I was 18 and needed a job. The newspaper ad read, “Talented, motivated people wanted to join an expanding marketing team! Get paid up to $60,000 a year!”
I applied and (to my shock) was asked to come in for an interview. There were about 30 of us gathered in the crowded meeting room. I was wearing a ridiculously cheap and ill-fitting sports coat I had borrowed from my dad. I was still the best-dressed person among the applicants, a mix of kids just out of high school like me and older folk crowding retirement.
A well-dressed and enthusiastic two-man team came in and began to tell us of the amazing opportunity ahead of us. We would be going door to door to get people to change their long-distance carrier. The older prospects groaned audibly. A few people started to get to their feet and shuffle toward the door.
The team didn’t break their stride. They just kept gushing about the “potentially limitless” money you could make, since your pay was entirely based on commission. Everyone over the age of 25 fled the room.
After the pitch concluded, the head manager showed up and introduced himself, then excused himself to the back room to take a quick glance at our résumés. Soon, he called each of us in turn into this office for a brief interview.
When my turn came, he invited me to sit down and gave me a challenging look before asking me my first interview question: “So, why should I hire you?”
I honestly don’t remember how I responded or anything else he asked me. It was a vague blur of questions followed by my nervously stammered answers.
I did remember his speech at the end though: “You know, when someone applies here, we usually group their résumés into three categories. The first group, we’ll definitely hire. The second group, we’ll consider hiring. The third group, we aren’t interested in. Based on your résumé, you should be in the second group. But,” he smiled at me, “I’ve got a good feeling about you. You’re hired.”
I shook his hand with my sweaty palm and made my way back to the rest of the prospects.
After a few minutes, another kid my age wearing ripped, faded jeans and an Eminem T-shirt left the interview with a dazed but pleased expression on his face. Someone asked him, “Did you get the job?” and he nodded, smiling.
This wasn’t right. I could barely believe the manager had been dumb enough to hire me. Why would you hire someone who came into a job interview wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt?
I leaned over to him and mumbled “Hey,” in the classic introduction of youth. He nodded back. “Did he say there were three types of people, and you were in the second type, but he was going with his gut and hiring you?”
He looked at me in amazement, his jaw nearly dropping at my psychic-like deductions. “How the hell did you know that?” he asked.
Before I could answer, I heard a laugh from behind me from someone in their mid-20s. “Yeah, he said the same thing to me too.”
After a few minutes, the pitch team came out to offer us a promotional package. We would pay $60 for the forms and materials required to sell these plans door to door. You received $20 for each person you convinced to switch, so after just three sales you’d pay it back.
I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach but paid anyway.
The next morning, we started canvassing. Most of the time, no one even answered the door. When someone did answer, I got as far as, “Are you happy with your long-distance provider?” before they said, “Not interested.”
Around noon, it started to rain. It was better than telemarketing in that most people were too polite to swear right in your face. But it was worse because you could see the looks of condescension, anger or pity in their eyes when they closed the door.
I expected to be canned for not getting a single customer, but the manager was understanding. After all, it wasn’t like he was actually paying me.
The next day, I vowed to get at least one sale. I practically ran from one door to the next trying to find the one person in Vancouver who was willing to switch providers when asked by some 18-year-old stranger. Near the end of the shift, a professor took pity on me and became my first customer. He and his wife were extremely polite – they even invited me in for coffee. After talking to him a few minutes he asked why I wasn’t taking university courses. I didn’t have a good answer to that question.
I met up with the rest of the team at the end of the shift. They congratulated me on my first sale, and the manager reminded me that all I needed was two more sales to start making “real money.”
I sat, sipped my hot chocolate and thought about the last two days. I’d spent 20 hours canvassing. I’d spent $6 in bus fare, $4 in coffee and $60 on a flimsy plastic binder containing a hackneyed sales pitch and a few forms. My earnings consisted of $20 and a large blister on my left foot.
I didn’t come back the next day. To this day, when I greet a salesman at the door I can’t help but wince in sympathy. Of course, I still don’t buy anything from them.
Marc Thompson lives in New Westminster, B.C.