Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Door to door

You're in your house, not doing much, when there's a knock at the door. There's no one else in the house so you find that you have to raise yourself up out of your relaxing state to answer. This better be good, you think. It might be a visiting friend, perhaps, a relative, or some unexpected guest. But when you answer the door a stranger greets you. There stands a young person, wearing a suit, clipboard in hand, grinning from ear to ear (almost). The person is attempting to break down the barrier between stranger-to-stranger relations, trying to make a genuine connection. Or, at least, sell you something. Such is the daunting task of a door-to-door salesperson. Before he or she can speak, you blurt out, “Not interested,” followed by a prompt slam of the door.

In today's economic climate, door-to-door sales are fast becoming an attractive option for young people finding it hard to get work. It does indeed seem like an attractive proposition. The website, jobs.ie, is full of such jobs. Perhaps because there is somewhat of a stigma attached to door-to-door sales, the jobs are usually presented as ‘field sales’. They mention that they are looking for ‘target driven people’ that ‘want to be their own boss’. These job descriptions are usually short and emotive. The use of exclamation marks is also common. When describing wages they mention that earnings are ‘target driven’, and that you could come out with ‘up to’ €30,000 per annum. The fact that it’s a commission-based job is rarely mentioned directly, with emphasis on the possibility (if you could call it that) of making €30,000 per annum.

Seamas Keane, who worked for one such company selling Sky Digital for six weeks (a long time, when you consider the high staff turn-over), thinks that the job descriptions do not actually give you an accurate account of what the job entails. Joseph Kelly, who worked for such a company in Dun Laoghaire, agrees. “Before you start the job they don’t make it clear that you’re doing door-to-door sales. They talk a lot about ‘potential’ and ‘motivation’, positive stuff, but they don’t tell you exactly what you do in the job.”

Keane describes a typical working day as a door-to-door salesman: “At eleven you come in, go to a motivational meeting, have a bit of lunch, and get on a bus and go to the area you are assigned for that day.” It doesn’t sound very abnormal; lots of jobs have similar working hours. But, Keane insists, it’s hard and tedious. People leave the job sometimes after just a couple of days, leaving only a dedicated core of true believers.

Kelly recalls a strange atmosphere in the workplace. “People did make sales, but not many. I’d say a third of people would make sales a day. It was weird though. The people who made sales would be high-fiving each other, saying things like, ‘excellent man!’ while the people who didn’t would be the same. It was a strange level of enthusiasm. It’s like we were being brainwashed. Every morning they would read stuff off a white board for twenty minutes about business and enterprise, and it would be irrelevant for door-to-door sales. It’s a way of making the job look important. You spend the next twenty minutes picking a partner and practicing a pitch on each other. It was like some of them belonged in drama class.”

Workers are also encouraged to go to conferences. Kelly describes one such conference that, like everything about the job, was a “little bit off”:

“I arrived late, and I walked into a massive room in the hotel filled with door-to-door salesmen from all different companies across the country. The speaker was saying, ‘the head of the company has a mansion and a private jet’. They were showing us images of wealth just to encourage people to go out and sell to make them a bit of money. I left half way through. Everyone was taking notes, but there was nothing to take notes about!”

The companies use a number of different methods that give employees the impression that you are part of a vibrant company. Other than the promise of your own start up company, there are other aspects that give the job a fa├žade of vibrancy and enthusiasm. As Keane recalls, “There’s dance music playing in the office all of the time. At the motivational meetings they have a bell and if you got a sale the previous day they’d hit the bell with a gong and everybody would high-five that person. It was very theatrical. There were two sales companies in the building and they would sometimes organize competitions between us to see who could make the most sales. Another week people in different areas would be competing.”

This does make the mundane seem exciting. However, is there something genuinely sinister going on? Though most people walk away from the job shortly after joining, some more impressionable people are seduced by this pseudo-entrepreneur mantra of the companies. In this way, they are similar to pyramid schemes, enticing people with slogans such as, “be your own boss” and “work your way to the top.”

According to Dermot Keogh, CEO of the Consumer Association of Ireland, though these jobs are not necessarily pyramid schemes, they do come close. “It comes terribly close to bearing all the hallmarks of being a pyramid scheme. Quite a number of people would be open to something which might be a pyramid scheme, considering the circumstances people now find themselves in.”

The National Consumer Agency (NCA) highlights the problems inherent pyramid schemes. “The problem is that making money from a pyramid scheme is mathematically impossible. As pyramid schemes rely heavily on people recruiting friends and family, relationships, friendships and marriages could also be destroyed.”

While door-to-door sales usually do have a product at the end, prevalent ones in Ireland being Sky Digital and Eircom, the way in which they recruit their members does bear some striking similarities to a pyramid scheme. Keane recounts that the ultimate goal was to set up your own company. The higher you get within the company, the more people you would have working under you. You would then be entitled to a percentage of the sales that the people working for you made. The higher you get, the more money you earn, until you can break away and start your own company, or “office”, as Kelly called it. That, in essence, is the goal of a door-to-door salesman.

Kelly recalls how four people he worked with were living in a bedsit in Summerhill together, so dedicated to this dream were they. “There were two or three people who started out with me, and we were all pretty normal. You used to get a quick lunch before you went into the field, as they called it. We were looking at each other, as if to say ‘what the hell have we gotten ourselves in for’. The others were all saying things like, ‘we’re going to make millions’. It was ridiculous.”

It sounds like some sort of strange religion – a kind of postmodern cult of capitalism. The companies seem to be actively seeking to give a false impression of a mundane job, which also seems to create a cult-like atmosphere. And, like a cult, people who are critical of their beliefs are dismissed. Kelly recalls how people who left the company were called “neg-heads”.

Mike Garde is director of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation dedicated to promoting awareness about cults in Ireland. He thinks that cultist activity can happen in many different sectors of society. “Any area can become cult-like. Cultism as a phenomenon is about the control and manipulation of people. It can happen in Fianna Fail, it can happen in Anglo Irish bank, as well as the usual suspects, such as Scientology and religious groups. It can even happen in a small family situation.” With regards to door-to-door sales and the cult-like aspects that are present, Garde thinks that this has been a problem around the world for quite some time.

In terms of worldwide operations, one name in particular seems to always pop up – the cobra group. Both Kelly and Keane identified the cobra group as the parent groups to the companies that they worked for, though it was not immediately apparent. The company calls each sales pitch made at someone's door a “human commercial”, a term trademarked by the company. They claim to make over 250,000 “human commercials” each year, and that the company expanded beyond Dublin due to customer demand.

The company refused to comment on the strange working atmosphere created in door-to-door sales. However, a spokesperson said that they encourage positivity in the work place, but bear no responsibility for anyone who treats it like a cult. A door-to-door salesperson, they maintain, is their own boss after all. Kelly and Keane both described signing documents that stated as much, thus voiding the company of any responsibilities to their employees.

In the end, the cobra group offers their employees the world, but rarely deliver. Like a pyramid scheme, it is next to impossible to rise to the top. As such, there is an emphasis on positivity and motivation. However, by using such techniques, the company is creating a cultist atmosphere where essentially the most vulnerable are enticed into this cult of capitalism – the dream to rise to the top, to be your own boss. It’s not that these aren't admirable goals, but sales companies such as the cobra group are actively capitalising on a prevalent myth within society. That, mixed with an unusual amount of positivity and motivational talk, can lead to a cult like atmosphere. Given that the cobra group is a worldwide company, it would not be unreasonable to call this a “cult of cobra”. Now there's an ominous title.

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