Recently, I unplugged my telephone line from my digital voice router. So right now, old landline robocalls get an answering machine, and I read the Xfinity log occasionally for messages. About once a week, there’s an IRS scam message, among others.
I think the robocall epidemic is like a Runaway Train (like the 1985 movie, or the more recent “Unstoppable”). Like email spam (and even some Twitter) it’s an end-stage symptom of sales culture imploding.
After recessions, we’ve had the mistaken impression that we can create jobs, especially for older workers (like me, after my career-ending layoff in December 2001 at 58) by having them sell stuff, especially leisure lifestyles, financial planning, life insurance, subprime mortgages, and so on.
One thing attractive for employers is, of course, is that most of the compensation can be commission, that is, production-related.
I was somewhat in favor of some of these ideas in the 1990s. Sometimes, companies would pay associates for “piece work” instead of outright layoffs (an example was the Ohio company Lincoln Electric in the early 90s, during the post-Persian-Gulf-War mini recession that helped Bill Clinton get elected). It’s true that the most successful artists or authors can earn their living this way, but it’s a winner-take-all (relative to niche) world. Sometimes bloggers did the same, in specific areas, like Mommy blogger Heather Armstrong, starting in 2002, after she got fired by an employer who didn’t like what he saw on her personal blog. A site that gives advice that may work for some bloggers is (Australia’s) Ramsay Taplin’s “Blogtyrant” (he started out as a physical fitness coach). But, again, this is all about niches, aggressive selling, in combination with content that actually helps relatively specific people.
In 2002, an overwhelming portion of the “job opportunities” that came up quickly in Minneapolis (where I remained living until 2003) were sales-related. One of the most striking was PrimeVest, which was predicated on contacting people with whole life policies to convert them to term. That may be good advice for some people, but I doubt this is a $40 trillion market, as claimed. I listened to the presentation, and wound up interviewing the interviewer myself, who became very defensive (he had set up a husband-wife team to run this little quasi-franchise as if it were Amway-like). I could do that because I had a lot of knowledge of life insurance with my 12 years at ING (ReliaStar/Uslico). I wound up playing Donald Trump. (By the way, when I happened to be home mid-afternoon for personal business 2 days after 9/11, which still at ING, I got my first unsolicited call from PrimeVest).
In the good old days, life insurance agents sometimes had a nice world, with their convention qualifications. But even then, it was an “aggressive business”, much more so than I had realized. Agents had to keep after new business, setting up kiosks in shopping malls, for example.
I was approached by two life insurance companies, rather aggressively, to become an agent in 2005. I went through some motions, but “declined”. It seems that the ‘fast start” and “getting business” now has a lot to do with trailing consumer behavior online through tracking tools (for those who don’t use “do not track” correctly) and cold calling them. No, this is not promising for me.
I would even be approached to sell subprime mortgages (in early 2007, just before the bust started), and to supervise “at risk youths” roaming shopping malls raising money for “charities” (in 2009).
My own father was a “salesman”, a manufacturer’s representative, for Imperial Glass, until 1971. He claimed he could sell anything, but really he had a very stable business and worked only selling wholesale to department stores in the mid-Atlantic. That sort of living isn’t possible today. Mother helped him do the books by hand. He did orders with a hand adding machine.
There is a snarky belief among “content creators” (including most “computer programmers”) that sales people aren’t “smart enough” to make it in really technical areas. Of course, as any team from IBM or Univac in the 1970s (or from H Ross Perot’s old EDS, with its prudish dress codes) that’s rather condescending (although EDS used to send out memos to employees saying that dress codes were necessary to impress customers who didn’t really understand technology). This maps to the old style conflict over “family values” and spills over into old divisions over race and “faith”.
True, there’s only so much room for 50-billion-dollar internet companies created in dorm rooms by Ivy League undergraduates (yes, Mark, you’re more convincing on SNL than Jessie Eisenberg playing you). There’s more room for young scientists (who create “content”), like Jack Andraka or Taylor Wilson, but as for job creation that goes only so far. I would rather have a self-concept derived from content creation than from “hucksterism”. Yes, I have a couple of piano sonatas I’d like performed and a sci-fi novel that I would like to groom so it can really sell. I can admire the accomplishment of a composer Timo Andres, who at age 23 had composed the world’s largest (of “all time”) two-piano composition (“Shy and Mighty”), but indeed “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer” – and it takes commission money for income.
So, we come back to the world of weekend self-help promos (ranging from “feeling good about yourself” to something practical like “cash flow management’). We hear presentations on how to set up distributorships for telephone cards – for low income people who don’t have efficient Internet access – it sounds so predatory.
Donald Trump hasn’t gotten into any of this at all. Hillary Clinton is more likely to talk about this problem this fall, I hope.
Remember the 2002 comedy film “100 Mile Rule” by Brent Huff, where salesmen were told to “Always Be Closing”, as the mantra. I think of Trump University and the reports that sales people were pushed to get potential students to go into debt to attend, so they could learn “How to Get Rich”. But to me, being a “salesman” sounds like a shameful identity,
Is this something to be gotten over? Most of the calls and emails today are about “deals. I’ve already mapped out my plans. I don’t have time to listen to someone’s elevator pitch for a “deal”. So I don’t respond to the calls, or emails (which could be spam and lead to malware or ransomware infections anyway). Most SEO is probably no good – Google and other engines change their algorithms all the time to defeat it. You can’t clean up your old Windows computer with a third-party product downloaded from a YouTube ad or from a thumb drive ordered from an 800 number. Most of these sales pitches seem to come from sheer desperation, from people who have become unemployable and want Donald Trump to save them
So I don’t take these calls at all or open emails. (Yup, I can tell when a headline mentions a warranty on a car I no longer own.) Yet, I worked as a “telemarketer”, part time, for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2002-2003 for fourteen months, and that gave me some stability at the time. I actually got pretty decent at raising money for music. But then, after moving to DC, I tried selling subscriptions for the NSO, and that experience fell apart completely (details for another time). But I found out that people who had majored in music (even like the character Shane Lyons in “Judas Kiss”, played with the charisma of Timo Descamps – the Other Timo) have to become salesmen and sell subscriptions to mass-market events (familiar classical or pop family events, never mind the esoteric modern stuff) to make ends meet and start careers more. In that classic gay sci-fi film, “Danny” (Richard Harmon, “the greatest of all time”) is the only real and promising content creator among the major characters.
Does this mean we have to become more willing to answer the phone again?
(Published: Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 5 PM EDT)