The summer-sales-industrial complex

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Some time in the second year after our removal to Rexburg, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of Summer Sales. It commenced with Pest Control, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different sales parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for Pest Control, some for the Solar, and some for the Home Security Systems. – Summer Sales History 1:5

As a wide-eyed freshman new to BYU-Idaho a few years ago, I remember confidently waltzing into Pizza Pie Café with a few buddies for the promise of free pizza. The pizza at Pizza Pie Café was (and still is) pretty cheap, but my friends and I still felt like we had scored some sort of sneaky deal by agreeing to attend the recruiting meeting that promised the free food. But this fishing-pole recruiting technique wasn’t for infamous organizations like Avon or LulaRoe. It wasn’t for the military, either. It was for joining a door-to-door summer sales company.

Even though we treated the meeting like a joke, I still remember just how drawn I was to the allure of the presentation. The spectacle presented to us promised a future of money, cruises and fun, and even though I had originally come for the pizza that tasted like cardboard, I legitimately, for a moment, considered the “what if” of joining the team.

Fast forward a few years and I’d returned from a mission. The recruiting for summer sales had only grown more intense, and it seemed like every other male student at BYU-I had at least tried summer sales once. People would come knocking at your apartment complex door at random hours of the day and try to charm you into signing a contract to be whisked off to some suburban corner of the country to knock doors.

And while I never took them up on the offer, I interviewed a few people who did, with varying experiences.

Money spoils or snake oil?

Jeffrey Greenwood (name changed), a twenty-one year old BYU student, sold pest control in the southern United States. He was invited by a friend to meet with a recruiter over lunch.

“He made a bunch of out-of-this-world promises about how much money I could make and how much money the average employee makes, and basically a bunch of statistics filled with insane outliers that are meant to mislead recruits.”

Despite an estimation of making $50,000 dollars, Greenwood became disillusioned and abandoned his sales job partway through the summer. He ended up bringing home about $7,800 dollars.

While he admitted the workdays were long and tiring, often working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a 45-minute lunch, the primary reason Greenwood left came down to feeling that the work itself wasn’t ethical. The transaction between customer and company typically consists of a salesman pitching the contract and getting the customer to sign on for a “service pro” to come by and actually complete the service. But Greenwood reported that after getting people to sign the contract, the service pros would oftentimes not even show up. His clients reached out to him on multiple occasions to let him know no one had come by the assigned time to actually do the service. Furthermore, Greenwood was never supposed to be able to confirm this discrepancy; he was explicitly told not to give his number to his clients when he passed them off to the servicing team.

Example of a door-to-door salesmen
Example of a door-to-door salesmen. Image from Pexels.

Greenwood also reported dissatisfaction with the overall culture, which, in his words, consisted of a determination to “exploit people as much as possible.” A salesperson collects greater commission the more they charge, regardless of the base price of the product. Greenwood described being trained to sell people as highly as possible while always claiming they were offering a large discount. In order to portray the idea that they were calculating a fair price rather than pulling a high number out of thin air, the salesmen were also trained to question clients about things like the square footage of the property, even though that doesn’t factor into the price at all.

“Everyone would gloat about these sales they made off, like, a ninety-year-old woman, where they charged her quadruple the regular price because she didn’t know any better,” Greenwood explained. “This is not the kind of thing that you go to bed feeling good about yourself, even though there’s a lot of money in it … It felt really good at first. Over time, I think the guilt just caught up with me.”

I expected the problem Greenwood described to only be prevalent in pest control companies — that a supposed “hidden bug issue” was easy to sell. So, I also interviewed someone who did summer sales for a company that specialized in selling the installation of solar panels.

Bryson Eckworth, (name changed), a 23-year-old student at BYU-I, sold for a solar company last summer. But what company? Even Eckworth had to go out of his way to discover the official name of the organization that paid him because the company allegedly was trying to obfuscate exactly who they were.

“I kept getting different answers when I would (ask) who exactly do we work for,” Eckworth said.

Because the state that Eckworth worked in was transitioning toward greener energy consumption, the state gave its citizens certain incentives to switch some of their energy plans to solar-based. This opened up the opportunity for the company Eckworth represented to pitch their sales as if they represented the government or one of the larger energy companies that monopolized the state.

In fact, Eckworth was given an ID that didn’t have any purpose except to give off an aura of authority, since every single salesmen had the same arbitrary number on his or her card. He was told to quickly flash this ID at the door but not reveal it completely.

“What we were taught was that we were supposed to act like we were from the state. That’s why we dressed that way. That’s why we acted that way. To make people believe we worked for the state,” Eckworth said.

Eckworth also ended up leaving his door-to-door sales job early, citing the blatant dishonesty and also the “uneasy” culture where “nobody cared about anything except for how much money you made” or talking about the gym.

From Ricks College to riches

Not everyone has such a bad experience with summer sales — in fact, for some people, it can be life-changing. Take Calvin Orellana (name changed) for example. A BYU-I alumni, Orellana is an immigrant from Mexico who first arrived in the United States without knowing how to speak English. While attending school, he asked someone who bought a $20,000 car in cash how he was able to pay for it. The answer was summer sales. With Orellana’s interest piqued, he began exploring his options and interviewing with various companies, ultimately leading to a chance to do pest control sales in California. Orellana still didn’t speak much English at this point but was determined to learn on the job.

“For me it was exciting … hard, mentally very challenging. But for me everything was new. I was talking to so many different people,” Orellana said.

Orellana was a talented enough salesman that he was able to sell at an unusually high clip. Orellana was so good, in fact, that he doubled his income every single summer for the first four years. Due to this massive increase in income, he lost motivation his senior year to seriously keep pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He still ended up graduating from BYU-I, but because Orellana pulled in $300,000 in a single summer as a student, he knew that his future was in the sales industry.

Orellana with his new house and car that he bought with funds from his success doing sales
Orellana with his new house and car that he bought with funds from his success doing sales.

“It gives you so much freedom working only four months,” Orellana said.

He enjoys spending much of his free time traveling.

I asked Orellana about the stigma that summer sales typically carries regarding dishonest sales practices. His answer was both refreshingly honest and shockingly candid.

“I believe that culture is true everywhere you go … Everywhere you go, there’s gonna be places where you will feel you can compromise your integrity there,” Orellana said. “I do believe though, that sales is the art of manipulation. So, it’s kind of like you play with people’s emotions, but that doesn’t mean you are lying to them. You can just say things in a very nice way and maybe minimize the bad parts of it … but at the end of the day, I don’t force anyone to give me their credit card or their debit card … I believe that you can be honest and sell the product and don’t have to compromise your integrity if you don’t want to. And yeah, there are salesmen who do it all the time, but (that does) not necessarily have to be your case.”

A closer look at the business model

It’s also important to note, however, that the highest earners in a door-to-door sales company aren’t the highest sellers. They are the highest recruiters. For Orellana, about 70% of his income is derived from the passive income he generates from the salesmen he recruited. Many sales companies employ a similar model where a portion of what the actual salesmen makes in commission is distributed to people higher up in the ladder.

Both Greenwood and Orellana compared this practice to multi-level marketing, a controversial business strategy that often walks the line of legality, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Essentially, you can recruit somebody and make money, even though you’re not actually clocking in any hours whatsoever, so it’s really just multilevel marketing,” Greenwood said. “I said, ‘Do I have to, in order to make money off them … have to go knock on doors?’ and they said ‘No, if you bring us guys we will pay you, and you get paid off all their accounts.”

Orellana, commenting on the fairness of the earnings divide for beginning sales reps, explained that these companies can’t bet on you unless you prove yourself first.

“I think it’s not fair. I think that life is not fair as well … (but) they’re not taking anything from their income because (of) the way the company, the industry, the business works,” said Orellana. “You know, if you asked me, yeah, I feel like I was screwed over the first year but I don’t think that I was screwed over my second or my third … That’s the way it works — you have to prove yourself first. And then once you prove yourself, then you have to move up.”

One of the reasons these companies can pay their employees without substantial benefits is because they oftentimes aren’t even employees at all — they are technically independently contracted workers. This distinction allows these companies to hire a large workforce without having to guarantee the same labor rights they would to someone otherwise normally employed. It’s a similar model to what gig-economy companies like Uber and Lyft utilize, who both spent $200 million on a ballot initiative in 2019 to push back against California’s efforts to give contractors the same legal benefits as employees.

While on paper the sales representatives may be independently contracted, the actual dynamic with the company may be more indicative of a boss-employee relationship. The sales companies oftentimes exert control over many aspects of the salespeople’s lives and work despite the legal guarantees that independent contractors are able to set their own hours and days of work.

“One time I was really sick and I called (in) and said, ‘Hey, I can’t knock doors today,’ and they said, ‘No, you have to,’” said Greenwood. “I’ll never forget that because ever since I heard that we were listed as independent contractors that specific memory has stuck with me so much.”

Deseret News recently reported stories of sales reps being hazed for not selling enough, including instances of team leaders shooting them with BB guns and whipping them with a leather belt.

I reached out to several sales companies that are known locally across Idaho and Utah for their responses to the independent-contractor business model. Only one, Vantage Marketing, a company that contracts salespeople to sell for a number of various companies, got back to me.

Their marketing coordinating manager, Sydney Clark, explained that they do independent contracting because it “allows our sales reps to have increased earning potential since there are no ceilings on what a rep can make over the summer. We strive to offer our reps future financial independence, and independent contracting allows that to happen.”

However, there is nothing on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website that specifies that employees would have to be capped on commission earnings if they are not independently contracted.

Vantage Marketing also released a statement to Scroll concerning the allegations of dishonest practices in the industry and how they conduct their business.

“As a company, Vantage practices 100% honesty in their sales training. Numerous well known pest control companies such as Terminix and Massey, have trusted Vantage to market for them due to our honesty policy. We fully immerse our sales reps in all there is to know about bugs and infestations. We pride ourselves in our sales training because knowing the product is knowing the problem. We are not here to coerce others into buying pest control, but we are here to show you the need for pest control. Everyone has bugs and if you don’t, then you should consider writing a book because I think everyone would love to know your secret,” Clark wrote in an email.

Given the wide spectrum of experiences and perspectives on summer sales, what are we supposed to make of this? Is summer sales selling your soul, or selling financial salvation? To the person that is considering summer sales, Eckworth at least recommends doing serious research to make the best decision.

“You just have to look at all the different companies because you hear horror stories, but you also hear good stories, and so I just think if you are going to sell you should really get each company to sell to you why they want to take you,” said Eckworth.