The Hard Sell
Over the course of my life I have held various positions of employment, with wildly varying degrees of success. Apart from one job the average time I spent in any one place of employment was around 3 months. This should tell you everything you need to know about my attention span, commitment to the banal and my intolerance for stupid people.
Amongst my many job, I have been a Summer Camp counsellor for Jewish kids with attention deficit disorder, coupon checker for a major supermarket chain, engine silicon hose cleaner, drug and alcohol addiction clinic administrator, electronics factory stock controller and door to door vacuum cleaner salesman. It is that last job and it’s assortment of attachments that I will now share with you.
It was a glorious time. The year was 1999 and the world buzzed with the coming new millennium. Bush Jr had yet to go crazy and start a million riots, the internet provided a new investment bubble that would never ever burst and Dawson’s Creek was just hitting its stride. Everyone seemed to have a plan, the 90s were the foundations and the 00s were going to be our skyscraper to the heavens, it would be out decade. We would build, burn, build again and touch the clouds. The future lay in front of us and we were going to gang bang that bitch all night and not even bother leaving cab fare.
I wanted to be part of this mad new gold rush that was going on, but not having any kind of investment capitol or internet programming experience, I decided to try something a bit different. I decided to become a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman… I don’t quite know how I came into or chose this position, but I guess I saw an ad somewhere and thought it would be a good thing to get into. I mean the world will always need salesmen right? If you’re good at it then the world is your oyster and I had a hankering for some sea food.
I attended the induction programme at the Welsh Kirby headquarters in Cardiff and found myself surrounded by people of all ages and colours, each looking to make a fortune and be the next millionaire vacuum cleaner salesman… We were all seated and shown a video presentation featuring none other than William “I fucked your mom” Shatner. The legendary cocksman sauntered up the camera, stared right into it and spoke directly to my soul;
”Yooooooou’re….. at a crossroads.” This line was delivered while Shatner was actually at a crossroads on his trusted steed, with direction posts pointing to “College”, “Own Business”, “Doctor” and “Lawyer”.
“Yooooou want to make over 50k a year. Fine. But there is now only one path left open to you, become….. a salesman. The other crossroads have gone now, leaving you with only one choice. So what are you going to do? Give up, work minimum wage for the rest of your life?”
No Bill! No, I will not! I love you!!!
”By making this decision and by being here today, you have shown that you have the courage to make something of yourself. Follow the instructions given to you by your superiors and you will have all the tools to make a success of your life.”
Shatner sat atop his horse, judging me, sizing me up. I stared directly back at him. I would prove myself to the only man ever to defeat the Kobayashi Maru. By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, I shall repay your faith in me Bill.
I was placed in the Port Talbot office, about 25 miles from Cardiff. Famous for its steal works and being the home of Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, I felt confident that I would make this town my own. I looked out over the visage that lay in front of me. Silver neon glittered on the towers in the distance; the sea air filled the night sky. I would own this place in 6 months, make it my personal sand box and suck the place dry, then move onto bigger and better things.
I was working in an office with around 12 other people in their 20s. Our boss was a former army man who had now retired from the services and started his own franchise with Kirby. He delighted in telling us graphically disturbing stories from his time in the Gulf, including a particularly graphic tale of a friend who got run over by a tank, causing his innards to be expelled through his mouth. Yeah it’s fucked up, but we had to hear that story at least once a week, so I see no reason why you, dear reader, shouldn’t have to share my pain.
I was generally well liked and respected by my peers, which in a sales situation is pretty important. You don’t want rivals taking all the best leads and cutting you out of the loop whenever a hot new cul-de-sac was going up, full of hip, young professionals with money to spend. You not only needed to cultivate relationships in the community, but you needed to maintain and hold the respect of your co-workers. Power was everything in this game; you were either giving it or taking it. And I wanted to take it. I wanted to take it all!
We would spend the first part of the morning shooting the shit, swapping war stories from the previous night’s sales calls. Who was the lucky fucker that got the hot young teacher, who was the poor bastard who got the single, retired 70 year old shut in?
From 12pm till around 6pm were the hard times. We were forced to trudge around the streets and byways of South Wales knocking on doors, taking leads, telephone numbers and addresses of potential costumers. This was difficult work. As soon as someone opens the door and sees a sales man with a slick tie and even slicker hair, they can’t wait to get rid of you. So you develop tricks instead. You ask leading questions, charm them with humour and a devilish smirk instead, then when you got them on the hook, you offer them a free carpet shampoo (with a “wink” if its an attractive lady), free of charge of course with no obligation. You then helped them fill out the information cards, promising that they would also be entered into a draw for a trip to the Caribbean. Funny thing was though that as soon as we sorted that info, the coupons were thrown directly into the trash and as far as I knew, the promise of a Caribbean holiday was worth nothing more than the cheap paper it was printed on.
As this stage in my salesman career I still believed that I was the shit. I had watched Glengary Glen Ross at least 3 times and had convinced myself that that sad sack Alec Baldwin could take some major lessons from me. However when it came to the actual sales…. Well, that’s where I kindda fell down and become more like Stephen Baldwin.
The problem with the Kirby vacuum cleaner is that it costs a lot of money. I mean A LOT! We were selling them for around £1400, which we could get down to around £1200 with their old vacuum in part exchange. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if I was selling in the high financed streets of Chelsea or Notting Hill, but in a working class town that was reeling from the recent closure of the Steel Works, people were not as willing to spend as much on luxuries as they once were.
It was a constant battle of wills between myself, the potential buyer and my conscious. When they would tell me that “no vacuum cleaner is worth £1400”, I couldn’t help but agree with them. Hell, at the time my car only cost £700 and I don’t think people really cared enough about their carpets to spend that kind of cash.
However bad things got though, there were slivers of success during my slide into Jack Lemmon-itus. One memory of an 18 year old girl, home alone with nothing more than a laxed attitude to clothing springs to mind, as did the sales pitch I once gave to a married guy with a young kid. The guy was a builder and during my demonstration I picked up enough cement dust, sand and grit from his carpet to fill a sack! He asked me if I thought his toddler daughter, who spent most of the day crawling around on the carpet had asthma because of all the building debris in his carpet? I thought about it for a few seconds… “I don’t know?? I’m not a doctor? I don’t have asthma? It could be any number of factors???”
“Yes. Yes, your daughter has asthma because of you.”
I had crossed a line into the dark side of sales. It felt good. It made me feel powerful. I had used the illness of a child in order to make a quick buck. I was a bastard, but god-damn it felt good! Once I crossed that line once it became a lot easier to do it a second time.
I used a similar technique on a blind woman and her husband. I took her hand and guided it into the sample cloth, letting her feel all the dead skin, dust, dirt and grim I had picked up. What felt like just a small pile of dirt to me or you felt like a mountain to her. I sold her the Kirby and moved on to my next sale. I was starting to get the hang of this. Things were going well and I had developed a ruthless streak that rather suited me.
Then shit started going downhill. Every single one of my sales had been cancelled. The guy with the cement turned out to be self employed, meaning that he was ineligible for the loan deal. Even the blind woman decided against pursuing the sale. Maybe she saw the light? Though I suspect that even a blind person could see that paying that sort of money for a vacuum cleaner was pretty stupid.
I had been working there for around 3 months now and after my induction and training I had been selling for nearly 2 month and had yet to make a sale. Smelling the one drop of blood in the water, my co-workers turned on me. My bright, shiny, silver Kirby was stolen and replaced with a pitted, dull, old model by one of my fellow salesmen. I needed a quick sale and I needed one fast. My savings were starting to run down and all the gas I was using driving to sales pitches was starting to bleed me dry. But I had an ace up my sleeve. I had mad a diamond lead, a real 4 star prospect. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you more or less sell the product during the initial “lead” conversation. You got them on the fucking hook and all you have to do is reel them in and let them flap about a bit on the dock before you bash their heads in and eat them for supper.
I arrived at his house and started setting up. Then something unexpected happened, it turned out that he didn’t actually want a demonstration or sales pitch, he just wanted to chat.
I sat there is stunned silence? What the fuck am I, some sort of well dressed social worker? I tried every trick and line in the book, but the son of a bitch wouldn’t budge. He made me a cup of tea and proceeded to tell me how the whole “AIDS thing” was nothing more than a government created disease that they used to get rid of undesirable elements. I sat there patiently, sipping my tea and staring out into middle distance. While he prattled on about Elton John and his friends, I imagined what William Shatner would say if he could see me now; a failed, broken salesman with no money, no sales and being subjected to Tom Cruise levels of crazy from some random guy with too much time on his hands and an unhealthy interest in gay culture.
I eventually made my escape and headed for home. I was now broke. I had no more savings and had lost 20lbs in weight due to not eating in order to save money. I took out one of the very few remaining coins I had left in my pocket. I looked at the dull copper coin in my hands. Heads I would head for home, quit and call it a day. Tales I would stick it out, get some cash from somewhere and redouble my efforts (and also maybe watch Glengary Glen Ross again).
So I flipped the coin….
Strange how I would put such an important life decision in the hands of time, space, force and gravity, or fate as some may call it. But some decisions are way to important for a simple person to make, sometimes you have to just flip a coin and see what happens.
I headed for home, now a former salesman. My dreams of success, Porsches, Cocaine parties and my own empire were now in tatters. But I still get the old twinge of desire whenever someone happens to mention buying a new vacuum cleaner. I size them up, begin formulating a “value build” in my head, raise the eyebrow and stare directly at them…
“How much is your home and health worth to you?”