By Caitlin Coakley
With shopping quickly becoming a one-click experience, coupled with con artists using aggressive and sometimes intimidating sales tactics when selling magazine subscriptions, sales experts say the death of the door-to-door salesman might have arrived.
“The door-to-door salesman as we know it is no more,” said Tom Bartholomy, president of the Southern Piedmont/Charlotte chapter of the Better Business Bureau. “We see a couple of niche areas that work, but for the most part no one does that sort of selling anymore.”
Blame — or thank — the World Wide Web, said Steve Cox, professor of marketing at Queens University. Before the Internet, if a company wanted to bring their product to a potential customer, they literally packed up their inventory — vacuum cleaners, kitchen cutlery, soap, perfume — and took them to the customer’s door.
Now, companies that want customers to hear their pitch at home can buy an ad online and let the customer purchase it from there and have it delivered within the week — or day.
“I don’t need somebody bringing things to my house anymore,” Cox said. “I can order them and just have them arrive.”
Not dead yet
Door-to-door sales tactics persist and are still effective today, but only when the salesperson is peddling a service to a homeowner, rather than a physical item, Cox said.
“It absolutely works,” Cox said. “It’s effective in helping us, in part, understand that we have a problem we’ve known about for a long time but might be unwilling to fix.”
Ben Ownbey, owner A Plus Gutter Service, a Lake Norman area-based gutter cleaning and repair company, still believes in the power of the knock: It’s cheap, it’s reasonably effective and, unlike mailers and advertisements, he has more control over how many people hear his pitch, he said.
“First off, the only expense you have is your time, whereas if you do a huge marketing campaign and you wait for the phone to ring, it may or may not ring,” he said. “If you go door-to-door, you know a certain percentage of people will be home during the day, and of them you know a certain percentage will open their door, and a certain percentage of those people will say OK. It’s a numbers game.”
Still, Ownbey acknowledges that some of his potential customers are less-than-enthusiastic when they open their doors — if they open at all.
“There’s definitely been a change,” he said. “Less people will come to the door, and more of the ones who do come to the door will talk through the screen.”
Part of the reason door-to-door selling is no longer popular might be because consumers are less tolerant of it.
Consumers have reason to be on the defensive when it comes to pushy sales people, Bartholomy said, because often, companies that sell door-to-door are disreputable ones from out of state and bully homeowners into making a purchase.
In Charlotte, a magazine sales company owned by James and Lourdes Davis was barred in 2007 by the North Carolina attorney general from operating in North Carolina after it allegedly using intimidating sales tactics against customers, including physical threats and not sending customers magazines they had ordered and paid for in advance.
However, the Davises’ company has resurfaced in the form of Seedtime Publications, according to a complaint filed with the BBB in June by a woman who said that two young salesman asked her personal questions and kept trying to get her to let them into her house. According to her complaint, she bought a subscription for $50 just to get them to leave.
Based on the complaints he sees, Bartholomy said salespeople from all industries who go door-to-door seem to be getting more aggressive, such as ignoring customers’ lack of interest, trying to persuade customers to let them into the house and using emotional sales pitches such as claiming that the salesperson is homeless or an ex-convict trying to get back on their feet.
“The ones that are doing any type of door-to-door are much more aggressive,” Bartholomy said. “We’ve talked to some of them, and they’re hiring their sales crew off Craigslist and paying them commission. That gives the salesperson incentive to try aggressively to close the sale.”
But it’s not just the aggressive salespeople who upset consumers. Bartholomy said the BBB also gets complaints from consumers who are displeased just because they stopped by at all.
As a company that’s still getting started, door-to-door selling is still one of the cheapest, most effective ways for a business owner to get new business. The trick is getting the resident to listen long enough to hear the pitch.
Once the door opens, Ownbey said he tries not to lay it on too thick and, instead, uses a low-pressure, non-intimidating approach. He introduces himself, gives the resident a card and asks if they’d be interested in having their gutters cleaned.
If the customer isn’t interested, Ownbey moves on.
“I know some companies will really give you that high-pressure sales pitch,” he said. “But I find that if you push that person too far, they’re just going to get mad.”
It’s a balancing act, Cox said. A salesperson has to close the deal before they leave the residence, but if they get too pushy, they may end up doing more harm than good.
“You have to convince a person that they have a problem and that their product will solve the problem and to buy the product,” Cox said. “You have to do that all within a few minutes, and to do that, you have to be assertive. You can’t say, ‘Think about it and get back to me,’ because then they won’t buy.”
Go too far, however, and the angry customer will tell their neighbors, co-workers and all their Facebook friends about the bully of a salesman, damaging the business’s reputation.
Not just for the little guys
Though door-to-door sales tactics are a favorite for newly formed companies without much of an advertising budget, established companies still go door-to-door to make sales. For New York-based Time Warner Cable, which has corporate offices in the Charlotte area, the one-on-one interaction is a way for the company to build its perception as a local business, said spokeswoman Melissa Buscher.
Although Time Warner Cable’s salespeople are paid by a combination of hourly wage and commission, Busher said the aim isn’t just to sell but also to engage the potential customer in conversation and build a community relationship.
“Door-to-door visiting continues to be a very effective communication and sales channel,” she said. “It’s putting a face on our company, since we are a local company.”
Established businesses like Time Warner are at an advantage, however, because they’re recognizable. When the salesperson pulls up in a vehicle with the logo, wearing a shirt that’s similarly branded, a homeowner can be reasonably certain of the salesperson’s employer.
Smaller businesses like Ownbey’s, however, aren’t as distinguished.
“Some people are very suspicious,” Ownbey said. “We do get some that come to the door and just slam the door in our faces.”
Other business owners have decided not to bother anymore.
Ron Monteith, president and owner of Charlotte-based Allgreen Irrigation and Landscaping, said that while he used to do some door-to-door sales, he moved on to Internet advertising as his company grew. The door-to-door approach, he said, wasn’t effective anyway.
“80 percent of our business comes from 20 percent of our customers,” he said. “When you go door-to-door, there’s too much where you do the job, then it’s over. I spend my time better finding customers who will become repeat customers.”
Before you knock
Business owners and consumer experts recommend these tips to door-to-door salespeople.
- go door-to-door only to introduce yourself and get your name out there
- follow up any door-to-door selling or introduction with a direct-mail marketing campaign: fliers, coupons, etc.
- consider door-to-door marketing if you’re a new company hoping to get your name out but without a big advertising budget.
- use employees of your company and pay them a wage in place of, or in addition to, commission. Contractors without a strong tie to your company won’t care about your business’ reputation as much as an employee would. Plus, contractors might get too aggressive when trying to get a sale – and their commission – and may aggravate the potential customer.
- put all your focus on making the sale right then and there; if you get too pushy, the homeowner will shut you out.
- disregard the “no soliciting” signs at neighborhood entrances.
- overlook other forms of advertising: online, mail or print.
- tape or otherwise affix fliers, brochures or other materials on a homeowner’s property or them in the mailbox. Put such materials in the newspaper box, instead.
Source: Mecklenburg Times staff research