Wednesday, 17 March 2010

21st Century Door-to-Door Salesman (part one of, in all probability, one)

Finally, someone answers a door. Rico launches into his pitch—“Hi, it’s nothing serious, I promise”—only to be cut off immediately. “Boy, what you talking about serious? Why you coming up here telling me it’s nothing serious?” I’m too far back along the walkway to see the speaker, but the voice is that of an elderly African Caribbean man; I suddenly become aware of reggae music playing quietly in the background.

It’s Rico’s first day, and he’s unprepared for this counter offensive. His mentor, Alan, has promised to step in if things go awry, but right now he’s almost doubled over with laughter. “What’s so funny? What you laughing about?” continues the disgruntled would-be customer. I glance at Rico’s face; his expression is grave. The fate of TalkTalk’s broadband package hangs in the balance.


It’s a cold, bright Thursday in March, and I’m attending a job interview for a company called Aspire Acquisitions. This is not an ordinary interview: it lasts for eight hours, during which time I will accompany an experienced salesperson and a trainee as they make their way around a block of flats in Islington, taking the gospel of TalkTalk to the heathens. Although I won’t be called on to do any sales work myself, I’m expected to look interested and to ask astute questions about the business, as well as answering occasional psychometric-style queries. (The first of these is “Explain what sets you apart you from all the other people being interviewed today.” After careful deliberation I announce that I’m an excellent walker.)

By way of motivation, I’ve been paired up with another interviewee, with whom I’ll be competing over the course of the day. His name is Ricardo, a handsome Business Administration graduate from São Paulo, looking for work to keep him going while he checks out masters courses. He’s an intimidating adversary, but his English is less than perfect, so I figure I can make him look stupid by peppering my speech with impenetrable idioms. Unfortunately, the only one that comes to mind is “It’s raining cats and dogs,” and the sky is the clearest I’ve seen it in months.

As the four of us make our way on foot from Aspire’s Old Street headquarters to our assigned patch, Alan expounds on the history of the company and the virtues of direct marketing. Despite having operated for only a few years, Aspire already has dozens of offices across the UK, and there are plans to open many more in the future. This furious rate of expansion is apparently due to the way the company is structured: anyone who wants to join the sales force has to start at the bottom and work up, spending half a year going door-to-door and living off commissions before progressing to a junior management role. No one gets to tread water, and there’s a constant influx of new recruits.

Alan also explains, with only a hint of schadenfreude, how the Credit Crunch worked out in the company’s favour. The recession encouraged businesses to tighten their marketing budgets, but this mainly affected more expensive indirect-marketing methods, such as television and radio advertisements; direct-marketing offers a higher rate of return—particularly when you don’t pay your salespeople a regular wage—so Aspire was able to keep hold of its accounts, even taking on more work in some cases.

Impressive as all of this is, I can’t help but feel a gulf opening up between Alan and me. Does he really care about any of this stuff, or is it all just bluster, designed to impress wide-eyed job seekers looking for a career that can really take them somewhere? A low-slung Lamborghini speeds past, and Rico whistles in admiration. “I didn’t know you could get them in this country,” he says. I try to simulate enthusiasm, but I’m no more interested in sports cars than I am in milk floats, or direct-marketing for that matter.


We finally arrive at our destination, and Ricardo and I get our first taste of door-to-door selling. Problem number one: how do we access the building? Blocks of flats are usually easier to work than houses, since the occupants live in closer proximity to one another, but the building we’ve been assigned to today is a labyrinth of courtyards and security doors; just getting past the first of these doors involves cold-calling three numbers at random, and the procedure needs to be repeated for each subsequent floor. On top of that, the doorbells ring for a minute at a time, so we spend long periods standing around in dank stairwells while an eerie electric tone wails in the background. It’s a little like being caught in a low-budget 1970s horror movie in which the monster never appears—or maybe it was society, all along.

Fortunately, Alan is an old hand at this. When he gets someone on the other end of the intercom, he makes sure not to mention that he’s selling something; instead, he tells them that the local telephone exchange has been updated and he’s here to explain changes in the service. To my amazement, this invariably works. Even if he can’t get an answer—it’s the middle of the day when we start, after all—it’s only a matter of waiting for someone to enter or exit the building; few people will go out of their way to keep a group of strangers off the premises. At one point, a man even throws us his keys so that we can let his wife through the door while she struggles with an armful of shopping bags; Alan thanks him and smiles at the rest of us—another successful infiltration.

The actual business of going from door to door is surprisingly interesting, at least for a few hours. Most people are out during the day, but we still get to meet a varied cross-section of the population, ranging from an elderly woman who seems to have only a vague grasp of what the Internet is, to a handsome young man who invites us in and discusses rival broadband packages at length. This constitutes my first experience of entering a stranger’s home for professional reasons, and I feel distinctly uncomfortable throughout. Alan, by contrast, is completely at ease; it helps that he’s done this hundreds of times before, but the real difference is that he has a purpose, a pitch to make, while I’m just a sullen interloper, trying to smile politely whenever the occupant catches my eye, and jumping at every chance to murmur in agreement or utter a bland pleasantry.

As the conversation progresses, I begin to get the impression that our host is gay—he makes repeated references to his “partner” without ever giving a name—and I start to wonder how my associates will react to this. You won’t go far in sales if you refuse to sell to people, of course, but I still feel anxious for a few minutes. In the end, Alan breaks the tension by deploying a masculine pronoun; I’m temporarily terrified that my hunch was wrong, and that the young man will get angry and drive us out with a broom, but the moment passes without comment. No one here is afraid of gay people, it turns out, with the possible exception of me.


sergelapelle said...

I fail to see how your writing could get any better.

Dennis Dennis said...

Fabulous. Simply fabulous.