Saturday, January 27, 2007

Knock on Any Door

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 . . .


Anonymous said...

My mild-mannered mother turned into a foaming-at-the-mouth-with-rage demon when salesmen arrived at our door with "slick" (as she called it) sales techniques. So the story I propose is slick guy knocks on door and is snatched off the porch, tied up and tortured by seemingly mild-mannered elderly lady . . . .

Annette said...

I don't know if you city folks have this or not, but out here in the country, guys drive around in pickup trucks with a freezer in the back (I don't mean a commercial refrigerated unit, I mean a chest freezer like the one in my basement) and sell meat door to door. As soon as they start their sales pitch on me I announce that I'm vegetarian and they bolt as if I'd said I had the plague. My husband, who is NOT vegetarian, has used my line on them, too.

I'm not sure what these meat salesmen think about a guy wearing camouflage, sitting on the porch of a log cabin cleaing his hunting rifle and claiming to be a vegetarian...

Cathy said...

Gina, I can't envy you your career selling encyclopedias. When I was a Girl Scout, my brother sold the cookies door to door with me skulking in the yard (He owns a grocery store now and sells food for a living--I helped him get his start). Do you suppose these encyclopedia sales people still exist?

Wouldn't it be against some law to sell meat that way, Annette? I won't be able to get the picture of Ray on the porch out of my mind for some time.

Anonymous said...

I lasted one day (well, two half-days, really) as a Time-Life telephone salesperson. The first half-day was training. Fine. The second half-day we got on the phones. My second call the lady said, "I don't believe in telephone salespeople." I hung up the phone and realized, "Neither do I."

What did I learn from the experience? Never to work at a job I don't believe in.

Annette: I never heard of that, what a hoot! Are they selling meat from the last deer they shot? And yes, I'm sure it's violating MANY laws.

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, my roommate got sucked in by the sales pitch to make a fortune selling educational books for children door-to-door over the summer. She wanted me to sign up with her and refused to speak to me when I replied that I'd rather run through hell in gasoline-soaked undergarments. After a summer in Texarkana during a heat wave/ drought, trying to sell books to people who lived in tarpaper shacks, she returned to school in the fall and asked me why I hadn't talked her out of doing it. Hmmm.