Birth of a Salesman

The credit crunch, less money floating around and the biggest increase in unemployment in a month since 1992 in the UK, rising to 1.72 million people. Times are tough, and businesses are reassessing how to manage risks and reduce costs. People are also needing to earn money – not least because benefits for the unemployed are less than the poverty line.

Enter the salesman. Direct marketing, face to face in stores, in the street, or door step is a cheap option for a company wanting their product promoted – for one trying to break into a new market, or increase sales. A marketing company gets a contract, and agree a percentage on sales that will be divided between them. The sales person however carries the greater risk. As I discovered having passed a preliminary interview and spending a day with a sales person as a buddy in a well known high street store, selling designer make up.

It is not unusual for sales people to be paid on commission only. There is no minimum wage safeguard here, nor does the 48 hour week apply. The set up is that the sales people used by the marketing company are self employed, contracted by the marketing company. The sales rep is dependent on pitching the product and selling successfully. Watching this in action, from 11 am to 5 pm in a well known high street store, the sales person acting as my buddy to assess me, sold two products, revenue of £60. His percentage meant £18 for 6 hours work; £3.00 per hour compared to the minimum wage of £5.52 ($10.16 where in say Florida the minimum wage is $8). He had spent £3.50 on travel and £1.50 on food.

Indeed the way to keep going is to safeguard a positive mental attitude. Out of 250 people only 8 people listened to the pitch, and 2 bought. In between he raised his spirits by singing lewd lyrics, and telling young women to run up and down the store naked to get the make up (courting them to buy?). My own survival was to imagine I was an undercover journalist trying to pick up sales practise.

This marketing company requires people attending 4 hour a day training sessions (7:30am to 9:30am and 5:30pm to 7:30pm). These are unpaid, and mandatory to be contracted (note that: retained rather than employed) and for future promotion. The significance of promotion is that after 10 months if promoted to Assistant Manager you will be on double commission. In the above example that would have meant a wage rate of £6.00 per hour. The working week is 6 days, and a 12 hour day.

The EU defines the poverty line in the UK at about £10,000 ($18,400) income a year for a single person. Talking to the sales person it is not unusual to be below that threshold in some weeks even working 7 days – “you have to manage your money”. The hook is baited with you having to make a catch, to literally have something to eat. Sale anything and the marketing company take 70%. This is the only way you are trusted to “Always Be Closing” as Alec Baldwins’ character said.

It would take at least 7 to 9 months for you to double your commission. There is no guarantee you will be promoted. The jackpot prize is the promise of going beyond that double commission to running a location where you finally may get an income of about £50,000 a year. I found this however a little difficult to believe – the location manager in question was sharing the house with  my sales buddy with three others. Why do people accept such uncertain income? The promise of becoming the top location guy, who gets a slice of everything down the chain. The same reason why drug dealers accept earning less than someone working at a McDonalds, the promise of becoming a Kingpin. Their odds, if they survive, are better than in any other business environment they may work in to get to the top. At least they dream so.

This boils down to a 6 day week 70 hours with no safety net. Uncapped commission is held out that you keep what you make. The government gets less in the way of taxes by this arrangement, and the marketing companies reduce their tax liability and risk of an unsuccessful product. The money they get from taking the contract on is already theirs. You on the other hand have to rely on people to buy the product. You have to put in the hours. You have to engage as many people as possible (big net for those small fish). You have to close the deal. You then have to make another sale to them (they bought once, so could be a hidden sale).

I could see myself in the role of a salesman – people wanted to listen to the pitch from me, and I found the way to make them want to buy the product if they had the money.  I found myself thinking of different ways of making the close. The buzz as you try to sell. But I could also see in my sales buddy the desperation – it was effecting his body language, and he was not eating well at all. He looked close to a nervous breakdown, as he did imaginary golf swings and sung suspect lyrics about knowing that sort of woman . He was determined to get promotion to manager, he hated sales. Yet he would be doing this for almost a year before realistically having a chance at managing a location. He had Willy Loman’s dream – promising himself a trip to America once he was a location manager. When he had the money.

I heard the early morning mandatory training in the room next door to the waiting room, prior to going on the sale. Loud music up beat music, people being pumped before the sale – when most people would be having a cup of coffee scratching the sand out of their eyes. A discussion of what would happen to whoever sold less that week? Everyone came up with something fun rather than nasty – cook a meal for the boss was the winner. The talk was about installing a positive mental attitude and group solidarity rather than the  Glengarry Glen Ross answer. I recognized this approach – this was holding out a promised land, making it seem obtainable, keeping people in a routine, with a sense of belonging. Reinforced after a day of selling when most people will reject you, almost consider you like an alien wanting to abduct them, with another two hours of reinforced positive thinking. A twelve hour day, a six day week.

It sounded like a cult enterprise. It thrives on the challenge of selling itself though it’s product, and the hard times. But it knows how to motivate you, keep your spirits going. It was telling  when  my buddy told me the pay when I asked him (commission based) which I should not have found out till the first day of work, drawing up a contract. I found that out by courting my sales buddy (a sales technique I know from retail) through empathy.  I could even see how I was falling for a sales pitch at the final interview – a hand outstretched to me after the interview which I shock without thinking and then was told I had the job while being basked with a million dollar smile. How do you back out of that when the guy has made you sell yourself at the interview, with a close like that and my buddy in the room?

That suspicion had come to me at the first interview. I was also given the impression that there were many people being considered, even that the location manager needed to speak to his board of directors after the first interview before confirming the second stage usually  – that usually a decision would not be reached so quickly. I went home rather uneasy, that this was obviously not true.

Why the government does not close the loophole of commission only pay that allows people to be contracted as self-employed people – when in reality they are employees in all but name. No definite income would make loans and a mortgage impossible, and the hours put in equal to one day a week without pay seems to me like low cost serfdom.

The prize is a dream and it reminds me of Death of A Salesman:

“He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. and then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”

The dark side is a man that has a dream that may not every be his as he sleep walks his time away. Yet people have to survive, whether getting some money or having a delusion that pulls them through. It allows people to have a rotten life, thinking tomorrow will be better while ignoring that what is real is now, and what you do now has repercussions.

The search continues with eyes wide open.


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