Some time back, I spent the best part of a year living in Australia. The majority of this temporary residence was spent living at Gun House, a military residence in Fremantle, Western Australia. I was an exceptionally lazy young man and spent most of this ‘gap year’ spongeing from my father and stepmother, listening to music and chatting with girls rather than finding gainful employment. I like to imagine that this is what most 19 year-olds will do, given half the chance… but I was probably worse than most.
The only job I did during my 8 months in Fremantle was a 3 1/2 month stint working as a door to door salesman for Primus, a company which offered cheaper phone calls in comparison with Telstra, the Australian national phone company. I’d like to state for the record here that we weren’t selling moon dust or snake oil. There was a genuine opportunity for people to save money on their phone bills by opting for another company when phoning interstate or overseas. That said, I probably would have done the job even if it was a scam. It was one of the best, and one of the worst, times of my life. I’ve been thinking about it again recently, so I thought I’d try to collect my memories of the time.
Aparna, my stepmum’s cousin helped me get to the interview which was somewhere near the Northbridge district of Perth. I know that as part of her task to help me settle in in Perth, she had also to try and get me employed. I turned up at the interview in baggy jeans and t-shirt and although the interview was full of warnings about hard work, commitment and so on it was pretty obvious from the start that if I could write, recite the pitch and above all, walk, then I had a job. They asked me to start immediately and so the next day, I was there in cheap trousers, cheap shirt, cheap tie and trainers. My training consisted of half an hour’s orientation and then we were in the car. There was myself, Will, an ambitious Cambodian-born Australian and a couple of other guys who were just starting out.
Will was my mentor for a few days, taking me along with him as he convinced the citizens of one district after another to sign up for cheaper interstate calls. As we started our beat, he immediately criticised my tie, letting me know that it looked cheap. He was wearing a $100 suit, with a nice tie and probably some cufflinks. His shoes (every door to door salesman needs strong, easily polished, durable shoes), were sturdy but showed signs of wear. He signed about eight households up to the service, using the same pitch each time, “Good afternoon, my name’s Will and we’re just in the neighbourhood checking that everyone’s signed up with Primus for cheaper phone calls. Oh you haven’t? Well I’ll tell you about the service and then we’ll get the paperwork sorted”. The pitch was cunningly engineered to make people think it was something that they’d almost forgotten about. Something they’d meant to do, even if they didn’t realise or remember.
I can’t be sure but I suppose we visited a hundred houses or so each day, of which we were expected to sign up about 12-18. Each sign-up was worth around $12 to us, on which we paid no taxes or social security (‘self-employed contractors’ as we were). We used the same pitch on each house, giving the person who’d answered the door little chance to speak or even think. We launched straight from the pitch into the sign-up process as an attempt to get the hapless customer to believe that they’d already agreed to the deal. Sometimes that worked and other times, we’d have to answer their questions about how much it would cost to call Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, England, China, India, New Zealand or Vietnam.
It wasn’t hard to pick up the pitch, or the attitude you needed to use with it. Grinning, chuckling, smarmy comments and winks were, perhaps surprisingly, as useful as they are in the movies. I guess that having grown up in Devon, where very few (if any) salesmen came to the door, I was more surprised by the way the stereotype really applied than I would have been had I grown up in a big town.
Every day at about 11am, we’d leave our office near Northbridge in Perth and set off for the suburbs. We worked from Rockingham to Two Rocks, and covered much territory in between. Some areas we covered were well-to-do districts (not great for doorstep sales), some were fairly built-up (lots of flats equals lots of sales) and some were low-income outer suburbs (redback spiders above the doors). I saw it all, from swarms of bees to bored housewives, from kangaroos to gold miners (a trio of whom once insisted on giving me a bong before they signd up… I was so stoned for the rest of the day that I didn’t make any more sales in the remaining two hours). I stopped at Aboriginal houses which were empty, as all life went on in the garden, and plush beach villas, most of which were empty just because it wasn’t the holidays. But most of our targets were in the low-income white suburbs… these were the people who really wanted to save money, after all.
Abuse was a fairly common thing. This ranged from the odd, simple “Fuck off!” to a man threatening that he’d “have [my] balls for breakfast”, to an Asian colleague being chased down the street by a gentleman with a metal bar. Some triad boys once threatened me with knives. But I also experienced a lot of kindness. The kindness of strangers is, to misquote, oddly reliable. I was treated for sunstroke by a kindly widow, I was given a bellyful of beer by a couple of proper ockers who asked me what I thought of their wives; I was given a cuppa and a chip butty by some Yorkshire expats. In fact, kindness definitely outweighed abuse. But abuse gets to you.
What really ended up pissing me off about the job was my colleagues. Some of them were lovely: Simon, a fellow Englishman who became a good friend, for example. But then there were the wide boys, like Miguel and Jermaine. These two wanted to be gangsters (one of them probably is now, if he’s not dead), and pushed my patience to superhuman levels. And my boss, Alex. This guy was getting about $16 for every sale I made. For every sale I got $12 and he got $16. A good business for him but utterly demoralising for me.
All we did with our pay was drink, party and eat fast food. We went to a karaoke bar called Seoul Karaoke and nicked bottles from the storage area by the loos. Everyone took speed and ecstasy at the weekend and many of us would start work hungover… it was a highly unhealthy lifestyle. And that’s without mentioning my unpleasant experience with Rohypnol.
I’m not sure why I’ve written this, other than to relive an experience I’ll hopefully never have to go through again. If any prospective door-to-door salesmen read this, I have one piece of advice: if you must do it, do it. But get out as soon as you can. Doorstep sales is a depressing, dehumanising job.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?