I've been undertaking my job search casually. So casually that 5 months later, I still don't have a job. By last week, it had suddenly become apparent that unless I got a job soon, we would not be able to make our March mortgage payment. As it was, I had to do some creative accounting to get all our February bills in on time. I declared to myself last Monday, "I *will* get a job today!"
I visited four Barnes and Noble locations to drop off resumes, and I got a lot less picky about what jobs I applied for online. By Monday night, I had a job interview with RPM Marketing (names have been changed to protect the sleazy). It was my first actual interview in five months of job hunting (I've been sending out a lot of resumes, I swear.)
I had noticed job ads for this marketing firm before, but I had avoided them because they seemed to be mostly sales positions. However, the ad I responded to was for a Customer Service position. I went in for my interview on Tuesday in an office in an industrial park. The tiny office was covered in various logos like the NBA and Warner Brothers; it looked like they were trying too hard. My interviewer, "Donald," didn't say a lot about the work I would be doing but stressed that it would be promotions and that I could move up to manager quickly. He dropped a lot of big corporate names, like Disney, that he claimed were clients of the firm.
"Direct Marketing is more effective than traditional media," Donald said. He told me that the second interview was an entire day out with another manager, so you could see what the work was like, and that you would know if you had the job by the end of the day. I knew by now that the "Customer Service" label was not accurate; it was just another way to lure people into the interview. But I also didn't feel like I could turn down a job interview when I've had so few prospects and such dire money problems. Besides, what would I really do on Wednesday if I didn't go on the second interview? Sleep in, watch some TV, and read a book. I might as well go.
On Wednesday morning, I put on my suit and arrived with plenty of time to spare. As I waited in the front of the office, some thirty young people in suits ambled out the door and into a variety of cars. I briefly talked to Donald again, who told me that "a one-eyed monkey" could do promotions and that I should focus on learning about the management opportunities. He introduced me to the guy that would be showing me the ropes, "James." Frankly, he looked like a missionary, a white-bread guy with a receding hairline in his cheap suit and overcoat. We would be going out with "Kevin," who also looked like a missionary (young, bad haircut, and ill-fitting suit).
James motioned me over to Kevin's car and pulled out a thin wooden briefcase. He cracked it open, revealing a set of pencils, pastel crayons, oil paint tubes and watercolors. He handed me a print-out. "You've heard of QVC, right? Well, today we are doing a promotion for them. This case of art supplies retails for $59.99; on QVC, they're going to sell it for $39.99. Today, just to get the name out there, we're selling them for $10." I have to admit, my first reaction was, "Wow, that's really cheap." When handed an official looking sheet that says $40, your mind really does think that 10 bucks is a good deal on a cheap wooden case of cheap art supplies. I didn't even notice that there was no "name" that we were "getting out there." It was a no-name brand, and no QVC logo appeared on the packaging. So much for "marketing" and "promotions"; we were nothing more than salesmen who may or may not have a connection to QVC. Emphasis on may not.
That was the moment that I knew that I would never take the job. I'm not a salesman. I don't have that type of personality. It was hard enough to approach people when I was a missionary and I thought my salvation depended on it. How much less motivated would I be for this? It was 9:45 am; I was supposed to spend all day out in the field with Kevin and James. I suppose I could have bowed out right then, but I felt stupid doing that. I didn't have much to do, so what the hell? I'd spend the day selling these art sets and see how it went. If it got really bad, I could always pretend I was writing one of those in-depth articles for the New Yorker.
James told to me to get into Kevin's car, a 1991 Toyota Corolla, that was about 2 inches off the ground. "190,000 miles," Kevin said proudly when I asked him about it. "I got it for 200 bucks." The car was filthy inside; I pushed an Subway sandwich bag out of my way and sat in the front seat. James wedged himself in the back seat, barely fitting next to boxes and boxes of art supplies.
The second surprise of the day is that we would be traveling about an hour and a half south to our sales area. It was practically in New York City. To tell the truth, I was glad. That would be an hour and a half there and an hour and a half back that I wouldn't have to be selling. It was pretty chilly outside (hovering around 32 degrees) and I only had on my thin suit. I wasn't looking forward to spending too much time outside. My feelings reminded me so much of my mission, when I would relish the intervals in proselyting time when I wouldn't have any pressure to approach people or guilt for not being excited about missionary work.
On the way to our sales area (an expensive NYC suburb), I was able to ascertain that this was not really a marketing firm. Selling cheap items is all they ever did; the product would vary, but it was just selling to anyone and everyone. I was a little concerned about how we were going to find people to sell to. James assured me that we didn't go house-to-house but rather canvassed the business district. I didn't understand how we'd be able to sell to people who were trying to run their own business, but I didn't say anything.
While we drove down, James was trying to cover the information I needed to know to advance in the firm. He made some questionable claims, such as that RPM Marketing was a Fortune 500 company. (I looked it up when I got home: it's not, unless it's owned by someone else. Which I doubt, because I don't think they would have passed up the opportunity to name-drop a large corporation.) We drove around for about 45 minutes before James finally decided which strip malls we would be stopping at. We parked and James and Keith each loaded a ratty black bag with several art kits. They also had a few fancy phones (it's a calendar, calculator, talking caller ID all in one! For just 10 bucks! Through Sharper Image, we swear!) in case people weren't interested in the art kits.
This was our modus operandi: we would enter a business, find an employee, and go into the spiel. "We're doing a promotion for QVC..." James would crack open the case and show the array of pencils and pastels. Most people were not receptive. To say the least. Humiliation is walking into an upscale antiques shop in the richest county in America and trying to sell a $10 pencil set. But we tried at every business, because the "Law of Averages" told us to. According to James, about one in ten people would be interested in our product. Therefore, the law of averages says that if you contact 30 people, you will have 3 sales. You just have to contact enough people and you will be able to sell.
The scary thing is that he was right. The most surprising thing to me was how many people actually bought things from us. Our first sale was at an Italian deli. The owner bought two art kits immediately and then asked the deli workers if they wanted some. We sold six art kits and a couple of phones. Then, customers at the deli gathered around James and his ratty bag, convincing each other that it was a great deal, and I had to run to the car to get more inventory. We sold $180 in merchandise in the deli in about 20 minutes.
"That's called 'bandwagoning," James told me. "When you sell to one person and a whole bunch of people get interested." People are wary of being ripped off when they are alone, but seeing strangers buying or being encouraged by their friends lowers their inhibitions considerably.
By the end of the day, James had sold $400 in merchandise and Kevin over $300. Neither of them would reveal what their commission was, but Kevin did inform me that it was their only compensation. I tried to stay upbeat and inconspicuous during the day; I really could write a 20-page New Yorker article on some of the stuff I heard and saw, but I will skip to the end.
They had sold everything in the car but three items. James was no longer crowded by boxes of merchandise in the back seat. It had all been sold. It was getting late so we started our hour and a half drive back to the office. We arrived at the office to find it dark and locked. Donald, the head of the branch (and my interviewer from the previous day) was still out selling. I wanted to just go home but I thought it would be rude to leave without saying something to him. I waited in the cold for twenty minutes as more and more salespeople returned.
When Donald finally showed up with the key to the office, he vanished with the other employees and James handed me a quiz to test my knowledge of the elements of a sales pitch, the Law of Averages, and the benefits of "direct marketing." I filled out as little as possible, because I just wanted to tell them I wasn't interested and go home and tell my wife some of the outrageous stuff I'd seen.
James gave me a Disney novelty pen to complete the quiz with. "We were selling these last week." The pen, fittingly, did not work. I gave my paper to James and, after a delay, I was summoned to Donald's office.
"No one has ever not completed the form before," Donald said, looking annoyed. In bright red marker, there was a giant 0/10 printed on top of my test. "I assume you know your name. What's your last name again?" "Flanders." "Well, that's one point at least."
He got to the question on the test about how soon I would be available if offered the job. I seized my opportunity at once. "I just don't think it's a good fit for me right now." I felt like I was trying to break up with a girlfriend. "I didn't want to waste your time, that's why I didn't fill out the form all the way."
As soon as I had told him I wasn't interested, his eyes glazed over instantly, and I suddenly saw why so many people disliked salesmen. As soon as you told them you weren't interested, you ceased to exist for them. They live in a world, not of people, but of potential sales. Once that sales potential disappears you might as well be invisible. That was how it was Donald. His manner turned instantly icy and brusque as if any courtesy would drain his energy superfluously. He shook my hand and I left the building. In the garage next to me, the sellers were settling up, extracting their meager commissions.
What bothered me most was that there was no risk for the company. They provided nothing. No wage, no benefits, no transportation. All they gave you was a cheap product and sent you off to burn your own gas, wear out your own car, and get sick on your own dime. They simply cashed in on almost free labor to push their cheap crap. These weren't employees, they were simply earners on your sales pyramid. "It goes up to three generations," James informed me.
Though we were dressed slightly better, we had essentially the same job as those kids who sell candy on the subways in New York.
I noticed a lot of uncanny parallels to missionary work. The cheap suits to add a veneer of respectability. The assigned area to work. Open your mouth mantras. The only difference was that we only wanted ten bucks out of people, not their souls. And I can also say that art sets are a considerably easier sell than Mormonism.
I still don't have a job. However, every other job in the world suddenly looks a heck of a lot better to me. Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday.