After his third day of selling satellite television service door-to-door, Tristan Torgersen packed his bags and left.
It was an uncharacteristic decision for the 22-year-old student who spent two years knocking doors as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was used to working long hours and having doors slammed in his face. But he wasn't used to employing what he perceived as deceitful sales tactics.
“I went from honestly telling people about Jesus to trying to talk people into buying television” service they didn't need, the North Carolina native said.
In the coming months, sales recruiters will be on and around college campuses luring in students, like Torgersen, with promises of making $50,000 or more during the summer break for selling satellite television, pest control, alarms, magazines or kitchen knives. For students facing thousands of dollars in college expenses, the money is enticing, as is the chance to live and work in another state with a group of adventure-seeking young people.
For some students, the summer-long gig hits the jackpot. However, Torgerson, campus advisers and advocates urge students to investigate the company and talk to former employees before deciding whether the job is the right fit.
One consumer advocate takes it a step further: "I would tell (young people) not to take a door-to-door sales job at all," said Reid Maki, director of Child Labor Advocacy at the National Consumers League, which named traveling sales crews one of the five most dangerous jobs for young people in its annual report.
"But if the young person is really tempted to take the job," he said, "I would check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the company is rated, check with the local police force to see if there have been any problems reported and perhaps check with the state attorney general’s office."
A question of ethics
At the plea of his cousin, who was already contracted to sell for DishOne, a retailer of Dish Satellite TV, Torgersen said he sat down last March with a recruiter at Café Rio in Provo, Utah. Torgersen’s missionary experience, impending tuition payments at Brigham Young University, jovial personality and a hint of Southern charm made him the ideal recruit.
After some persuasion, Torgersen agreed to join a DishOne sales team in Denver for the summer.
But Torgersen's plans for a perfect summer began to unravel before he knocked on his first door. He said he was assigned to sleep on a couch in squalid apartment with four other sales guys — one of whom would come home high on drugs every day.
“It was almost like living in a halfway house,” he recalled.
During training, Torgersen said he and the rest of the new team were taught how to greet potential customers at the door. In a role-playing exercise, Torgersen tried his approach: “Hi, my name is Tristan with DishOne and we’re offering a cheaper TV service.”
He said his pitch was swiftly rejected and he was instructed to indentify himself as simply “the TV guy in your neighborhood.”
When Torgersen and others raised issues with the approach, he recalled his managers' retort: “It’s not lying, it’s just helping you get in the door so you can tell the truth."
He said he was also instructed to get in the door by claiming, no matter what TV service customers had, that he was there to "upgrade the equipment and lower the bill" by amounts he couldn't prove.
Experienced sales reps advised newcomers to target foreigners and old people since "they don't know what's going on," Torgersen recalled.
“It was not my style of business,” said Torgersen. After three days, he called home and booked a flight back to Utah.
Across the country in Baltimore, Jake Lewis, a 22-year-old student at Georgetown University, had a different experience in a door-to-door sales job for a pest control company called Alterra. Unlike Torgersen, Lewis stayed for the entire summer and has signed on for summer 2015.
He worked 60-hour weeks, from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on weekdays and half days on the weekends. It was tiresome but worth it, he said. He said he made about $22,000 in three months. Lewis faces high rent in Washington, D.C., and high tuition costs to attend one of the country’s well-known schools. His summer job is keeping him out of deep debt.
“It was good — it was very good,” he reminisced.
And beyond the paycheck, Lewis has loyalty to the company and the product he sold. “Baltimore has a lot of ants, spiders, and ticks,” he said. “There was a lot of demand for pest control.”
“The product was pretty effective so I never felt like I was being dishonest,” Lewis said. “And the company has a guarantee that if the homeowners sees bugs in between services, the next service is free. They didn’t give out false promises to people.”
Lewis knows that sales companies get a bad rap, but his employer “is up there with honest summer sales companies,” he said.
On paper vs. in practice
Jeremy Hammond, DishOne’s chief operating officer, and Luke McCollum, human resources manager, defended their company’s practices and training.
Hammond said the company used to sell multiple television and Internet products, so salespeople introducing themselves as the neighborhood TV guy was the simplest and best way.
“Recently, as in just barely in this cycle of the year, we were bought by Dish Network,” he said, and under new ownership the company’s pitch method was also changed.
Dish Network acquired DishOne in September 2013, according to Hammond. But the “old pitch” was printed in the Spring 2014 packet and used through the summer of 2014. As a result, DirecTV is currently suing DishOne in California for misrepresentation at the door, reported Bloomberg.
Hammond and McCollum denied accusations of dishonesty among its salespeople. DishOne has a lengthy code of conduct that every employee must sign. The contract stipulates that failure to comply with company policies on misrepresentation, manipulation and fraud when selling will result in “disciplinary action.”
Vivint, a private home security provider (formerly known as APX Alarm Security Solutions) and employer of 2,500 seasonal sales representatives, has also been accused of misleading customers.
The Better Business Bureau gave Vivint an F rating for the number of customer complaints and government legal action brought against the company for instances of deception, failure to disclose full contract terms and false advertisement.
According to Vivint’s Public Relations director Jenna Cason, who responded through email, the company is working to improve the BBB rating by resolving all complaints and government actions.
“Vivint is passionate about customer service and takes every complaint seriously,” she wrote.
“Sales representatives receive comprehensive training on how to appropriately represent the company in all interactions," Cason said. "Sales representatives who violate Vivint’s policies regarding licensing, sales practices or ethics guidelines are appropriately disciplined.”
Do your homework
Torgersen, Lewis and consumer advocates offer the same advice to prospective salespeople: do your homework.
An online search will turn up reports of legal action taken against a prospective employer. A number of home security companies, including Vivint, Elite Secuirty, Vision Security, APT, have faced lawsuits for deceptive sales tactics and in some instances poaching customers from each other, according to multiple articles in Security Systems News.
But ethical dilemmas are not the only aspect prospective employees should consider.
“Knocking on people’s doors is really dangerous,” said Maki. The National Consumers League report, The Dangers of Traveling Sales Crews, lists abuse, robbery, reckless driving, arrest and sexual exploitation as possible hazards of door-to-door sales jobs.
Driving accidents are the most common cause of injury and death in sales crews. Reckless driving is prevalent as vans are often overloaded with young people and driven by distracted — or drunk — drivers, explained Maki.
Traveling sales crews can attract a criminal element, he said. “It is kind of a hard partying crowd, so there is often drinking and drug use.”
Phil Ellenbecker founded an industry watchdog group, travelingsalescrews.info, in honor of his daughter, Malinda, who was killed in a sales crew van crash, along with seven other sales crew members.
“Ellenbecker’s organization has tracked about 300 felony crimes and 86 deaths attributed to door-to-door vendors,” reported the National Consumers League.
When asked in an email what these companies are doing to protect their employees from the dangers of the job, Vivint gave no comment.
DishOne mitigates these dangers by training their sales representatives to have a professional appearance, explained McCollum in an email. "We also train and incentivize our sales representatives to knock in upper-middle class neighborhoods that tend to have lower crime rates," McCollum said. "DishOne has yet to experience any major (violent) incident."
To best avoid on-the-job surprises, talk to former and current employees, ask hard questions and don’t rely on the sales recruiter’s promises, recommended Tony Jewkes, employer relations manager at BYU Career Services in Provo, Utah.
Sales recruiters make money off anyone he or she recruits, explained Lewis, so there is a financial incentive for them to exaggerate perks to get people to sign up.
"We encourage students to have any contract reviewed by legal services before signing," wrote Lisa Severy, Director of Career Services at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The university's Career Services website recommends that students know exactly what the company's payment structure is, since some companies have complex payment methods that depend on reaching sales goals. "Some students leave these opportunities having lost money or owing the company money because the minimum sales were not reached," the UCB website writes.
Torgersen claims he was told that the middle-of-the-road salesperson makes $50,000 in a summer. Yet Torgersen’s cousin, who stayed the whole summer with DishOne, made less than $5,000. "You'd have to be really forceful" to make anywhere near what the company promised, said Torgerson.
Even Lewis said the earning estimates recruiters present are misleading. “They skew the numbers,” he said. “The median would probably be a much better thing to tell people than the average.”
Prospective recruits should also have a good understanding of how they will be paid and carefully read the contract to understand the rules, quotas and payment system. “Even with Alterra there were things (about payment) I ran into later that bugged me, but they were in the contract,” said Lewis.
Vivint pays its sales representatives on commission. A portion of that commission is paid weekly, but the rest is “withheld until the end of the sales season to ensure that representatives finish the season in good standing,” Cason wrote in an email. There are also built-in rewards for sales representatives who hit certain sales goals.
Most importantly, no matter how credible the company is, prospective salespeople need to decide whether the job is the best building block for his or her future. Taking a summer sales job means potentially giving up the opportunity for an internship or on-campus research job that could be a better career investment, Jewkes said.
“In my opinion, some of these summer sales positions are a great thing for the right person,” Jewkes said. “I think for the majority (of people) though, they’re not. And unfortunately, I think there are some companies that perhaps mislead or over-embellish the opportunities they provide.”
Despite his experience with DishOne, Torgersen is still working for a sales company. He works in the corporate office of Vivint Solar, a subsidary of Vivint, as an intermediary between local governments and solar power systems. Unlike its parent company, Vivint Solar has an A- Better Business Bureau rating and a ringing endorsement from Torgersen.
"At first, I was nervous," he said. "But once I understood that (the company had) a different business model and I understood that I wouldn't be selling at all, I took it." He has even referred some of his friends to work at the Vivint Solar office. "I mean, you can't beat $14 an hour for doing paperwork," he admitted.
As expected, Torgersen usually dissuades friends from taking a sales job. In his opinion, "there are very few people who succeed in sales," Torgersen said. "It's best to ask questions and not be naive."
McCollum of DishOne, while a proponent of sales jobs, said similarly: "Door-to-door sales is a really tough job, and not everyone is a good fit for the opportunity."
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