Freelining with Mike Freeman: Working for free.

How can you tell if you’re looking at a dead end job? Answer: the company has ways to avoid paying you for the work that you do. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – “This is Tiffany!” the voice on the other end of the line said in a very perky way.
I gave my name, and mentioned that I was trying to get more information on the ad that was posted on the CraigsList for a part-time position that required good communication skills and an ability to work as a team.
Tiffany said she was interviewing for that position, and could I come by around 4. I said I could, and got the address. Oddly, though, she said nothing about the job in advance.
So I showed up at the building in South Orlando, close to the intersection of Orange Avenue and Sand Lake Road. Tiffany, a woman in her twenties, was at the front desk. She asked me to wait in a conference room, and fill out an application. There was another gentleman in there, doing the same thing. The application itself was short and simply asked for the basics.
When we were done, Tiffany came in and asked us for a brief summary of who we were, what we had done. She seemed only marginally to be paying attention. Then she asked us what our availability was like throughout the week. The more flexible our schedule, the better.
She also asked if either one of us had a background in sales. We both said no. Her eyes lit up – perfect, she said. They didn’t want salespeople. She would forward our resumes to the corporate office, and we could call the next day to find out if we had been hired. Okay, interview over.
In my entire professional career, two minute interviews have been a rarity. I had always assumed that the interview would last two minutes or less only if I showed up with a bloody axe in my hand, or Ku Klux Klan literature. But there I was, very nicely dressed, doing my best to hide my Rhode Eye-lin accent, and to keep my messy hair in place. The interview seemed suspiciously short, and I noticed it lacked one thing: details about, you know, the job and stuff.
So leave it to me to spoil the party and ask those pesky questions: could you explain what the job is.
Tiffany didn’t reveal much at this stage. This was a rapidly expanding company, she said, opening a whole bunch of new offices in Orlando, and there would be tons of advancement opportunities. In the meantime, they were looking for good communicators with strong people skills who could work as part of a team, demonstrating products to prospective customers. This was not, Tiffany repeatedly emphasized, a sales position. Someone else makes the appointments, and you just show up at the home of a customer who wants to see the product and demonstrate it. You would get paid $475 a week, even if not a single customer purchased the product. But if one did sell, you would get a commission. The team also frequently travels to neighboring states like Alabama and Georgia, she said, and you could travel with the team, all expenses paid.
Well, nearly $500 a week for a part-time job, no selling, and in a growing company – what more could you ask for in this economy? Tiffany asked us to call her the following day after 4 p.m. to see if we had been hired. I called, and I did. She asked me to show up the next day at noon for a four-hour training session. I promised to be there.
Dynamic Distributing is the name of the company, a distributor of Kirby Home Care System products. As I would soon learn, Kirby is of course a vacuum cleaner, although as the company’s Web site notes, Kirby likes to pride itself in being so much more than that.
“Cleaning takes on a whole new meaning with the Kirby Sentria home care system and accessories,” the site notes. “Designed to deep clean, protect and maintain the value of your home, a Kirby vacuum is a leader in the industry that outlasts the competition every time.” The system also converts into 12 different units that includes a carpet shampoo system, and has been rated highly by “a leading consumer products magazine.” Okay, I thought, it can’t hurt to work part-time for a long established business.
When I got there at noon, there were a bunch of other “new hires,” men and women of all ages and races, some middle aged, a couple of college students — an interesting mix. Tiffany was there to conduct the training session, but from the very start it never felt like we were being trained for anything. The tone wasn’t professional and business-like. It felt more like a nice little get together, where we sit around and introduce one another, and joke and laugh. I was starting to wonder if we were all going to head out for a beer and pizza afterwards.
Tiffany kept it all light and cheery; I got the impression that part of her task was to make everyone feel relaxed, at ease. I would soon learn why.
Dynamic Distributing, she noted, is opening 22 offices in Orlando, so they really need workers like us. There would be plenty of opportunities to rise within the company. Right now, she said, the company was hiring “dealers” – folks who demonstrate the Kirby product – and “canvassers” – the people who schedule the appointments to go into people’s homes to show what Kirby can do.
There are four to seven people who ride together in a van as a team, with the team manager driving the van. Canvassers set the appointments and “junior dealers” – a slick way of saying new hires — do the demonstrations. You can start out as a dealer, and work your way up – fast.
“The faster you move up,” Tiffany said, “the more stores we can open.”
Tiffany also mentioned that she started off, very briefly, as a dealer, then switched and became a canvasser. The significance of that decision did not hit me until much later in this “training session.”
If there was one thing I understood long before I arrived at this place, it’s that the hottest growth market today is for sales people – but not just any sales people. Companies want salesmen who are not full time employees, who do not get a salary or hourly rate, and who work strictly on commission. You sell a ton of the company’s products, and get around 10 percent of everything you sell. The incentive to actually make a buck, I suppose, is that super low commission – you can only support yourself if you sell your tail off.
But who wants to work hard for such a pitifully low benefit? No wonder ads for commission-based sales people are crawling all over the Internet in this bad economy, where Florida has an 8.8 percent unemployment rate and there are 800,000 unemployed Floridians. Suckering people into working essentially for free isn’t easy.
So some companies have found an alternative. Tell your new hires this is not a sales job, and there is no selling involved. It all sounds like so much less pressure.
That’s exactly what Tiffany told us. Dealers work Monday through Saturday, eight to 10 hours a day. Wow, I thought, that doesn’t sound part-time to me. You would get paid $475 a week to do 15 demonstrations of the Kirby, which costs $3,400 to buy. The typical demonstration, she said, lasts 2 and a half hours. You get paid the $475 even if no one buys a Kirby, but you get a commission if someone does.
Then she trotted out the list of “prizes” you could win if you make hundreds of sales: a large-screen TV set, an IPad, a vacation in Las Vegas. Oh, the thrills that await us if we simply get motivated!
As Tiffany was swooning over the details of those prizes, she mentioned we had two more days of four-day training sessions, then we would spend Saturday demonstrating the Kirby to our friends, neighbors and family as a trial run. We start going out with our team on Monday. It all sounded like such a fun adventure, like we were school kids getting out of the classroom and heading to Disney.
So leave it to me to skip over the prizes and ask some, well, pointed questions.
First, were we getting paid to attend these training sessions, which would add up to 12 hours altogether.
Tiffany grimaced. I don’t think she had wanted that question to come up and spoil the fun. No, she said, these training sessions were unpaid.
“When I did research on training sessions, do you know that I found some companies make you pay to get trained?” she said.
Now, this was probably the first of many red flags that went off in my head. In this economy, outside of Fortune 500 firms offering six-figure jobs, who would be dumb enough to pay for training, unless it’s at a local college? Any company that asks you to pay to get employed by them should have eternally empty training rooms.
Okay, I thought, time for the big questions.
Would we be employed by the company itself, or abe working as independent contractors, I asked.
Tiffany said yes, we would be independent contractors.
Utt-oh. I could see where this was going.
Did we have to do 15 demonstrations of this product per week to get the $475, I asked. What happens if we did, say, 13 or 14?
Tiffany explained that if there was a day when you couldn’t work – if you had other plans, or you needed to go to the doctor – you could make up the lost sessions next week. Of course, that would mean you would need to do 17 or 18 demonstrations the following week, but who’s counting? It was interesting, also, that she made it sound like if we didn’t do all 15 in that one week, it would be our fault – we were slacking off.
And I thought about what she said about each demonstration lasting 2 ½ hours. Did each demonstration have to last that long, I asked?
Oh, yes, Tiffany said. You absolutely needed the full two hours to fully demonstrate all that Kirby could do.
Well, I asked, what happens if the demonstrations last only one hour because the customer is too busy to give you two hours of his time? Would we get paid for doing 15 one hour, or 90 minute, or one hour and 45 minute demonstrations?
No, she said. We even needed to bring back 100 dirty pads that had been inside the vacuum cleaner to show we had actually done the full two hour demonstration. If not, no pay.
Wow.
It suddenly hit me. This is a company that had discovered a way to find workers on a commission basis, but in an even more unique way: to get them entirely for free.
Let’s say you go to work for Dynamic Distributing. You canvass a neighborhood of blue collar people who could never afford to pay $3,400 for a vacuum. But if you show it to them for a few minutes and they like it, they may recommend it to their neighbors, friends or family. That’s free advertising for the company. As Tiffany herself said, the company relies on “word of mouth advertising.”
But it can get very expensive to hire people to work full time – you know, 10 hours a day, six days a week – demonstrating this product. That’s a lot of salaries to cough up. So Dynamic Distributing needed a way to get the work done without it costing them any money.
So how about this: set a sky high standard for getting paid. You must complete 15 demonstrations, at two hours or more each, or no pay at all. Zip. Nothing. You’ve given hours and hours of your time to show this overpriced vacuum, and given the company tons of great free advertising, and you could end each week with nothing to show for it in your checking account.
Tiffany explained that if you keep the customer engaged, they’ll absolutely want you to stay for two hours because they’re having so much fun playing with Kirby. I think unless I’m bringing booze, chips and a DJ, that’s not likely. How many working class people can not only afford $3,400 for a vacuum, but also take two hours out of their day to see what it does?
But that’s just it – if the customer only gives you five minutes, then it’s all the dealer’s fault for not demonstrating it the right way. Tiffany explained all this as she struggled to get the separate parts for the Kirby out of the box, which took her quite a while to do … even while she was explaining that we needed to do this in less than a minute so the customer wouldn’t get bored. No wonder Tiffany switched and became a canvasser. She probably knew how impossible it would be to get 15 people to agree to a two hour demonstration of a vacuum cleaner only their rich uncle could afford.
But at the same time, if you show the Kirby for hours, the company benefits from your efforts. They’ve just found a slick way to avoid paying you for the work you’ve done on their behalf. The company probably relies on dealers burning out by the second week after being unable to complete 15 two-hour demonstrations, and not getting paid a dime for the many hours they put into the demonstrations on behalf of this company.
It’s also so disingenuous of the company to say this is not a sales position, when obviously you have to sell the customer on committing two hours of their day to watching the demonstration — that’s your sales mission.
Shame on Dynamic Distributing and Kirby for exploiting this weak economy to get people to work under these appalling conditions. Anyone who goes out on behalf of Kirby to demonstrate their products is an employee, representative and face of the company. To not pay them hourly for their efforts is an shameful embarrassment.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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