by Gina Sestak
I mentioned being a lousy waitress in a prior blog, but the one college-era job at which I really, truly sucked was selling door-to-door.
You have to understand that I was supporting myself and working my way through school at the time, so I was desperate enough to try almost anything. Collier's Encyclopedia promised high commissions and easy sales. Growing up, I'd loved to read encyclopedias. They're so full of information. So I signed on, prepared to go out into the community and deliver knowledge.
I don't know whether or not you've ever worked in sales. It's a different world. Our day began at the downtown office for a psych-up session, where we would practice our pitches. There's a science to the sale, and this group had it down pat. There was a script that began by asking the potential customer whether s/he was familiar with Collier's Magazine:
Potential Customer: I already get it.
Salesperson: Are you sure?
Potential Customer: Yeah. I don't subscribe myself, but my mother gives me her copy as soon as she's done reading it.
Salesperson: That's strange. Collier's Magazine went out of publication in 1956.
At that point, the poor potential customer was so confused and embarassed that s/he would shut up and listen to the rest of the pitch. The pitch wasn't just a speech. It was interactive and, if we could get into the house, came with visual effects, like hanging a large picture of a bookcase full of books over the TV so they could see how it would look in their living room. The pitch was also full of questions that required an affirmative answer, on the theory that once you got somebody saying "yes" it would be hard for them to switch to "no."
And we didn't call it "selling." No. We would "place" a set of encyclopedias, as if finding homes for lovable pets.
Sometimes the more successful sellers would demonstrate their techniques. The top salesman would wear a bright pink shirt and fling a stretcher (a long cardboard mock up of the encyclopedias on a shelf) onto the floor. The manager would exhort us all to greater success, shouting and sweating like a stereotype Southern preacher. Salespeople watching him would leap to their feet and vow to place not one, but two, sets of encyclopedias that day! It was quite a show. Then we would be taken out to sell.
We worked in teams of four or five. The team manager would drive to a suburban community and drop us off one at a time along the roadside, with instructions to meet at a designated spot in 8 or 10 hours. Then we were on our own.
I was 19 years old at the time and city-raised, so the suburbs were a mystery to me. We were told to target homes with obvious signs of children, such as playthings in the yards (or, as one of my teammates enthusiastically called them, "BABY GORILLA TOYS!!"). I prefered to find the lonely old women who would invite me in, give me food, and tell me about their lives. Not much chance of a sale, but then I wasn't having much luck selling to the target population, either.
I was almost arrested once, in West View, which apparently had an ordinance against door to door selling. I wonder why the team manager hadn't warned me about that.
I only kept that job for about five weeks. I only made three sales.
What did I learn from that job?
I learned to be wary of any obvious sales technique. I learned to find my way around the winding residential streets of suburbia. I learned to be out on my own in a strange place. Most of all, I learned I sucked at sales.
Still, the job provides a lovely background for a thriller -- a young woman alone, someone who won't be missed for hours, carrying her sample case as she climbs the steps to the serial killer's porch -- oh, wait. That one has been done to death. How about the innocent looking young woman who gets into people's homes, only to pull a gun and blow them all away? Too violent? How about if she introduces a slow acting poison into the home, perhaps by rubbing it onto the children's toys. An astute detective starts to wonder why everyone who refuses to buy from her sickens and dies . . .