a woman's company, but as they say - there's always room for a few good men."