Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Death of a Salesman

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.


Christian Y. Cardall said...

Very interesting story, Ned.

I wonder how many people approached by Mormons seeking to share the gospel---not missionaries, but regular members talking to their "friends"---are made to feel like you did by Donald.

Hellmut said...

That was funny and sad, Ned.

Do you think that Mormon culture would improve if we wouldn't insist to socialize our young folks as salespersons?

Ronan said...

What a horrible, horrible story. Yegads! Ned, move to Sweden and live on the dole.

Wendy said...

I'm also unemployed at the moment. Your story makes me hate America. ;-D

Better luck with the job search Ned. (I feared for you in that dilapidated car--yikes!)

Ian said...

I was in a similar situation one day. I called up this place looking for "Customer service Reps". They told me to come in for an interview, so I did. It was a presentation on an air purifier, and we would be salesmen for this thing. I didn't fill out the questionaire, and I left immediately after the presentation.

There is nothing I hate more than sales.

Rusty said...

A thousand memories just flooded back. I sold pest control. The difference is that Orkin actually provides a pretty decent service and it's a reputable company. Just thinking of pushing cheap art sets under the lies of QVC is loathing. That situation gives me the willies.

That kind of work makes me feel good about America's big corporations. Better to push cheap, crappy products on people legitimately than how those guys are doing it.

If it makes you feel any better I think this post was really well written. You should submit it to some magazine or something.

Stephen said...

Actually has some useful suggestons.

Bless your heart.

Katie said...

Ahhhhh, so that's where those people come from. I work at a Jamba Juice in a large shopping center and our business is frequented by these sellers. They sell giant coloring books, knives, pocket radios, ect. and other assorted crap. When I see them coming through our big glass windows, I roll my eyes in anticipation. I just can't believe people try to sell you things when you are at work-selling smoothies. I just always tell them that I don't bring my wallet to work. And that I have no conceivable need for an oversized coloring book.

Steve EM said...

There are good outside sales jobs. Once between "real" jobs (I'm an R&D guy), I once sold car refinish paint and supplies for a manufacturer, which included managing distibutor's inventory (so the stuff I sold would get delivered to the shops quickly). I kind of liked it, except for, and this will surprise some given my rep around here, the distracting wall paper found in virtually every refinish shop. But if they bought a lot of stuff, I didn't give a poop about that either. Dress was obviuosly very casual (I think someone would manage an "accidental" paint spill on a guy walking around a repair shop in a suit and tie.). That job was commission only, but there was an existing sales base, so I made a living wage from the get go and then had to make my own raises after that. They offered standard corporate med, dental, 401K, etc and an expense allowance that covered car payments on vehicles less than 4 years old (they assumed you'd "use up" a car every 3-4 years", insurance, miles, lunches and dinners with customers, etc. And the territory was big enough to have limited overnight travel, which I could engineer to cover most or all of wifey's PMS week. In short, it wasn't my calling in life, but I could have made a career out of it and compensation wise, maybe be better off than I am now as an R&D Director.

Good luck to you. Also, have you considered a temp agency? They should be able to place you very quickly and give you breathing room. Often such assignments give you exposure that leads to regular employment too.

Mr. Burns. said...

Excellent! We just fired some fat guy for eating too many of our donuts. Come work for me!

One dollar for eternal happiness? I'd be happier with the dollar.

Watt Mahoun said...

Jeezzz Ned, that is surreal! I mean, if I hadn't been in sales myself, I'd be sure you made it up. But you can't make this s**t up.

I left my mission with a testimony that I was supposed to be in sales; selling stuff so that I could always have the missionary mind-set and sell for the Lord. What a head-case. It took me 12 years to get past the idea that I was called to sell...and I had to nearly destroy my life before I realized that I hated selling and that doing it for God was insufficiently motivating. I'm not kidding.

The worst thing ever that I had to do was sell real estate. It eas just as you describe "They simply cashed in on almost free labor to push their cheap crap." For real estate brokers, the "cheap crap" that you pay dearly for is their name and a bunch of marketing materials.

Funny how the sales jobs always have to be gussied-up with glamour, or misleading titles, or promises of over-night wealth, or eternal salvation (Section 4 and 6!!!!) in order to attract people.

I'm so glad that we've both escaped the sales job.

Thanks for the great post...and I agree with others, you should write for Vanity Fair, baby.

NFlanders said...

Christian-- That is a great question. I'm afraid I may have been guilty of a similar attitude on my mission. I know I had some companions that would get visibly upset if someone brushed us off.

Hellmut-- I think we both agree taht missionary work could take some great leaps forward if we focused almost exclusively on service. The church often runs into problems when businessmen try to incorporate too much of their world into it.

Ronan-- You've obviously been reading my dream journal.

Wendy-- The car was scary, but even more so because Kevin was driving it like a typical 20-year-old. Just think, they sold 3 times the worth of the car in art sets in one day!

Ian-- I'm with you. Some people have the sales personality, but that's just not me. My wife laughed when she found out what the job was because I'd be so bad at it.

Rusty-- Any organization that kills cockroaches is one I'd be proud to be associated with. I think to be a good salesman, on some level you have to believe in your product. These guys really thought that the art sets were a steal. James even said to me during the day, "Basically, if you're in a good mood and you have kids, you'll be interested in our product." Delusion knows no bounds.


NFlanders said...

Stephen-- Thanks for your support, Stephen.

Katie-- I also don't understand how people buy this stuff while they're working. I would be thinking, "I just gave up an hour's pay for a bunch of pencils." I really didn't like how some people were pushed into buying, too. Some people have a hard time saying no, and they end up getting cajoled into a sell.

Steve EM-- I would totally buy paint from you. I just interviewed at a temp agency, so hopefully the offers will start coming in.

Mr. Burns-- Did you hire said employee as part of "Operation Boot Strap"? If you need a chair moistener in sector 7-G, call me.

Watt-- I'm intrigued. Do you mean that you equated the selling mindset with being a good member missionary? Or did you actually mention Mormonism to your clients?

This place was well-represented in the false promises department. On the ride home, James claimed I could be making $60,000 in six months. Selling ten dollar items. Right.

I think the scariest thing is that by the end of the day, I could totally see how you could get sucked into this job. I was just an observer and yet the feeling of selling out the merchandise was exhilarating. I think you can get hooked on that high, and ignore the fact that you are being exploited.

Watt Mahoun said...

First and foremost I just really believed that learning to sell better would make me a better missionary. I always hated the sales process...bugging people and working the numbers, but due to my religious conviction I found that I was able to overcome this fear when I was a full-time missionary. I think I saw this connection with religious faith and overcoming fear...weakness becoming a divine message for my life.

I definitely held the idea that my client relationships could turn into opportunities to share the gospel...but over time and experience I realized that this was a bit naiive...and I recall being initially very frustrated with people, circumstances, and myself over this.

In retrospect I see that this was a twisted view of things, but I'm not at all surprised at how I became confused about selling for the Lord. :-)

I am living proof that weaknesses becoming strengths in the context of religious faith can sometimes lead to very strange and even disturbing results.

annegb said...

My husband is a salesman. He's a pro, it's fun to him. His eyes don't glaze, he's nice to people, but maybe when he was younger, they did. He's made a nice living for us all these years, although, I won't go shopping with him for anything larger than a loaf of bread.

He'll buy stuff he doesn't need in appreciation of a good sales pitch.

I, on the other hand, cannot sell anything. I give stuff away. I did Avon for three weeks and came away in the hole big time. I gave stuff away all the time in the month I worked at Wal-Mart because I thought it was store policy. Long story. Boy, did they look at me funny when they realized I'd misunderstood the $10 policy.

The business of sales, in our case, cars, has been good to us, though. Bill will even go out cold calling when sales are down. He's not afraid, he enjoys it. It pays for my People magazine and soon--DSL!! Eat your hearts out.

Ned, you could do computers as a job. It's in demand.

NFlanders said...

annegb-- If I lived in Southern Utah, I would definitely buy a car from your husband. You can start giving him bloggernacle referrals!

Did Walmart make you pay them back for all the stuff you gave away?