Suck It Up

Flashback
I stood on the doorstep. I wasn't completely sure where I was, and I had no idea who was on the other side of the door. My heart beat as though it would rip through my shirt. In my hand, I held a broom.

What the hell was I about to do?

I'd been dropped off around the corner, and presumably the rest of the vehicle's occupants were left elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

As per my crash course in door-to-door, I was to greet and schmooze anyone who opened the door (providing they were of an age to make serious financial decisions), and make an appointment to give them a full-fledged display of a range of cleaning products. I had the choice to use the "We're just sweeping through your neighbourhood today..." line, but I pretty sure I stayed away from that phrase at all costs. The broom was clearly a distraction tactic anyway. (I had the option of giving out steak knives.)

You wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

I won't say I "sold vacuums", because I never sold a single unit. But there, it's out. I'm not particularly proud of this, and it's not something that I share in quaint conversation. I have a feeling more people have committed this sin than are talking about it. I derive some comfort from knowing that I did this only for a very short time, but that could only be because I was lousy at it (again, comforting!).

The Lead-up
It was the early 1990s. I was in University, looking to earn some money over the summer break. That year, I wasn't blessed with any sort of family job, or steady part time employment that I could parlay into full a time summer savings machine.

I saw an ad in the city paper. "Make money. $5k-$15k over the summer. We'll train you." Or some such. It looked... enticing. But really, what isn't enticing when you've got no money and pressure to come up with something to offset a burgeoning student loan debt?

I called.

A smiling voice answered, seeming happy and accommodating. They scheduled me in for a training session the following weekend, and gave me the address. They were surprisingly elusive with information about the company, promising that a full information session would give me all the information I needed. Since I had time (unemployed, remember?), I skirted by the building but could find no trace of a company name on the sign outside.

Not dismayed by the potentially sketchy situation unfolding in front of me (I was still excited about the prospect of earning big bucks, naturally), I bided my time until the day of the training session.

Training Day
On the way, my (borrowed) car had a tire blow-out on the highway. I changed the tire in my crisp white button-down, wrinkling it to hell, and scuffed my too-old, shined-within-an-inch-of-their-life, black brogues. My choice of clothes, it turns out, was perfect. I couldn't have dressed any more appropriately for my first day of work had I been handed a uniform. Tire changed, I made my way to the next exit and called ahead to let them know I'd be late, and why. The authoritative voice on the other end of the line told me he appreciated my call, and he would hold the session for me.

Once inside (scuffed, dirty and a little sweaty), I met a receptionist who smiled as she ushered me to a waiting group of people sitting around what looked like bits of a disassembled space ship. Instantly I was brought back to sitting in my mother's house at the age of six or seven as a vacuum cleaner salesman displayed how totally indispensable this overpriced, overpowered machine was.

It was too late to turn back, though. I felt like I'd worked hard just to get to this stage, and broke as I was, it was worth a listen to see if this "opportunity" was something I could, well... lower myself to take advantage of.

Somebody asked if we'd be paid for the training session we were just beginning. The answer? "Oh, there'll be no charge". These guys were smooth. Essentially, they were doing us a service, equipping us with the skills and knowledge (such that you can acquire in a half-day session). Why wasn't I bursting at the seams to jump up and thank this guy for offering me this demonstration?

I sat with others who seemed like they may be in the same boat as me. Broke, baited, and switched, they too were enduring the demo session, trying to figure out if this was for them. And then there were the salesperson types -- people born to do this sort of door-to-door work, people just aching to hock something that will no doubt change the course of a consumer's life. I had a feeling they knew what this was about all along.

The System
The routine works this way. You go to their office building, see a demonstration, and then work with the instructor and your group to hone your demonstrating skills, in your own style. When you feel comfortable with it, they give you a unit (Really, it's so much more than just a vacuum cleaner) to take home with you to practice. If you've got any friends or family who'll let you try your gig out on, get all the practice you can. The rest is up to you.

If you're game, the call centre schedules you for 1-2 demos in any given day. What you're not told is that they're selling your demo on the basis of a "free carpet cleaning" or some similar half-truth. They don't tell the person receiving said carpet cleaning service that you're going to regale them with a half hour monologue and try to sell them $1,800 worth of vacuum when it's all over.

That's right. $1,800

Of course, your take of each sale is $200, totally worth the half hour you'll invest to lure them into the purchase. The key to it all (so they say)? Pull dirt. Pull. Dirt. Make unhealthy use of the little transparent apparatus that hooks into the cleaner hose show them how much dirt is in their carpet, and laying little previously white cotton discs full of dirt all over their house. At some point, they'll be so grossed out that they'll beg you to sell them your wares.

Personally, I did about 8-10 of these visits, the first few being utter disasters. The rest were better, but still no sales. Then I heard about the van.

The Van
The Van, that is to say, the roving junket of sketchy hucksters, would venture out into the suburbs on a given day/weekend and drop off the salespeople in high-density neighbourhoods (row houses and townhouses offer the best chances of getting a sale). The leader (the "closer") would be somewhere nearby with a cell phone, waiting to be called in should anyone hit pay dirt with a customer.

Going in the van has its advantages and its drawbacks: you could hit more houses in a day than through the conventional call-centre method, but you were less likely to encounter anyone who realised you were going to try to sell them a household item they'd need a payment plan to afford.

I called on dozens of houses. Some weren't interested in making an appointment, some weren't interested in me being on their property, but most just weren't home.

I found success with one customer, and immediately called the closer. He immediately knocked $200 off the price of the unit, later telling me that it would not come off my commission. They would have to finance it, but it shouldn't be a problem.

My spirits lifted, I went out with renewed vigor for the rest of the day, but didn't have any further success. I would later find out that the one deal I'd done well on fell through, or at least I was told as much.

The Breakup
Soon after the van, I stopped calling in to get appointments. My sink or swim, door-to-door, school-year saver was not going to work. One month I had lasted before realising that this kind of risk wasn't likely to pay off in time to make any money before September. But in all honesty, I couldn't take it anymore: my heart finally gave in to all the rejection. I returned the unit to the office, along with most of the accessories and accoutrements, and told them I had to think it over before I'd go out again. I did.

And I didn't.

Posted bythemikestand at 4:11 PM  

16 stepped up to the mike:

sween said... 4:22 PM, February 06, 2007  

I feel your pain.

Why?

One week. 1994.

Greenpeace.

*shudder*

Sassy said... 4:23 PM, February 06, 2007  

Oh wow...I had a similar job: credit card collections. I had to call and tell people they had to pay their (usually severely overdue) credit card bills. I finally quit after they told me I wasn't mean enough to the little old ladies who coulnd't afford it with their monthly social security stipend.

Charlatan said... 9:39 PM, February 06, 2007  

This reminds me of when I attended the pitch for the Nation Institute of Broadcasting in Toronto.

I went based on their ads, "Do you have a Radio Voice?". It was about one minute into the hour long pitch that I realized it was some sort of scam.

I called some people I knew in the radio business and they just laughed. Any credentials from there were more likely to be a detriment to your potential career.

And it only cost me $20 to attend the session and I got a free "demo tape" at the end.

Boy did I feel special.

themikestand said... 9:19 AM, February 07, 2007  

sween: At least some global good could have come out of your work. Me? Only a slick ponytail and a wrinkled button-down.

sassy: Ew. Yeah, you don't strike me as the hard-ass type.

charlatan: Never heard of the NIB, but thanks for the warning. I used to want to get into radio. Probably good that I didn't. I trust you hung on to that demo tape!

Mabel said... 10:30 AM, February 07, 2007  

I lasted two days as a telemarketer when in highschool. Selling butt-ugly sweatshirts for $35 or something. Supposedly some of the profits went to help inner-city children, but I doubt it was much. A week after I quit my next-door neighbour was guilted into buying one of their pieces of crap. She felt so cheated she called them and told them if they didn't refund her and take back the shirt she'd go to the newspaper. They conceded. (She contributed the money to a known charity instead.) Can you say sketch?

canadian sadie said... 1:01 PM, February 07, 2007  

Eeew--You got sucked into the world of door-to-door. The good news? Your customers only had to mortgage their homes, and you got out before you had to mortgage your soul!

Woman with kids said... 2:03 PM, February 07, 2007  

Hmm, that's rough. I lasted one month at a fast food chain with arches. And then that was that.

Charlatan said... 8:31 PM, February 07, 2007  

So selling vacuums door to door... sucks?

themikestand said... 8:39 PM, February 07, 2007  

mabel: any of those sweatshirts left? I could use a good overpriced garment!

sadie: I'm not sure I feel "lucky" for that experience, but okay.

woman with kids: the golden type? yum. I'd like fries with that. I'm kidding. Most of my friends also got cheques from the Clown, but I dodged that one.

Charlatan: You came back to say that? Slow morning in Singapore? The line we used was: "Hey, how's business?" "Pickin' up!"

-LGirl- said... 8:59 PM, February 07, 2007  

As young loves I forced my then Layabout Bf now hard working Dh to get a job. He followed a lead in the paper similar to yours.... It was selling coupons, taking them in a van to Mall parking lots complete with an impossible sales quota. He didn't get paid unless he made the quota. They had a chant and song. He lasted two days came to me in tears.. That was that.
A few years later we found it was that scam where they housed the workers and kept them in appalling conditions.. ICK!
Life lessons I guess. Hope our kids never have to do that.

ScientistMom said... 9:48 PM, February 07, 2007  

In my college youth, I sold "The Volume Library", some kids books (with cassette tapes that "help kids learn to read"), and the Great American Cookbook door-to-door in Cincinnati, OH. I worked for the Southwestern Co (www.southewestern.com). I happened to come home with about $6K in my pocket....but it was a trip. The company is probably good, and the books useful, but the days worth of training in Nashville were like brainwashing of a sort (reminded me of my christian school days---I'm a pretty good sheep! I guess). Anyway, I got a vomitous feeling in my stomach reliving your horrific times---shared by most of my poor bastard friends who were there with me. I guess I'm a pretty good salesperson, but I was VERY lucky to be stationed in a VERY wealthy part of Cinci...

Turns out my supervisor was faking selling loads of books, instead she was apparently snorting loads of coke. When I found out she was bullshitting all the others, I told them I was going home early. They weren't happy, but oh well.

I count my bleesings AND feel your pain.

Megan said... 3:22 AM, February 08, 2007  

Everybody has had suck jobs. I think they are there for you to appreciate the good ones. Well, perhaps not "good" but at least I'm no longer getting burned by a pizza oven.

Elizabeth said... 4:22 PM, February 08, 2007  

Was this, by any chance, KIRBY vacuums? I bought one. From a very nice young man who came to offer me a "free carpet cleaning". After telling him there was no way I could afford the brand new "Third Generation" model he was demonstrating, I asked if there were less expensive ones available to buy. I ended up with a "Second Generation" model at considerably less cost, plus all the hoses, the Zip brush and the shampooer attachment. For as long as it has lasted, and for as good of a job as it does, I think it was a good deal.

chRistine said... 8:05 PM, February 08, 2007  

i confess:

i am cheap and i buy my less than 100 dollar vaccuums at crappy tire.

i once had a very respectable, fresh-faced boy into the house to offer free carpet cleaning, and after 90 minutes i finally said, "dude.. i am single with two little kids, and your vaccuum is more than i make in a month". he seemed more embarrassed than i was.

themikestand said... 8:22 PM, February 08, 2007  

Elizabeth: you'd better believe it was that same company. I still think they have the best units, and I'd probably buy one if I had the money.

Christine: I also have a cheap CT Boutique vacuum, and in a word, it sucks. Now we have a borrowed on from the inlaws that works slightly better but is so bloody heavy I hate to use it. Thank gods for hardwood.

themikestand said... 8:24 PM, February 08, 2007  

scientist mom: be sure to let me know when you do the full blog entry on that one!

megan: that's the tip of my sucky job iceberg. Kidding, sorta. But it doesn't end there, I assure you. I also once failed an aptitude test to sell insurance. Thankfully.

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