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.

Back to his old tricks

Disclaimer: Geez, guys…if I realized I was going to inadvertently earn the ire of a nation of Stay at Home Babe fans, I might have thought a moment before I wrote that I thought she might not be a real person. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have changed my opinion if she hadn’t emailed me […]

Google America

If you were to take a poll today of approval ratings for Barack Obama, I can guarantee that the number of supporters in this country of our President is far surpassed by the number of people who use Google services on a daily basis.

How did this happen?  How did we become so complacent?  How is it that more people trust a huge corporate conglomerate more than their President?

Google and Verizon’s legislative proposal, if adopted, would give them more regulatory control over access and the future of the Internet than the FCC, the government organization tasked to protect corporations from having too much control over communications technology (i.e. precisely what Google/Verizon propose to do).  Besides dictating to the FCC what the FCC can and cannot do with regards to internet access, the proposal allows access providers to prioritize traffic however they see fit, without that pesky FCC being able to get in the way and defend users’ rights.  But it’s not just about users.  It’s about Google maintaining its dominance of the market.  By creating a tiered structure with some prioritized traffic and other, slow-lane traffic, Google/Verizon are making it so new, upstart, garage companies and providers will never be able to compete with the big guys without significant financial investment.  Which is just how they’d like it.  And if there were any little guys who had something of interest?  You can bet Google will swallow them up like they’ve done in the past, all under the guise of providing users with a more complete and useful experience on the web.

The thing is, Google didn’t hide their growth.  We all watched and applauded as the little search engine that could rumbled up the mountain, “I think I can”‘ing their way past Apple and Microsoft not just in search but in technology in general.  The whole time, they released these little test projects that we gobbled up — they were so useful!  It seems foreboding now, more than liberating, that there was once a bid for their CEO to be Obama’s Chief Technology Officer.  Rather than being a reflection of new ideas, it’s easy to see it, instead, as being just one more way the corporation has tried to bind themselves with the American government.

Possibly what irks me the most is that I feel like I, personally, should have seen this coming.  Google played out a particular trick that I’ve seen once before in internet con artists.

Step 1: Establish your credibility

Google was able to earn points by building a technically superior search engine.  While it can be argued (and is currently being argued by “social search” engines like Glue and Hunch) that an algorithm isn’t as good at knowing what a human wants as much as a human (and therefore a more human approach to search results based on preferences rather than rankings), the more humanistic engines to date include Amazon, Netflix, and the aforementioned Glue and Hunch can often still be wrong.  And the other alternatives that try to out-algorithm the algorithm — I’m thinking of Wolfram|Alpha and search engines that use Wolfram|Alpha to enhance their results — leave much to be desired in terms of understanding what you’re asking.  The fact is that Google has become so ubiquitous over the last 10 years that the word is synonymous for “search” and no matter how catchy the next upstart search engine’s name is (Bing!), there’s very little hope of anything overtaking it.  Ever.  (At least in this country.)

Step 2: Build Trust

If I asked you to give me your name, picture, address, credit card number, date of birth, a list of all your friends with their email addresses and phone numbers, and another list of every topic you’ve ever been interested in, ever, you wouldn’t just think I was a crazy stalker; you would know it.  Yet, this is precisely the same information we give to Google by using their services.  Even if we haven’t directly given Google all of that information, Google (as well as other online services) is able to pull that information together based on your public profiles on social networking sites.  We hand over an astounding amount of information to Google and other corporations all in the name of “making our lives easier.”  Has your life gotten easier since using Google?

Google builds trust by speaking publicly about open standards (although they’re not always in favor of open software — it’s been rumored for a few years that internally they’re using a modified version of Linux that they are not privy to sharing with the rest of the world) and by giving stuff away for free (although not always under open source licenses).  But like a skilled magician (or a skilled con artist), while we’re all staring at the shiny free goodies, their other hand is reaching around for our wallet.

Google deals in information.  They deal in wants and desires.  Specifically, they deal with terabytes of information every day about what we want, what we think, what we’re looking for, what we need.  Their ad system is based on selling shares in concepts against a hypothesized value for said idea.  They take a keyword, say “licorice”, and determine a price based on how much they think people are going to be wanting licorice on any given day.  And these prices aren’t static — they’re constantly in flux.  In Wired interviews past, they’ve told journalists that things like seasons, weather, economic and social conditions color what we search for.  With that level of insight into the American psyche, it’s unsurprising that they could be able to anticipate just what we needed to hear to trust them with all our personal information.

Step Three: Go for the kill

Once a person or organization has gotten this far, gotten you to trust them, you will follow them to the end of the world and back without much thought.  After all, they’ve established themselves in the past, they’ve proven their worth, why doubt now?  You may trust them even while you notice, out of the corner of your eye, the hand reaching for your wallet — it couldn’t possibly be what you think it is, you must be imagining it.  This is the crucial point we are at as Americans, as citizens of the autonomous sovereignty of the Internet, in our relationship with Google.  We trust them.  We believe they have our best interests at heart and we are willing to give up our own individual voices and allow them to speak for us.

Isn’t this what governments were for?  Isn’t this what politicians were for?  And aren’t governments and politicians supposed to protect us from businesses that grow so large as to threaten their own regulating authority?

The con I’ve seen using the same tactics (and possibly these steps are common to all forms of advertising or marketing) was a cheap ploy to sell copies of an overpriced ebook that over-promised (make hundreds of dollars a day, gain thousands of followers a week, a huge network pushing floods of traffic to your site) and under-delivered.  I wasn’t alone when I found myself  not being able to match the phenomenal success I should have had and wondering what I was doing wrong.  I didn’t buy into the scam because I believed the hype (I didn’t), rather, because the author had made good on steps one and two; he established credibility by keeping a popular, high ranking blog about making money blogging that, while never revealing any actual useful advice on how to make money blogging, always carried with it the promise that the secret was just around the corner; and he built trust by exposing several scams related to his own ebook (in fact, it could be argued that his ebook was a rewrite of the scams he had exposed).  Surely his method was different than the ones he exposed as obvious scams.  What this particular con has in common with Google is good copy: both are very good at weaving their way around the truth, telling a believable lie — one laced with truth — and taking full advantage of the successes won from established credibility and trust.  Once you’ve scored on those two counts, you can do almost anything.

all part of my elaborate plan…

extra extra

update on the twitter fireball scam i wrote about yesterday.

apparently twitter fireball was just an elaborate april fool’s day joke.

riiiiiiight.  it’s really too bad i only took a partial screenshot of the site and didn’t get the PayPal button at the bottom of the page.  alas, it’s too late now as the copy has been hastily rewritten and the domain has had a robots.txt file added to prevent search engines from spidering the site and thus allowing people to look at old versions of the page via search engine cache.

luckily, i don’t go down that easy, and i’m still smarter and faster than ashley.  because the joke’s still on you (or, more accurately, your band): if Twitter Fireball was such a joke, why does Enormous say they are actively using it?

nice try, sir.  what will it be next time?  Twitter Galaxy?  Twitter Spaceship?  Twitter Comet?  Twitter Supernova?

april fool’s right back atcha.