Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Remembering the Hard Sell

The recent announcement of the MacArthur "Genius" awards called to mind my experiences working for the company he owned.

Within the first two hours on the job, I'm in the car with the assistant manager of the local office when he turns to me and says, "You're not squeamish, are you?"

"Not too much," I said.

He pulled over, stopped the car, opened the door and leaned his head out. Then he vomited. After a moment, he wiped his lips, shut the door and we were on our way again. "Hiatal hernia," he said, "doctor tells me that's what causes me to puke." I said nothing.

I would watch and learn, my training would be to see how the experts worked and to copy them. The first call we made stands out in my mind. We drove out to a small house in the country to deliver a life insurance policy to a farmer. I didn't quite follow all that went on in the exchange between my boss and the farmer; at the end, the farmer filled out more paperwork and we left with a check equal to a week's pay at my old job.

The boss said a few curse words. He face turned a shade pink. The policy we'd delivered was not the policy the farmer had been sold. The guy who made the sale was in the hospital, which was why we'd delivered his policy. The boss complained very angrily to me about having to sell both the policy the farmer had thought he was getting and another policy. We would have to return to sell him the policy he'd wanted all along. I was learning a lot.

Each day started with a sales meeting (something I encountered again years later working as a "loaned executive" raising money for charity - another story.) The meeting whipped up greed and money lust in the sales force. The manager produced a parade of material prizes, ranging from cruise vacations down to inexpensive giveaways. He promised the good stuff to the top sales guys and handed out the small stuff. The top performer received special mention. A few of the guys were already getting very rich pretty quickly, so mere greed didn't motivate them as much as the need to beat the next guy. Incidentally, in those days, $50,000.00 a year represented a huge income - equivalent to several hundred thousand today.

I still remember my boss and me calling on a guy who lived alone in a tiny, one bedroom house. We told him we were there to "review" his insurance policies, to make sure he had the right amount and right kind of coverage. He obediently produced seven health polices issued by various companies. He told us how much money he made and how much went to service the policies. They took about a third of his income.

When we left, he had eight policies and we had a check.

"We'll go back and get rid of his excess coverage," the boss said as we drove away.

"If this guy ever gets sick, he'll be rich," I said to myself.

After a few days, maybe three or four, my pay started coming in. Checks for two hundred, three hundred, three hundred fifty, amounts that used to take a week to earn came to me for a single day's work. And these were splits with the boss, half commissions.

I remember the eighty-nine year old deaf woman. Actually, she had just turned eighty-nine and a half, had she been one month older, company policy prohibited any kind of sale to her, at any price. She understood we were from her insurance company, we wanted money, and she understood little else. She wrote her check and we left.

Sunday evening, before my third Monday with the company, I grew more and more depressed. A few weeks before, I'd been living on unemployment, worried about how to pay the rent and buy food and what would happen when it ran out. Now I experienced an entirely new feeling for me: I dreaded getting up and going to work.

I got sadder and sadder.

Finally, I made a decision. I found paper and pen, and wrote my letter of resignation.

Turned out, a lot of that money they paid me had to be returned. People lapsed the policies we sold, so the commissions on future earnings that I had already been paid had to be refunded to the company. It was in the contract I signed.

I can't say these experiences were typical of the industry or of MacDonald's company, and they were nearly 30 years ago. I can say the lessons my boss taught me were not the ones he intended me to learn.

I secretly think he had a conscience, though he didn't know it.

Almost everything he swallowed came back up, each and every day.

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