Last week, a guy came to the door. That in itself is a notable occurrence – we rarely leave the house and receive visitors even less. Unless you count the mailman, which I don’t. So, when the guy came to the door with a backpack and lacking the requisite suit, partner, and nametag that says “Elder Van,” I knew he wasn’t a missionary and must therefore be selling something. My approach to people like this is unwaveringly the same: let them do their pitch, try not to say “yes” to anything at all, and then, at the end, politely say “no, thank you.”
When I was in-between jobs once, I went on a test day for a job that billed itself as a “marketing consultant.” I thought sales isn’t really my thing, but if this is marketing like in the TV shows – coming up with campaigns and whatnot, it might be cool. Turns out, “marketing consultant” was a fancy name for “door-to-door salesman” – except that since laws prevent solicitors from actually selling things door-to-door, their workaround was to go business-to-business – find the downtown area of any given burg, and hit up every shop that had an open door. I was partnered with another pre-hire and a guy in training. The stuff this dude was selling was the worst kind of Home Shopping Network crap you could imagine; junky trinkets and gadgets that are likely to break within 3 months. There wasn’t a single thing he had in the trunk of his compact, older-model Honda that I could say “wow, now that’s actually pretty cool.” All of it was the sort of stuff that if you got it as a secret Santa gift, you’d be finding ways of getting rid of it. As soon as I realized what this “marketing consultant” job really was, I knew I was going to be in for a long day.
We went out to the ass of nowhere. A tiny town about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City that, if you lived here, you’d probably groan upon hearing the name of. The city reeked of unemployment and white trash. The biggest local businesses were a producer and distributor of scrapbooking supplies and a maker of various soaps and lotions – both companies I recognized the names of, having applied to each for web guy or tech support jobs previously. (Neither let us past reception.) We canvassed the city from front to back, hitting every shop that would let us in the door (and there were a few that kicked us out upon catching sight of us).
The thing that really sold me on never wanting to do any kind of sales ever was this: none of it was real. It was obvious from looking that the stuff he was selling was crap. He didn’t deal with these people honestly, in fact, he put on a show: he had this funky little swagger as he walked in, and would bounce from foot to foot as he was touting the wondrous qualities of his wares. He even wore a ridiculous hat, no doubt so people would remember him, which he only put on when he was selling things. Having been involved in theatre for a long time, it was obvious that this guy was putting on an act – a bad one. Even more loathsome was when he would bundle several products together as one “package” and sell it for exactly the same price he would sell them for individually. I swear, I must’ve given him away at least once if the customer was watching my expression when he pulled that one. And that’s what has led me to distrust anyone selling anything at my door: because I’ve peeked behind the curtain and know that all of those salesmen are just really good at convincing you that the dog crap you see on the sidewalk is actually one-of-a-kind fertilizer from Nepal, and that buying for a one-time deal of $9.99 is a bargain.
So back to this guy on my doorstep: he’s an African American man with bad teeth wearing obviously second hand clothing; so, he’s liked the cleaned-up homeless guys I used to buy Street Sheets from in San Francisco. He immediately launches into his pitch saying “I’m not going to take much of your time,” and starts telling me the amazing properties of a new cleaning product. Instantly, I’m suspicious – a guy came to the house a couple years ago with a fantastic cleaning product and tried to show off its fantastic-ness by cleaning one of our front windows. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t real glass, it was Plexiglas, which apparently the stuff doesn’t work on, and it left a huge horrible smear that we had to get out with Windex later. (It wasn’t hard saying “I’ll pass” to him after that.) I’m assuming this was a different product (or the other guy, as would be implied later, was an idiot and didn’t mix the concentrate correctly – apparently in Silicon Valley, they don’t know what concentrate is, either. True story, if you believe door-to-door salesmen), because the first thing he did was clean the (recently washed) Plexiglas window. It didn’t smear.
I’ll save the pitch, except to repeat the mantra that he repeated over and over that this cleaner was “all natural, non-toxic, biodegradable, safe for kids and pets, kills Box Elder bugs, whiteflies,” and a stream of other things he said too quickly to catch all of. The gist was, you could use it on anything, and it works better than everything else. At one point we walked to my car, he took out a big Sharpie, asked me what it was, and proceeded to write his name on my window in Sharpie. I would normally be nervous at this point if it weren’t for the fact that I’m sure he’d be fired if his cleaner couldn’t get it out. And anyway, he asked me “what would you do to clean that out?” To which I answered, “uh, use alcohol.” “Alcohol will get that out?” “Pretty sure.” “Is it non-toxic?” “Uhhh…” Then he pulled the spray nozzle off his bottle and stuck the straw in his mouth to prove just how non-toxic his cleaner was.
As much as I tried to avoid saying “yes” to anything, his sales training prevailed; he was obviously programmed to ask leading questions like “if you had the opportunity to buy a single product that works better than all of these products” – produce list of leading cleaners with prices – “would you buy it?” Saying “no” to such a question is a minefield, but saying “yes” means you’ve just signed the check. My response? “I might.” I realize, in retrospect, that this was an invitation for him to continue to try to convince me, but really, I was just waiting for him to be done so I could say “sorry, not today.”
I was finally able to say “sorry, not interested” after he made me hold the bottle in my hand. I barely glanced at it, handing it back to him and saying I wasn’t interested. He asked “why not?” I said, “I’m a hard-ass, I don’t buy anything. It was a good pitch, though.”
“You think so?”
“Then why don’t you—Look, what do you do for a living?”
“I work from home. I make websites.”
“I’m an independent contractor, you could make a website for me?”
“Can I get your number?”
“Yeah, let me go inside and I’ll give you a card.”
I grab one of my flashy new MooCards I made for WordCamp UT, and head out, ready to be done with this. Instead, he greets me on the steps with another approach. He tells me he’s going to look at the card, but “did I tell you about the inner city program?” “Uh, no.” “Yeah, see, the company I work for works with inner city youth. I used to have some problems but now I’ve got this, which is like my second chance on life. If you had the opportunity to help out someone in a difficult situation, would you do it?” “Uh…I might, and I do…” “Great, let me just show you one last thing…” He grabs a stiff brush, sprays some cleaner on the steps, and cleans off several layers of grime on the concrete steps. “Thanks, but not today.”
He never once told me the price.
The moral of this story is not how good the product is, it’s how it’s presented. With so many con artists trying to make a quick buck by convincing you to buy something that’s too good to be true, it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s a fabrication. I believe that this cleaner is probably as good as he says it is. But when something looks too good to be true, it usually is. Later, I Googled the company, “Advanage” (no “t”), and found blog posts, personal anecdotes and articles that mirrored my experience. In one letter written to the company that was published to RipOffReport, the sales rep told the customer that the company never cashes the checks for 2 weeks because “we know a lot of people don’t have the cash up front.” The customer was instructed to post-date the check, and wrote it for an amount that they couldn’t really afford thinking it wouldn’t go through for 2 weeks. It was cashed 5 days later, putting them in debt. There’s rumors and theories that the company, a subsidiary of Austin Diversified Products, only hires black men which seems to be confirmed from the articles describing personal interactions with salesmen from this company.
It made me wonder how much of this stuff goes into their training. It’s obvious he had a whole routine, and it was plain to see how that routine would work on someone else. Do they train their workers to drink this stuff? To tag on people’s windows with a Sharpie? At one point he says to me “I see you have children. You know how you love the children but hate the fingerprints?…” Honestly, I’ve never had this thought in my life, and he struck me as someone who also never had this thought in his life – living on the road, probably homeless at another time in his life, it’s difficult to believe he’s ever had a family of his own, yet he’s approaching this topic like a co-conspirator, dad-to-dad. The truth is, probably most of what he said is true, and, in retrospect, it would almost be worth buying a bottle just because he delivered a convincing pitch and to give him some cash. At the same time, there’s reports of these sales guys taking credit card info and draining your account, robbing your house, etc, etc, etc, most of which probably has nothing to do with the company per se other than who they choose to employ, but the whole operation smells fishy, and it’s obvious the non-toxic, biodegradable, et al thing is just jumping on the Green bandwagon to win potential customers over.
And this is precisely why I don’t buy stuff from salesmen, even in a store. Anyone who is profiting off of my purchase is more interested in my sale than in what I really need or want. I would rather buy everything online, having done the research myself and considered the decision carefully. It’s easy to convince a person to buy something if you’re shameless enough, playing into their hopes and fears. What’s difficult is providing a product or service that lives up to the hype.