How to Sell Your Way to Slavery

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 30, 2017

IN A RECENT "NEW STATESMAN" SURVEY OF THE WORLD OF HP, Ruth Adam wrote of, "… the Demon King of the consumer-credit world, the door-to-door salesman". Of course the door-to-door salesman is a special case, a casual labourer who can afford to be casual in his methods because he will be off somewhere else before his sins can find him out. The more firmly established salesman who sells repetitively to commerce — where sales resistance is presumably stronger than on the door-step — who has a more solid background and uses less dubious methods of persuasion, is not usually thought of as a demon. But while he may not be to his customers, five years' experience of both kinds of selling — and they don't differ all that much in the end — have led me to the conclusion that he probably is to society and certainly is to himself. He is the victim of the very circumstances that created his job.

What kind of man becomes a salesman? It is important here to distinguish between the salesman and the "technical rep." — between the man who has been trained to sell and can apply his training to anything from brushes to telephone systems, and the man who is, say, a qualified engineer but only incidentally a vendor of engineering products or equipment. This distinction is reflected in the situations vacant columns; out of 72 employers who advertised for salesmen in one issue of a national daily, only 39 stipulated either previous selling experience or knowledge of the product. It is much more common to find certain personal qualities desiderated: drive, energy, initiative, ambition, keenness, enthusiasm. Education usually brings up the rear, coupled with "good appearance and address", and in this context is to be understood in terms of socially acceptable characteristics. "It was, I suppose, inevitable that I should soon be selling somebody something," wrote Esmond Romilly in Boadilla. "I belong to that very large class of unskilled labourers with a public school accent."
In return for the exercise of these qualities, the salesman is variously

IAN SAINSBURY is a 36-year old Irishman. As well as his five years in selling, he has had ten years in the theatre, and two as a full-time writer. He has held the by now obligatory collection of odd jobs — labourer, store-keeper, swimming-bath attendant — and is now driving a taxi.

offered "security", "a higher standard of living for yourself and your family" and more specifically, "a four-figure income". This means a three-figure salary, with the balance made up from commission and bonuses; which is exactly what attracts people to selling: that their earnings can be commensurate with their own efforts and abilities, quite independently of qualifications or connections. It finds its recruits among those who have no formal qualifications, or those whose experience is a drug on the market; a man stuck in a routine office job, a regular officer who has been axed. They feel that their personal qualities and innate ability entitle them to better things, and selling gives them a chance to prove it.

At an interview for a sales job, the candidate will be judged mainly by his speech, his appearance, and his answers to two key questions: What is your ultimate goal in this organisation?" and "Do you like people?". The correct answers are: "Your job, sir," (given with a modest smirk which implies that while this is what the interviewee wants he cannot really see himself on a level with the interviewer) and: "Oh yes". They involve assent to two propositions: one, that no one could or should be content to remain at any given level of income or status: two, that there is no conceivable relationship with another human being that excludes the possibility of making money out of him.

The sales manager will then deliver a brief homily on the golden opportunity only waiting to be grasped, the importance of industry and sobriety, always wearing a waistcoat and a hat and not importuning young women met in the course of employment; and the candidate finds himself accepted for training. This is generally given by someone who has to neglect his own work in order to do it, and to that extent is perfunctory and spasmodic. It takes the form of exhortation rather than instruction.

The new salesman now goes out "into the field". If he doesn't start bringing in orders pretty quickly he goes out on his ear too. If he starts to bring in what seems to him a reasonable number for a beginner, he is reminded that he has a quota to meet. If he achieves his quota, it is increased. It is at this stage that the gilt begins to come off the gingerbread, for from the day he gets his first order, the salesman is never allowed to feel that he is doing his job properly. His clothes and his manners, his character and efficiency, will be constantly criticised ("Nothing personal, you understand"). If his spirits droop under these attacks, he will be advised to study the works of philosophers like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, whose systems of non-thought (in which unqualified assertions in apposition to each other take the place of argument, Panglossianism the place of faith, and money the place of virtue) are free from any taint of unhealthy scepticism that might cause the salesman to question the wisdom of his superiors. If he works for one well-known domestic appliance firms he will be obliged to wear a company tie and sing a company song. In extreme cases he may even be told that the world's greatest salesman was called Jesus Christ.

The wage and administrative structure of the sales organisation —both pyramidical — are carefully designed to ensure that no member of it is ever off the hook. One firm of office-equipment manufacturers divides the country into a number of areas under the control of a manager and supervisor, the area being divided in turn into two territories with a salesman to each. The salesmen get £500 a year and 5% commission on all orders from their respective territories, the supervisor gets £750 a year and 2½ % on all orders from the area, and the manager gets £1,000 a year and 1% on all orders from the area.

Thus the manager and supervisor have a direct interest in raising the salesman's turnover. They do this by going out and getting orders on his territory — on which he will get his full commission and for which he will be made to feel a sense of obligation to them — but also by exerting pressure on him. This is called working as a team. The pressure is turned on at conferences (held outside business hours so as not to reduce selling time and of course encroaching on everybody's leisure) at which there will be more exhortation, minute analysis of the occasions when orders were lost (but if he had done so-and-so he would have got them) and veiled threats ("we may have to think very seriously indeed about your future with this company"). If he shows any resentment at this, he will be told that it is in his own interest, as tending to increase his selling power.

Anyone who takes up selling so that, free from immediate financial anxiety, he can devote himself to more congenial if less remunerative work, to spending more time with his family, or simply to raising hell, is going to find that he has run his head into a noose. He must keep running to stay where he is; he must earn more, not because he wants to, but to keep his job; and what energy he has left after selling and being talked at about selling will be dissipated in worrying about the selling he has yet to do. To be happy in his work he must be able to accept the nagging and the browbeating, and even to like it; his human dignity must be less important to him than the possibility of being richer.

A successful salesman can make a great deal of money, but he will find it more difficult to realise his own concept of a satisfying life. He has to accept one imposed on him, expressed in terms of constantly increasing effort and constantly increasing financial rewards. He can afford to spend money on the tools for good living, but not time on using them. His possessions are not there for enjoyment, they are symbols to reassure himself that he is doing all right. To show the world too; he can only identify himself by the gleam of envy or admiration in the eyes of others.

In the same way that he exploits his customer, nagging him continually to buy, to replace, to buy again, the salesman is exploited by his employers, who nag him to sell so as to get rich, to sell again to stay rich. His security is in jeopardy between one order and the next. Just as the warder is said to be as much a prisoner as the convict, so the salesman is exploited as much as the gullible housewife, because he endorses and accepts his relationship with her. He is caught up in machinery he can't control; he is both the hammer and the anvil.

This raises the question, What effect does the salesman have on the society he lives in? He may contribute to economic expansion, but he also encourages the acceptance of attitudes like these:

I say that there are several qualities and the first of these is toughness.
BE TOUGH. Be so tough that sentiment has no place in your life. Be so tough that if your dearest friend stands in the way of business, you can sweep him aside. Give no mercy to competitors. Insist on iron discipline in yourself.

BE AMBITIOUS. Be so ambitious that it becomes an over-riding consideration in your life. Determine to be richer, stronger, more powerful than your fellows. Smash your way onwards as if everyone were your foe to be trampled on in the jungle of selling, and preferably wear hobnailed boots for the job.
DEVELOP A TRADING SENSE. Seize the chances before the other man can get them. If he complains that you took advantage of his simplicity, ignore his complaints, and damn the consequences.
APPLY YOUR MIND TO YOUR JOB. Forget about football. Throw the TV set in the dustbin — provided you have finished the hire-purchase payments. Stop reading detective stories. Think day and night about selling. Live with it, dream about it, talk about it. Those, I declare, are the qualities you need. It does not matter whether you are short and fat or whether you are a teetotaller or a potential dipsomaniac. What does matter, and matters supremely, is that you should be utterly devoted to one aim and utterly ruthless in its prosecution. Then the world will be your oyster and the bank manager your servant.”

At first sight this curious document might seem to have an ironic intention. If so, it has signally failed to achieve it, for it is distributed by at least one manager to his sales force. Its injunctions are almost as difficult to obey as "Love thy neighbour", but few salesmen are perceptive enough as a rule to see that it is self-defeating even on its own terms, or to envisage the wifeless friendless salesman, deprived of the consolations of TV, football and detective stories, wondering, while his bank-manager licks his boots, just what he is going to do next.

If the salesman is a demon king, he is also his own victim. Commerce depends on him; advertising sprays buckshot round the consumer, but the salesman is an arrow to the heart. This unskilled labourer with the right accent is probably overpaid by comparison with nurses and teachers, but there is not enough money to compensate for the damage he must do to himself. He is like a spy; his masters encourage him to break the rules, and disown him if he gets caught. But he is still their creature, and a creature who accepts the values of "What Do You Need To Make a Million Sales?" is no help to a society which depends in the end on the quality of individuals.

The salesman lives under pressure which he must transmit to others or go under. He carries fear with him like a germ. There are no souls on his report-sheet, only prospects and customers. He has been taught to treat people like things. He may not see that he is being treated like a thing himself.