Why I don’t buy stuff from door-to-door salesmen

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?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why don’t you—Look, what do you do for a living?”

“I work from home.  I make websites.”

“For real?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m an independent contractor, you could make a website for me?”

“Sure.”

“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.

A slow day?

For those that haven’t noticed it yet, upstartblogger.com has taken yet another turn. Remember the old tagline of the site?  If you don’t, I’ll remind you: Successful blogging made simple. As it turns out, successful blogging just isn’t simple.  There’s all these acronyms you need to know about, like HTTP — what the hell is […]

adobe fights fire with…teddy bears

Adobe launched a new ad campaign today along with a response to Steve Jobs’ declaration that Flash will never be supported on iPhones, iPads, and iPods last week.  (In fact, they’ve added a whole new Freedom of Choice section on Adobe.com.)  There are a few amusing (and somewhat contradictory) statements in Adobe’s open letter (like this one: “If the web fragments into closed systems…their success will come at the expense of the very creativity and innovation that has made the Internet a revolutionary force.” Um, seriously Adobe?  You just said that?  After swallowing your smaller rival Macromedia to become a monopoly in web development and design software and — as a bonus — acquire the very technology we’re having this open/closed argument about, you’re talking about closed systems (hint: Flash is a closed system) coming at the expense of creativity and innovation?  Really?), but you can read it for yourself on Adobe’s site.

What I find most interesting about this new love campaign isn’t even positioning Apple as the bad guy and Adobe as the ones really interested in freedom and openness (while authoring — and trying to save — a patently closed and proprietary system).  (Also note: “open markets“, as described in their letter, is entirely different from “open standards” or “open source“.)  I’m interested in the fact that all of this love is aimed not at consumers — who don’t give a crap what powers the stuff they do on the internet and who will, regardless of what comes of the Adobe vs. Apple feud, still buy iPads, iPods and iPhones — it’s aimed at developers.  It’s aimed at designers.  It’s a desperate we-just-made-massive-improvements-to-authoring-Flash-apps-with-CS5-and-we-don’t-want-to-lose-money plea to not abandon Adobe to open standards and HTML5 and everything else Steve was preaching about in his letter.  Apple is not going to change their stance.  Ever.  This letter was designed to get the people who make Flash apps to not reconsider making those apps with Flash and using something else instead.

What’s also interesting is that, weren’t we just talking about a possible lawsuit against Apple?  Now, “We love Apple”?  Really?  What was that thing that one guy who preached all about love said right before he was carted away…something like “Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?”

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fix the music biz by taking cues from the porn industry

playboymp3some ideas occurred to me after my recent post about the music industry, and then erin said something that i thought was not only genius, but perfectly summed up the kind of thinking that needs to happen to save the music business: if you want to figure out what people will pay for online, look at the porn industry.

now, i’m not condoning looking at porn; in general, i consider porn addiction to be similar to smoking — a seemingly innocuous habit that is just as difficult to quit, and causes numerous side-effects, mostly invisible or under-the-surface (only instead of being something somewhat quantifiable and medically recognized like second-hand smoke, the side effects are sexism, objectification, and a generally unbalanced gender appreciation — all social issues, and therefore less tangible).  in this case, however, it’s a perfect analogy.  there’s plenty of porn you can get for free.  you only need to google, turn your safe search filter off, and bam! porn.  i’ll probably get some porn spam just by saying the word porn in this post.  and yet, the online adult entertainment industry (by which i mean: porn) is one of the largest, most lucrative, and fastest growing online business industries.  it makes tons of money every day.  so much so, that no one can really, accurately tabulate exactly how much.  these guys aren’t worried about their stuff being stolen, and they aren’t telling porn addicts to please pay first before downloading their stuff.  they know that they’ve got the goods, and the people will come back for them.

let’s take a look at what’s happened to porn in the last 10 years or so. for this,  i’m gonna briefly pull out my old person voice: you kids may not remember this, but once upon a time, porn came in magazines, printed on paper, and the only way to get it was to a) creep into a bookstore and ask for the stuff behind the counter looking guilty, b) go to a sleazy corner magazine and/or liquor store and hand the trashy magazine to the clerk, looking guilty, c) slink into your parents’ closet and steal your dad’s collection, or d) go to the same sleazy corner liquor store and shove the dirty magazine under your shirt and take off — chances are, you’d only get away with that one once or twice before you’d have to switch liquor stores.  there was sort of a fifth option, too, which was find one of the newsstands that sold the cheap, $1 newsprint rags that was 80% personal ads (you know, like the craigslist adult personals, before there was such a thing) and 20% black & white, amateur-ish photos often with stars over the goods.  this was the easiest in terms of the guilt factor, but the least rewarding in terms of getting your rocks off.

when the internet exploded, the porn biz was probably one of the first industries to make the transition online.  as they did, the physical magazines took a nosedive.  why suffer the guilt and shame of having to ask a dweeby, greasy-haired nerdboy at Borders for the latest issue of Hustler when you could get the same stuff at home, and you don’t even have to get dressed?  now, it’s second nature; does anyone buy Playboy magazines anymore?  porn and the internet are as natural as peanut butter and jelly.

so let’s go back to music, how does porn apply to music?

well, one thing i was thinking about, that’s been discussed in various forms around the ‘net — and is being done in various forms already — is the idea of a paid membership site.  sort of like a netflix for music.  here’s one way it’s being used: Zune Pass lets you access thousands of songs, download unlimited music for $14.95/month (or something to that effect).  you get to keep 10 of those a month, the rest — if your membership ever expired — die or expire or self-destruct or something like that.  it’s an interesting idea.  there’s the new neil young archive, which — when it is completed — will essentially allow access to an expansive online archive of everything he’s ever recorded ever (for a hugely exorbitant price).

here’s my $0.02: think of your favorite record label — what if they put everything they ever recorded online.  everything.  including live concert videos (either professionally produced or bootlegged and uploaded by fans), b-sides, outtakes, interviews, some new, exclusive content, etc, etc, etc.  you pay a monthly fee, say $10/month, get unlimited, unrestricted access to download decent (but not perfect) quality mp3s (say 128 or 192kbps), and access to watch and listen to all the extra bonus stuff.  just for kicks, let’s suggest the possibility, too, that members get other bonuses, too, like discounts on merchandise and CDs.  now, let’s widen the perspective here: what if a bunch of indie labels went in on this together?  you get unlimited downloads of thousands of great songs, old and new, a huge online music library at your fingertips, most of which would never hit the radio, plus access to exclusive online content and goodies and discounts on real merchandise you can wear or pop into your CD player, for one low price a month.  wouldn’t you pay for that?

there would be the argument that the labels would lose money doing something like this, but i don’t think so.  with the kind of downloading that’s going on already, i think it would instead legitimize the downloading that’s already being done, putting cash back into the pockets of the people who made the music happen.  not only that, but kickbacks on actual merch would put a demand back on physical goods and possibly encourage some extra sales of disks and clothing.  the key is that the monthly cost would need to be low enough that the extras balanced out the fact that the people you’re targeting can get half of this stuff for free.

i’m not a marketing genius.  i’m not in the music business, i don’t know what it’s like to run a music label.  this is just vaporware; pipe dreams of things i wish would come true.  but there is something i do get — i get the tech.  this idea is both very possible and already being done in other industries.  it would be easier to do this with music than it would for, say, movies or television, like what netflix and hulu are doing, because the files are so much smaller and easier to stream and download.

the only way to stay ahead of the game is to think like a web 2.0 startup — use existing technologies to market and make available your product in a format that your audience is already familiar with.  people aren’t going to stop downloading just because you tell them to.  there needs to be an alternative that actually entices people to pay.  as any parent should know, negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well.  instead, reward your fans for good behavior, and they will come back to you with their wallets open.

fantasize about that.

rise above

[audio:RiseAbove.mp3]

so i had this long post all ready to run based on some stuff i discovered through clicking around a certain blogger’s twitter feed.  it became the fictionalized story of two like-minded neophyte bloggers who came to the blogging world from an altogether different online world — the online porn industry.  they both had similar stories of how they shared their names with notorious porn stars and somehow both found twitter rocket.  (all the above is actually true, the story that i wove from those details was fictional, albeit not entirely unlikely.)  needless to say, i didn’t run that story or  you’d be reading it now.  and i’m not gonna.

i decided i don’t care.  so what if a couple of former porn stars are using twitter rocket — that’s not the part that bugs me.  the part that bugs me is people being deliberately deceptive as a marketing technique.  sure, i get that marketing is all about little white lies, but being associated with it leaves a foul taste in my mouth.  i, too, am using a product that people are promoting by being deceptive.

it’s like, oh i don’t know, going to someone else’s blog and using it as a forum to make yourself look good and genuine and discredit the blog author.  going to someone’s blog for the sole purpose of discrediting them, and doing so repeatedly, is distasteful.  doing so deliberately to drive traffic back to your site or link is even more so.  but that’s exactly what @blogginghannah did.  she got her start by going to popular pro-blogger darren rowse‘s site and deliberately posting inflammatory comments to get attention.  sure it works.  it did exactly what she intended it to do — drove traffic to her site, where she posted a long article about how problogger was a swindle.  it’s distasteful.  but then, i come from the old school days of the net where you’d go to alt.topic.whatever and read 90% flame war and 10% real content.  i got myself flamed on alt.society.gothic by asking the incredibly controversial question (for a research paper) “what is goth?”  (the word kindergoth was flung at me.)

what’s worse is people who do the same thing — target a blog and then post inflammatory comments to drive traffic back to your link — but they don’t post their own website, they use an affiliate link.  it’s worse because you aren’t even giving people the benefit of judging you by your opinions, what else you have to say, you’re just throwing an ad in their face.  i don’t like junk mail, i don’t like rick rolls, and that, to me, seems likes the two things combined.  call it a junk roll.  it’s rubbish. it might work, but it’s lame.  especially when the blog you’re commenting on has no real value for generating traffic to your link.

it reminded me of this song by black flag.  i am chosing to rise above that level of name-calling and attention-grabbing, not adding to the misrepresentation.  it’s easy for me to get drawn into that, and i am guilty of being baited, but the best thing to do is to ignore it and it will go away, and remember what henry rollins said:

Jealous cowards try to control
Rise above
We’re gonna rise above
They distort what we say
Rise above
We’re gonna rise above
Try and stop what we do
Rise above
When they can’t do it themselves

We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us it’s no use

what can’t they do? provide content of any real value.  rise above, we’re gonna rise above.