5 Things I Learned as a Door-to-Door Salesperson

If there’s one thing that sucks about the outdoors in Scotland it’s the wind chill. It brings the temperature down lower than it looks on the forecast and it’s very easy for 2 degrees Celsius to feel more like 2 degrees Fahrenheit. It makes the profession of a door-to-door salesperson more an exercise in preparation than anything else: at least three layers, including scarf and gloves. But you don’t get paid for your ability to prepare for the cold. You get paid for sales.

At some level, it’s terrifying. To be broken down to just your success. It’s a brutal expectation in an industry where your customers are predisposed to hate you for interrupting their day with a pitch. It’s unlike any other job I’ve ever done or heard about. The energy of the people who do it is electric. The atmosphere of the office every morning is intoxicating, addicting even. If you do the job right, you can make more than an architect. If you do it wrong, you can make absolutely nothing. You learn so much because it’s a hard job and if you don’t learn quickly and well you won’t make anything, you’ll only lose money in transportation and the replacement costs of new shoes.

I was selling an internet-based subscription service, which made it even more difficult. Why would someone agree to give their credit card details to an unsolicited stranger if they could just as easily say “I’ll look this up online later?” Fortunately, this was a subscription for recipe boxes. A lot of people have some exposure to these or at least have seen adverts, which helped build trust. Also, we ran around in aprons, which probably did something to put people at ease and allay concerns about scams.

The experience was surreal and taught me a lot about the world, in the way that only personal experience in a difficult task can.

First impressions are everything

*knock knock knock*

People can tell who you are from your knock. It sounds crazy, but think about it. You could tell the difference between a cop and a pizza delivery, couldn’t you? So you learn to be musical, to pop a wee beat in there to signal that you’re not coming to them with the accusations of a detective or a loan shark. You’re there to make their day better.

*knock pause knockknock*

The leisurely pause between the first and second says it’s nothing to worry about, but the latter two beats in quick succession build a bit of urgency into it.

If you make a bum first impression, you’re not making a sale. People have enough on their plate without having to deal with uncharismatic people at the door. You’re lucky to make it past “hello” if you’re not smiling and positively brimming with enthusiasm.

At first, I did my best to always dress nicely. I reasoned it had a positive impact on my attitude to the work and it helped the customers to think of me professionally. In reality, I wore a branded apron so what I was wearing probably didn’t matter, as the apron took all the attention that might have otherwise gone to my outfit.

On my best-selling day, I wore a Christmas jumper and a Santa hat. I probably looked like I was collecting money for charity. I’m amazed I sold anything. But people buy from people. Not from outfits.

The worst thing anyone can tell you is “no”

My training for the role was extensive. I was told all about the product, the information I would need to sell it, and how to answer any questions customers had about it. I was also told all about the necessary “mentality.”

In every workplace there’s a kind of work vocabulary that takes some time to learn. “Mentality” here means attitude and, more than that, fortitude. You had to be able to accept that there were going to be a lot of nos. That the product was not going to just sell in every conversation. You could knock on 500 doors, and if you got 10 sales you were doing about average for the week. Which means 490 doors a week where there was no sale. Ideally you would do better; we were trained to do higher numbers, and we could earn about triple the minimum wage, averaged over time. But the law of averages meant that there would occasionally be some 0 days, and 0 sales equals 0 money.

The absolute worst thing somebody can say to you on the doors boils down to “no.” Sometimes they’ll add “thanks,” even. Other times they’ll go with “not interested.” Sometimes they say they’ll call the police but it’s not like door-to-door is illegal, just frowned upon.

The most valuable thing I learned in this job is that a person saying no is not necessarily saying no to you. They are saying no to what you’re offering in the situation you’re offering it in. Maybe something you said put them off, but it’s more likely that what you’ve got to offer is not right for their circumstances. Maybe they never buy from door-to-door salespeople.

Working door-to-door makes you unbreakable. It gives you the mentality to deal with a lot of face-to-face rejection. It teaches you how not to sweat the situations you cannot control.

It also teaches you a lot about human nature, such as:

Most people do not wish other people harm

It’s an unpopular opinion in 2019, given the prevailing opinion of most thinking people about the actions of others over these last 30,000+ years of human thought, but most people are all right, really. We may disagree with each other on quite a lot but fundamentally most people do not wish others harm. They may do it accidentally or by ignorance, but the vast majority wish others well.

How does this translate to my experience as a door-to-door salesperson? Well, a good number of people offered me hot drinks or glasses of water, or even the chance to come in for a minute when they had absolutely no idea who I was. Just from their desire to be nice. Just from a sense of overall altruism. Many others merely said “try to keep warm,” but it’s still nice to have your needs considered. I never really felt threatened by anyone. There was one vague sounding threat involving a dog, but that may have been a misunderstood warning.

One great thing about the job was the people. Commission-based sales attracts (and retains) a particular sort of person: ambitious, competitive, and energetic, with a corresponding desire to get results by being nice to people. The popular imagination suggests that salespeople are all self-serving and slimy. This was not my experience at all.

It makes sense that salespeople would have a special ability to connect with people. Empathy is an extremely powerful selling skill and once you’ve learned it for your work, you’ll develop it in all your relationships. You’re going around asking strangers if they want to get involved with something you’re talking about. It’s easier to build trust and relationships if you’re engaging and empathetic than if you’re an asshole.

It was not a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. Instead it was a dog-help-dog-to-receive-treats-from-strangers type of deal.

The class system is more complicated than just wealth

I could write a whole other article on class in Scotland (please, Nicole, can I?) because it is so different than class in America. I say this as somebody with a fair experience of Americans: I met hundreds of them at university, I’ve lived and worked alongside them, and I married one.

Class in Scotland is different because we have enormous country estates owned by a small subset of people; half our land is owned by fewer than 500 families. We have an achingly broad chasm of class in this country. We’ve got billionaires at one end and benefits dependents at the other. Inequality in this country is something ridiculous. Sometimes you can see many classes of people in the same street, but more often people remain within their class, either by choice or by system.

It’s interesting as well what class door-to-door salesperson would fit into. According to the Social Grade rankings developed by the National Readership Survey and used by marketers and statisticians to segment society, self-employed salespeople would rank as B or C1. It’s either an intermediate managerial position, as you become more skilled and start running your own team, or a junior professional one. This technically places the role above that of a skilled manual worker but, speaking from experience, I made way less money than your average plumber.

Going door-to-door means you have to go everywhere — and our company’s unique selling point was that we would travel to all neighborhoods, upper, middle, working, and lower (popularly termed the underclass by some of the press) in order to tell them about the service and extract the customers we could. We’d do that all for only commission, making us a very sexy and lucrative option for a client who wanted large profit margins.

What I learned going door to door is that areas are not all they appear. My best day was in an area that I would describe as working-middle. My worst days were generally in lower areas (that’s the industry term, not me being classist). Areas where folks had no money certain days of the week. Households hit by universal credit problems because the government decided to change how money is paid out to the non-working.

But, despite the obvious fact that people with little disposable income are less likely to buy recipe boxes, there was little other correlation between class (as determined by neighborhood and outward appearance) and sales. I’d knock putatively rich houses to find people in tattered dressing gowns and cobwebbed lobbies. I’d find houses that looked dilapidated but were full of plush carpet, expensive technology, and people looking to buy fresh food.

A house could have a broken-in door, knocked to death by people hungry for money, and contain the most generous people with plenty of time to hear your pitch and plenty of money for recipe boxes. A few doors along, you may find a sumptuous house with a rich iron gothic door knocker that reminds you of The Muppet Christmas Carol, and behind it may be a right old Scrooge.

It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle

Do you know the most lucrative time of the day to sell recipe box subscriptions? 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. — the time when most families and couples are home, settling in to make and eat dinner. This is true regardless of social class. Most people are home in the evening to have dinner with their families. I never was.

Instead, I was wandering around some dreary housing estate (Scotland has a lot of houses built by either councils or unimaginative property developers, and it shows) interrupting people having their dinner. Every day, I felt like I should have been with my wife. I became tired of cold or microwaved dinners. It’s not the same as fresh, hot plates of food.

My colleagues were right up for it, though. They were these amazing, happy, bubbly people, positively effervescent, skipping between doors and shouting out in-jokes. I respected them immensely. But I realized it was not for me. My list of desires is not large: I want work which pays well, with some autonomy, some physical and mental challenges, where I deal with people, and can easily explain what I do. Door-to-door sales fit the bill, but it made me realize I needed to change the bill to include work-life balance. Six-day weeks, 10 hours a day, is acceptable if it’s only a couple of weeks a year and you’re extremely well compensated for it. It’s highly irregular when it’s the norm.

Still, this job has changed me in some ways. I still look wistfully out the windows of trains towards housing estates and estimate how many boxes I could sell there. In conversation, I try to figure out when a person’s buying impulse has peaked, when to hit them with the close. I’m not selling anything at the moment, but I still have the hunger. I left the door-to-door sales job in the early part of January. Theoretically, this should be one of the bigger months of the year for recipe boxes as people embrace #NewYearNewMe. I decided, however, that this was an avenue of development that was not my path. I wish those I left behind well in their mission and imagine they are regularly selling 10 units a day right now.

I was not put on this earth to sell dinner solutions while missing out on happy moments with my family. Maybe I was put on this earth to write about it instead.

Fraser Medvedik-Horn is excited about his future as he is cooking ribs in the slow cooker tonight. He is a freelance writer in Scotland seeking commissions. Read more of his work at pasturesfresh.wordpress.com.

Photo by Tom Thain on Unsplash.