Monday, August 20, 2007

Sales, Ethics and the American Dream

Back in the late 80's, I went through a period of time when I was having difficulty finding work, and I was getting a bit desperate for a job. So when I saw a Help Wanted ad which said that the company was looking for employees who would vacuum people's carpets, I thought, "I can do that. No problem!" I called the company and set up a job interview with them immediately.

The first sign of trouble was seen when I showed up and learned that the ad had misrepresented the nature of the job. Technically, the job did involve cleaning carpets. But it was really a sales job, selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. One didn't clean entire carpets. One only cleaned portions of carpets in order to persuade sales prospects that Kirby made a very good vacuum cleaner. In fact, part of the sales presentation involved actually dumping dirt onto the sales prospect's clean carpet! Another part involved demonstrating that the Kirby had such great suction power that it could hold a heavy bowling ball in mid-air solely through the power of its suction. (Next time I want to vacuum up all the bowling balls in my apartment, I'll have to remember that. That's a joke, of course. I have no bowling balls in my apartment.)

I thought that their method of advertising for sales people was dishonest. If it was a sales job, they should have said that in the ad so that we would know what to expect. In hindsight, that one aspect of the process should have told me a lot, but like I said, I needed a job badly, so I was willing to overlook that seemingly minor problem and do my best to be a good salesperson for the company.

When I was hired, I was just one of a number of new employees. Before they would even consider sending us out into the field, they spent a week training all of us.

The guy who initially trained us in the company's offices was a real greaseball, in terms of how he kept his hair in place. He also had a lot of acne. (With all that grease, I wasn't surprised.) He seemed like a reasonably nice guy, but I was singularly unimpressed with his personal hygiene.

During the training, they had us corporately participate in little "pep rallies" to boost our confidence. As a Christian, I found that aspect of our training to be really offensive. Someone had taken a number of classic Christian hymns and rewritten them so that they had been turned into songs glorifying the Kirby vacuum cleaner! (As I recall, "Onward Christian soldiers" had been turned into "Onward Kirby salesmen." Previously, it had never occurred to me to compare vacuum cleaner sales people with soldiers.) Naturally, we were all expected to sing along. As I recall, I sang along, because I was a new hire and I didn't want to lose the job. I wanted to be a team player. But inwardly, I was already beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the job, despite the fact that I was impressed with their demonstrations of the Kirby's power.

Part of the training, before we were sent out into the field, was that we were expected to get practice by persuading at least one of our friends or relatives to listen to us as we gave a sales pitch. Naturally, I ended up giving the sales pitch to my mother. At the end of the presentation, she bought the vacuum cleaner from me. It's possible that I did a great job of selling her on its features, but I suspect that the main reason she bought it was that I was her son.

Then the big day came. We were all sent out into the field, with a more experienced sales person driving the van, in order to make sales presentations to our first real sales prospects other than our friends and family members. It was strange in several ways. First of all, the neighborhood they drove us to was not by any means a wealthy neighborhood. That seemed strange to me, because the Kirby cost around a thousand dollars, even in the late 80's. To the kinds of people we would be visiting, that was a lot of money.

As the van drove through the neighborhood, the driver would slow down at a corner and we were expected to jump out (with the vehicle still in motion, mind you) and practically run to the nearest house in order to try to schedule an appointment for a demonstration. (I felt like a paratrooper being dropped over Normandy.) We did that an awful lot before we finally found a kind soul who agreed to allow us to impose on her in that manner.

Keep in mind that this was a training, and the way they did the training was to invite all of the trainees into the woman's home so that we could all sit and watch our trainer as he conducted the sales demonstration. I'm truly amazed that any woman would let that many strange men into her house at the same time, no matter what kind of a line we fed her. For all she knew, we were robbers or gang rapists who were trying to get into her home under the pretext that we were selling vacuum cleaners.

Now here's where things got interesting. Our field trainer would basically demonstrate some of the vacuum cleaner's features, and then he would approach the woman, write down a dollar amount (with payment terms) and ask, "Would this price and these terms persuade you to buy the Kirby?" The first time he did this, she said the following: "I am impressed with the Kirby, but my husband and I have agreed that we will not ever buy a product this expensive until we have had a chance to discuss it together." Was the sales person deterred by that response? Of course not. He would then demonstrate a few more features, and go through the whole charade again. Each time, she told him the same thing. She liked the vacuum cleaner, but she had agreed not to buy any big ticket items without discussing the matter with her husband.

The guy continued to pressure her to buy the vacuum cleaner then and there without consulting with her husband first. It was embarrassing. It got to the point that I wanted to shout, "Unplug your ears, idiot. How many times does she have to tell you that she wants to discuss it with her husband before you stop harassing her?"

I thought that it was extremely disrespectful of him to treat her that way. Not only that, I found the whole thing unethical, not because he was lying to her, but because he was essentially pressuring her to break a promise she had made to her husband. What if she'd yielded? Is it not conceivable that it would have added stress to their marriage? Don't we already have enough problems in this country when it comes to divorce, without sales people adding to the problem? I didn't want to be part of anything which could potentially undermine the solidity of someone's marriage. I'd already seen how hurtful divorce could be when my own parents had gotten a divorce.

Admittedly, it's unlikely that anyone would divorce solely because of one such incident. But things add up over time. Persuading her to violate an agreement she'd made with her husband might conceivably be the "straw that broke the camel's back", and I therefore felt that it was wrong to treat her in that way.

I had to admire the way that she stood firm and refused to yield to the pressure. At the end of the presentation, our field trainer was no closer to making the sale than he'd been when he first began. Ironically, I think he might possibly have made the sale, if he'd simply said, "I understand, ma'am. Why don't we schedule a return visit when both you and your husband are home. There's no point in going through the sales presentation again. I'm sure that your husband trusts your judgment on such matters." Then it seems likely that the husband would have said yes, she'd have gotten her vacuum cleaner, the field trainer would have made the sale, and everyone would have been happy.

After the presentation, after the sun had gone down, we all piled back into the van to go back to the company's office. Our trainer asked us to comment on what we'd learned.

I said to him that I felt very uncomfortable with his manner of dealing with the woman, and that I personally would not want to treat a sales prospect in such a manner.

He responded by saying, "You're part of this team, and as long as that's the case you will make sales presentations in the prescribed manner." (Those might not have been his exact words, but that was the gist of what he said.)

I said, "I've got news for you. When I came to work for this company, selling my soul to you was not part of the deal." I might have also added that my good standing with God was very important to me, and that the spiritual repercussions from moral compromises such as the one he was asking me to make would be with me long after my paycheck was ancient history.

To describe the drive back to the office as uncomfortable would be a great understatement. When the field trainer tried to intimidate me into abandoning my sense of right and wrong, I got very angry with him. I told him that that would be my last day working for his company. I felt no regrets at all about doing so.

Most of the other guys in the van thought that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I thought that was a sad commentary on the scarcity of sales people with good business ethics.

Bad business ethics aren't just immoral. Such ethics are also stupid, in terms of their potential for ruining a company's reputation and future. Anyone who worked for Enron immediately prior to that company's collapse could tell you that.

Jesus said that one cannot serve both God and mammon. Now, I don't believe that there's anything inherently wrong with making money, but I think that it's idolatrous to make money one's first priority. There are times when a person who hasn't severed all connections with his own conscience has to make certain sacrifices in order to maintain a good relationship with God. On that particular evening, I took a stand for what I believed was right. Yes, it cost me the job with Kirby. No, I don't regret it, even today.

I don't know whether or not my experience working there for the local Kirby sales team was typical. I hope not. I do think that their vacuum cleaners are generally pretty well made, from what I've heard. My mother never complained about hers after buying it from me. I'm not sure that any single individual or couple really needs to pay $1,000 for a vacuum cleaner, especially considering that one can get a Shark for a tiny fraction of what a Kirby costs, but my issue isn't with the machines themselves. My problem is with the type of sleazeballs the company seems to attract as employees and managers.

For that reason alone, I have never bought a Kirby for myself, and I never will.

UPDATE: Out of curiosity, I thought I'd search the Web to see what others had to say about the company. You may enjoy checking out the following links:

Here's one where a woman says, "Kirby vacuum cleaners will suck the life out of you and your marriage."

Here's one where numerous people tell horror stories pertaining to Kirby sales tactics. If this doesn't persuade you that I made the right decision when I quit that job, nothing will.

Even Wikipedia has a section on the company's "questionable sales tactics" (and that site generally tries to remain neutral).


Andrea said...

Thank you for telling your experience. I appreciate a good honest person and am grateful you stand strong for what you believe in.

Monica said...

Wow, I too am amazed to hear someone speak out so clearly about the training tactics that some companies use. I too have been mislead (twice to be exact - apparently I am gullible) once by Mary Kay and secondly by Cutco. All these companies have the same tactics, deceit. It is unfortunate because like you said, the products are not bad. I am glad to hear that someone stood up for their beliefs (and had them so clearly defined). Thanks for sharing!