Of Saints and Schemes

I apologize in advance if this post is mostly anecdotal, but I have been concerned for a while about the business practices of some Mormon run companies specializing in door-to-door sales. I have several friends who have taken positions in companies selling a range of things, from pest control services and alarm systems, to knives. For the most part, their experiences have been terrible.

The companies of which I am aware tend to recruit male returned missionaries as their sales force. When they get enough people to sign employment contracts, everyone relocates somewhere for the summer (except for the knife salesmen who are encouraged to sell among family and friends). Then they begin selling. The work days can run anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending on the salesperson. There is no direct supervision; however the salesmen are usually in competition with one another. Those who make more sales often receive random prizes like Plasma TVs and Ipods in addition to the extra money they make from commission.

Given the incentive to sell, many employees begin to lose their moral compass. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about these companies report that the salesmen are encouraged to lie. Sometimes, the ‘team leaders,’ themselves returned missionaries, will use gospel-oriented motivations, like explaining that more money from sales equals a larger tithe for the church.

What’s amazing is that it seems to work. One person I know makes between 35 and 40K – just selling over the summer! His brother, a partner in one of the companies, has made well over a million dollars over the last few summers. However, for every success story, I have heard of several people who quit or are forced to resign, either because they don’t make enough to pay their rent, or because they dislike having to mislead people in order to make sales.

I know that unethical behavior is practically ubiquitous in many sales based organizations and, therefore, it shouldn’t matter if some Mormon companies engage in the same dodgy practices. But I worry about what it will mean to the church if in ten to twenty years these salesmen begin to assume leadership positions.

Has anyone else had experience with Mormon run summer sales companies? What about multi-level marketing, pyramid and matrix schemes? Ever get a call from an ex mission companion asking you to meet for a “reunion” in Provo?

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  • TrailerTrash

    My younger brother has been involved in the close cousin to these schemes: telemarketing! I don’t know why, but these seem to be the only kinds of jobs available for undergrads in Utah.

  • Robert C.http://feastupontheword.org/User:RobertC

    My only anecdotal evidence: I have a brother-in-law who owns a pest control company in Georgia. Although a few employees quit and come home, the overwhelming majority do very well. And I don’t think there are any moral qualms like you describe. I think the sales reps legitamely believe that they are selling a nice service at a good price.

  • Anonymous

    Robert C,I’m glad to hear that at least one company seems to be doing it right. For all of my friends (except one) it became painfully obvious that they were selling their product for way more than what it was worth. One company had to hire an “expert” to come in and tell the technicians exactly what was on the state test so that they could pass and get their license to practice “pest control.” The expert would take the test once a month to learn what was on it. At the very least, it was unethical to pay him for the questions; at the most, it was illegal and dangerous (think about a bunch of “technicians” who don’t know any more than you do about pest control). For me to think that sales reps made gobs of money selling that service makes my blood boil. Then to consider that most of them were Mormon and aware of the scheme to get licensed makes me bang my head against the wall.

  • Woodbury Family

    I have sold pest control door to door for six years. I have never heard anyone ever tell their employees to lie. I find it hard to believe that the paying “more tithing” excuse is even true. The salesman that usually quit have the craziest stories of them all! In six summers the people who fail are usually the ones who simply don’t work. I have seen two people out of over 100 who actually worked hard all day, and were honest, and didn’t make more than $6000. In my opinion…that still isn’t too bad considering the life skills they learned while doing the job.

  • Anonymous

    My personal experience is as follows: in an informal recruiting session, a sales rep told me that he was glad to know that, because the company owners were Mormons, the profits would all be tithed. In the same session, the rep told me that the best door approach involves this line: “you’ve probably seen our truck in your neighborhood.” He said that more often than not the truck had not been in the area since sales reps usually signed customers before the trucks would go in and do the work – but, saying that made the people believe that the sales reps were part of a legitimate enterprise. Furthermore, this rep told me that his colleagues called their their new powers of persuasiveness “jedi mind tricks.” His only qualm with using the jedi mind tricks was that occasionally he would feel pressured to use them to convince an obviously low-income family to purchase pest control when they clearly could not afford to do so. He had no problems persuading middle-income and wealthy people to purchase his company’s service. Thankfully, I did not go. However, my friend did as a technician. He frequently found himself face-to-face with angry customers who resented the sales reps for talking them in to signing contracts. These customers usually felt they had been lied to. The sales reps did not see this effect of their unethical salesmanship because their contact with the customer ended the moment they had a signed contract. The supervisors were aware of what was going on (my friend told them on a regular basis), but they did nothing to stop it because they took home a large cut of each sale. In the end, my friend calculated that he made less than 10 dollars an hour dealing with the customers post-sale and spraying their homes.

  • Anonymous

    Seeing as how most of these comments are anecdotal it is hard to take them too seriously. I have done these summer sales jobs for 6 years and have had great experiences. There are obviously those that have bad experiences. What’s unfortunate is most people who fail do not go home to mom and dad to say they were lazy or were not good salesman. Most go home saying how they got screwed or how the company was dishonest. This leaves the former employee a ‘dignified reason for failure’ and in their mind they were ‘above the job’…. get real. I have heard the horror stories and I believe about 5-10% to be true. Thanks continuing to bad mouth an industry with ‘anecdotal stories’. Real dignified.

  • diahman

    I think it should be noted however, that the initial posted admitted that this was mostly anecdotal and even asked others to share thier personal experiences.With that said however, there are always implicit claims in moving from particular to more universal observations.For the most part I think you are right. There are people that have to justify their failure and are unwilling to take the responsibility themselves. I think partially, this is simply the name of the game in sales. It really is hard work, and in order to find the high producing sales reps, any given company will have to go through several mediocre or sub-par individuals.As you stated, these people are usually lazy or not good sales people.The problem however is two-fold. Firstly, most companies recruiting platforms are to put the top procuding sales people (or their experience) in front of potential employees. This creates a false picture of the norm and so people go into these jobs with false expectations. Companies knowingly send these people out, with the expectation that 20% of them will produce 80% of the results. However this is not the picture that sales reps go into the field with. Each believes that he or she “can make it big”. What they don’t realize is how much hard work it really is and what it takes to be a good sales rep.The second problem, leaving aside the “lazy people”, is what it takes to be a “good” sales person. In Zig Zigglar’s “Secrets of Closing the Sale”, he shares this anecdote of a sales man who wasn’t performing very well selling pots and pans door to door. When Zigglar visited his home he noticed that he didn’t use the pots himself and then made excuses as to why he didn’t (money, etc. the normal stuff). The point I think is fairly obvious–one must believe that what he or she is selling is necessary.This, I think, is where the problem is. The summer that I sold pest control, it was difficult for me to believe that the people I was selling it to really needed it. It seemed that the top performing sales reps were the ones who were able to justify more people needing the product than I could. Many of the justifications were very ethical. In some respects, it is a subjective call.However, I think the link between this line of thinking and the gospel is interesting and sometimes apparent in these companies. When you serve a mission you opperate under the assumption that you have a universal message–it’s meant for everyone. I think it rather easy to carry over the notion of universality to the sales field.I, of course, had a few qualms with that.

  • Handle

    Like Diahman said, the point of my post was to generate a conversation about sales-based companies. I’m interested in all of the experiences people have had, both positive and negative. I agree with Diahman that most companies tend to use the most productive sales reps as examples for everyone else. I would like to see more honest conversation about the realities of sales jobs. Ex-reps are not always the best people to ask for information. As Anon said, those who fail tend to have horror stories. However, the reverse is true as well: those who succeed tend to have very positive views. I believe the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Returned missionaries (or anyone else who is considering taking a summer sales job) should be given information from both perspectives.

  • CHL

    I went to a recruiting meeting for selling bug juice one summer, and i left feeling icky. The man was a twenty-something snake oil salesman who was quite slick. I didn’t sign up.

    My friends who signed up had mixed reviews. The only people who made out like gangbusters were those higher-tier recruits, those who recruited others after they signed up (I guess it had some multi-level marketing aspects, too). The hoi polloi, most of them at least, made decent money for a summer job (between $5000-$6000), but they had to work REALLY hard. A few dropped out and cut their losses.

    I got suckered by one of those Living Scripture Video dudes. By the time he left, I signed up to buy $300 worth of crappy DVDs with questionable doctrinal messages. I even called the young married RM out on his usage of the commitment pattern. But, in the end, I felt sorry for him…so, I bought a set.

  • http://Michael.CoxFam.org Michael

    Just a few days ago, someone came to our house about pest control. As soon as I opened the door, I knew he was a member of the Church. I listened to him and then told him we were not interested. As I was shutting the door, he said “Oh, I just saw your picture of Christ. You must be a member of the Church” or something along those lines. I said yes, and then finished shutting the door. :). My wife then commented, in jest of course, “Oh well since you are a member of the Church, we’ll change our mind about what we just said!”.

  • Aaron Minnick

    I had two young men dressed in business casual attire with black duffel bags come to my apartment door a couple years ago and greet me enthusiastically with “Hello, Brother Minnick!” I had never seen these guys in my life, and at the time, I was serving as Elders Quorum president, so I had a pretty good handle on ward members, new move ins, the current missionaries assigned to our ward, etc. To say the least, I was very puzzled. They explained that someone in my ward had given them my name as someone who might be interested in buying Living Scriptures. I repeatedly told them I was not interested, but they were very persistent in extolling the virtues of how these wondrous DVD’s would help teach my children the gospel, etc. (I must say, my 3 month-old daughter would only be interested in putting the DVD’s in her mouth and drooling on them.)I was getting more than a little of the feeling of, let’s say…righteous indignation. They finally accepted that I wasn’t buying their “gospel wares”. Then they had the nerve to ask me what the new apartment # was for one of my brethren in the Elders Quorum, they only had the old apt.# listed in the ward directory. As our Stake Presidency in the stake directory stated in no uncertain terms that the information, addresses, phone#s, etc. are not to be used for any business purposes, but for church purposes only, (which message I read to them), to which they replied, “Oh, yeah, but that’s only if it’s the actual directory. Our boss said as long as you just give us the number verbally it’s okay.” I decided to go with what the Stake presidency said. I refused, said goodbye, and shut the door. What I should have said, but didn’t think of until later was “You are not missionaries anymore. You are salesmen.” I am disgusted that there are members of the church who exploit the relations they have with their fellow saints to make money. The Gospel is not for sale.

  • Handle

    Thanks for the story, Aaron. That is just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I was once approached in church by someone in my Elder’s Quorum. He invited me to join a MLM on Sunday, between meetings. Some people have no shame.