As an HR major and generally distrustful person, I have learned over time how to recognize bogus job opportunities. The rule of thumb is, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Work from home scams are notorious for this and usually the easiest to spot. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but anything promising a large payoff for minimal effort just makes me roll my eyes. Sure, in a perfect world we could make a thousand dollars a month by working a couple hours a day. And in said perfect world beer would be good for us and animals would shit diamonds instead of steaming piles of awfulness.
I can happily say I've never fallen for a work from home scam, but I did fall for something just as bad, if not worse. For three days I was a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesperson.
For those fortunate enough never to have encountered this bastion of corporate evil, a little background: Kirby is a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and home cleaning accessories, based out of Cleveland, Ohio with dealers in several countries. The product itself is decent. The vacuums are built solid (though heavy as fuck and look like they should come with a flame-thrower attachment) and really do everything they are touted to do, everything from carpets and staircases, upholstery, mattresses, and wiping your ass for you. Wait, scratch that last one, but with a price tag in the range of $2000 USD, they really fucking should.
Their sales pitches are a whole other beast. There have been countless articles and rants on consumer advocacy sites about the pushy and unethical sales practices of Kirby salespeople. Having met a few of them, I can attest that many of them are indeed giant douchebags, but I propose that this wasn't entirely their fault. I could launch into a conspiracy theory of how they are all products of an evil cult who, instead of pentagrams and goat skulls, have sales projections and pie charts adorning the walls of their lair, but I won't. Instead I'll tell my story.
I was living stateside at the time and had just been laid off from my job. My roommate was a chronic job-hopper and was leeching off my income, so I knew what I had to do. I decided to cowgirl up and find another job. Looking through the classifieds I found an ad seeking persons for "demonstrations of home care products". It promised $500 a week plus bonuses and gave a phone number. I called. What the hell, I figured. If it's bullshit I don't ever have to talk to them again. The man who answered the phone gave me directions to his office and told me to stop by to pick up an application. It was right up the road from my apartment, so off I went.
After what happened when I arrived, I should have turned right around and walked back out. A sign on the front office door read "Please use side entrance", so I did. I walked into a large room, empty except for a circle of folding chairs and a monstrous-looking vacuum cleaner. There was no one there so I sat down in a chair near the door to the front office and waited. After a few minutes people flooded into the room, all young college types save for a large, red-faced man. "Hey, who the hell's that?" he barked when he saw me. "She's not with us." I awkwardly explained that I was there to apply for a job and he brusquely whisked me into the front office area. When I finally sat down in front of a (I thought) normal person, he thrust a short application in front of my face and asked me a few questions. Are you a student, are you currently employed, yada yada yada. Not once did he ask me about my citizenship status, work visa, etc, nor did the application I completed. That didn't raise any flags for me then as it might now, but the fact that he told me to show up at 9 the following morning for training should have.
Like many of the stupid things I do, I went to the training the next day because I had nothing better to do. There were maybe nine people in attendance, all of them around my age. When I saw all the shit lying around emblazoned with the Kirby logo I started to feel uneasy. This felt more like the set of an infomercial than a training session, and once the session actually got underway this feeling only intensified. At least the fat bastard who was so rude to me the previous day wasn't the one giving the presentation. This guy, a "senior sales manager", was young, good-looking, and energetic, decked out in business casual and bantering with the other trainees. He actually reminded me of the door-to-door salesman from Pee-Wee's Playhouse. I had an overwhelming desire to slam a door in his face and shriek "Eeeeagh...salesmen!" This is made all that much funnier with what I would experience later.
The training kicked off with what I dubbed, "Why it's so fucking goddamn awesome to be a Kirby salesperson!!!11!1!" We were shown a video that was not at all propaganda-like, outlining the company's history, the product and its millions of "satisfied owners", and the OMG FUCKING SWEET perks of being a Kirby salesperson, including company-paid trips to Hawaii and other tropical locales in exchange for exemplary sales numbers, which would be easy to achieve because this machine is made of weapons-grade awesome and sells itself. I was already beyond disgusted but we were told there'd be pizza for lunch, so I stuck around.
After the satisfactory pizza lunch, incidentally the best part of the day, the second part of the training began. This entailed learning the ins and outs of the vacuum. Mr Sales Puppet Guy demonstrated briefly how to assemble the machine, assuring us we'd be thoroughly trained in this task before our first real demonstration, and then it was the machine's time to shine. This involved baking soda, a special filter attachment with a clear plastic window and about 50 or 60 "dirt pads", little black paper things that resembled coffee filters, and one of about two dozen old, non-Kirby vacuum cleaners; trade-ins from past customers, he said. He poured the baking soda all over the floor and ran the old vacuum a dozen or so times over a small area of carpet. He then went over the same patch of carpet with the Kirby complete with filter attachment, and then pulled the filter, which was encrusted with filth and baking soda. He repeated this about ten more times, presenting us with filters that were still disgusting but slightly less so with each pass. This was to show the customer just how filthy their carpet really was, how shitty their old vacuum was, and what fucking disgusting pieces of shit they were for wallowing in such filth voluntarily. "100% of the time," he emphasized, "when I show people this and they have an infant crawling around on the floor, they immediately grab the kid." Probably because they were preparing to flee the house and run for the fucking hills, I thought. It went on like this, with demonstrations of the shampooer and upholstery attachment and a heaping helping of even more dick-wagging boastfulness about this miracle machine that would put us all on the fast track to BIG MONEY.
Or at least it damn well better. The machines cost upwards of $2000, and since purchases were financed through the dealership the interest rates were no doubt through the roof, jacking up the price tag closer to $3000 when all was said and done. In the looming face of a global recession I could not see anyone forking over that kind of scratch for a vacuum cleaner. Many people were worried about keeping their homes; keeping them dirt-free was probably a back burner issue. As if anticipating this concern, it was explained to us that our "sales territories" were carefully chosen. This was a nice way of saying that the canvassers, whose sole duty was to find potential customers, did extensive research on various areas of town; that is, they drove around looking for the neighbourhoods with the nicest and most expensive-looking houses. These people seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, they can surely drop three grand on a vacuum cleaner. Trailer parks, apartment complexes, et al. were avoided. These people obviously suck at life. They probably shit on the floor, so how the fuck could they possibly afford something as sublimely awesome as the KIRBY? I understood the mentality behind this but couldn't help being offended.
Day two was more of the same. I think the only reason I went back, knowing full-well I wouldn't do this shit, was to see how utterly ridiculous they could get. They did not disappoint. Each of us were given ample opportunity to get a feel for assembling and disassembling the contraption, and we were made privy to warranty information and other paperwork to give to customers. We were then briefed on how our demonstrations were to go down. We were to do fifteen presentations per week; ideally three per day. They were to last no less than 90 minutes and we had to use no fewer than 30 of the dirt pads or the demos did not count. In other words we would not get paid for them. The good news was the customers had already set up appointments with canvassers so they knew we were coming. Somehow this did little to alleviate my unease.
Day three was SHOWTIME. Fat Bastard was there, as was Mr Sales Puppet, and we were also joined by half a dozen new faces, the canvassers who were kind enough to set up our appointments for us; ambitious young go-getters who happily peddled vacuums to get to where they were today, or so they said when each of them got an opportunity to speak. To hear them talk this was a place to find a stable future. Maybe it was because I was still bitter over being laid off from my good job and I now had to do this bullshit, but I wasn't buying it. I just rolled my eyes and played a movie in my head during the rundown of last week's figures, which were good but we can do better! To wrap things up we were led in a special Kirby cheer, not unlike the notorious Wal-Mart Cheer, only none of us newbies had fucking learned it.
This was all well and good, but the best part came when we prepared to set out for our "territories". The canvassers/sales veterans we would be shadowing on our first day snagged up the piles of demo machines lined along the back wall, with Fat Bastard not far behind to motivate them, and us, to victory. And by motivate I mean he screamed, "Go go go fucking go. God damn fucking shit bastard, there aren't enough shampoo attachments. Motherfucker. Don't just stand there fuckers, MOVE." I only wish I were exaggerating. He really did give me a run for my money in terms of frequency and creativity of his profanity and capacity for childish tantrums.
Once the debacle was settled we were all herded into several minivans. They were all older vehicles and I'm not sure if they were all completely rancid, but the one I was crammed into certainly was. It smelled like ass and stale cigarettes, no doubt due to being used to haul around vacuums that had sucked up detritus from countless different homes. At least we were allowed to smoke inside, unlike most company vehicles.
On the way to our territory the wizened vets regaled us with tales of how they got to their esteemed positions, as well as some last-minute tips. Be sure to mention bedbugs when you clean the mattress; that always freaks people out. A little spiel about air quality doesn't hurt either. Speaking of air quality, I was dying. Fortunately we'd arrived at the neighborhood. The van slowed and the girl sitting in the front passenger seat started rummaging through a Wal-mart bag at her feet. She then fled the van like it was on fire and raced to the nearest house. The driver explained that each potential customer was given a free gift just for agreeing to view the demonstration. No one asked because I'm sure not a single shit was given anymore at this point, but the question remained: what the fuck happened to those "pre-arranged appointments"?
We watched as the girl stood on the front step and someone answered the door. She spoke briefly and darted forward just as the door was slammed in her face. Just like the Sales Puppet from Pee-Wee's Playhouse. I smiled. Sometimes it really does all come out in the wash.
We saw this happen three more times, one which resulted in the girl limping back to the van because she'd tried to stick her foot in the door as it was slammed shut, before someone finally let her in. She came scrambling back to the van, and the driver was barking, "We're in, go, go, go!" It felt like an elaborate bank heist. One of the other guys jumped out to help the girl unload one of the vacuums from the back of the van. I was shoved out onto the street and told to accompany her while she did her demo. Fine by me. I had a lungful of ass particles, it couldn't possibly get any worse.
The person who finally took pity on our intrepid door-knocking heroine was a young woman in her early twenties. She was home alone with a small child. I couldn't help thinking this was probably some ideal scenario to these fucking maniacs. I didn't have to do anything aside from observe and learn, but I still didn't do it, at least not in the way they intended. I watched the customer intently. She made only the barest of effort to be engaged, nodding and uttering the occasional "mm-hmm", and her facial expression screamed "kill me now". I could relate.
Surprisingly, I found I felt for the girl I was shadowing as well. It was obvious she hated this shit and felt as ridiculous as she looked, vacuuming up baking soda and placing rows and rows of little black coffee filters all over some stranger's floor. I realized that even as douchey as some of the sales veterans were, at least a few of them possessed a trait that perhaps ensured they'd never find true success in the realm of sales: they empathized with the customer. They knew they were annoying. They knew most customers were just humouring them. But like the stripper putting herself through college with g-string stuffins, they soldiered on, knowing in their heart something better had to be around the corner. I never spoke to any of these people again but I've since learned the nature of such jobs and I know they didn't stick around. Hell, even the die-hards that were so gung-ho about the company and its ethos saw the light eventually. One can only take so much ennui before they snap and kill the cook.
I accompanied my mentor to one other demo that day, in the home of an elderly lady who was the sole caretaker of her mentally challenged thirtysomething daughter. Neither of us wanted to be there. Fifteen minutes into the demo we cut it short and apologized profusely to the lady for wasting her time, but we had to stay put because the van was still circling the neighbourhood in search of new marks. An hour later they showed up, and we left. I told them I had to duck out early to get to class, which they reluctantly allowed. This was a lie, of course. I merely sought to preserve what remained of my soul.
I would later learn from various eyewitness accounts and blog entries that the company not only advocated but expected its salespeople to stay out well past dark to meet their quota of 3 presentations a day. I've read comments from frustrated customers who, after enduring four-hour-long sales pitches, genuinely feared for the mental well-being of Kirby salespeople who broke down in tears in their homes, claiming their bosses would kill them if they didn't make at least one sale. Other accounts admit the sales folk just straight up went for the jugular and said a vacation to Hawaii was on the line. At this I don't know whom to demonize and whom to pity. Sure, these poor souls were hoodwinked into a total scam, but they also caved in to pure greed. For the sake of my sanity I simply consider it a case of one sin begetting another.
I never got paid for my three days of "work". I really don't care. I've also been fortunate enough never to have been on the receiving end of one of these dubious sales pitches, but I can safely say that after my experience, as much as I love being pissy to strangers, I couldn't bring myself to slam the door on one of them. Not right away, at least. Maybe after the third time of asking them nicely to leave with the business end of a 12 gauge.