Direct Sales, Introverts, and the Onrushing Future

This post is going to ramble a bit, so bear with.  As usual, actual points will be made as the ramble unfolds.

There’s a couple things I want to do that are above and beyond where my salary is going to get me.  One of which is to either home-school my kid, or get her into a good private school, and the other of which is get my wife back to see her Dad in Hungary a lot more often than our middle-class salary can afford.  So as a side gig, I’ve started selling electricity on the side for Stream Electric, via their marketing arm, Ignite.  They’re basically the world’s biggest direct-sales electric company.

Currently we can sell in a number of states, and have put in a couple of nice tricks.  Just like Mary Kay that my Mom sold, and Pampered Chef that a couple of my buddies do now, they give cool bennies to their sales dudes — but instead of getting free makeup or cookware, so long as I can keep fifteen customers in good standing, they comp my electric bill – there’s a few technicalities and small print, of course, because our local (ridiculously-) hardworking poles-and-wires guys at Encore gotta eat, too, but it’s a great perk.  And in TX with it’s 105 summer days, that’s a bennie which is pretty freaking cool.

[obligatory spam] So if you read my blog and generally think I fail to suck, recommend me.  My kid and father-in-law will thank you. [/obligatory spam]

I like these guys, for a bunch of reasons, and in general, I like direct sales and network marketing.  Let me explain why… because there’s a deeper point about the future — we’re going to see a lot more of this.  Paying extra to your sales guy directly makes a lot more economic sense than slapping a banner on a stadium and hoping name recognition will keep your business afloat.

Stream and Ignite have a typical network marketing structure intended to help people get in by creating a sales structure rather than one guy trying to get a bazillion and a half customers, and part of that is because that gets you better customer service over time.  One of the things I’ve learned working in a sales office and learning how to fake being an extrovert (exhausting for an extreme introvert like myself, but it’s important for a person to get out of their comfort zone, especially if they ever do classroom/teaching/lectures, which, well, I do).  After all, if you get service through a huge corporation, and you have trouble with billing, what do you get?  A toll-free number and a hot date with Girl From Ipanema.  You’re my customer, and you have a billing problem?  You call me.  And I’ll get to work on making sure you get taken care of.  Which strikes you as the better deal?

Geezers tripping down Nostalgia Lane excepted, of course.

On the other hand, a lot of network marketing guys are, well, let’s be honest, Ponzi Schemes (cough-Herbalife-cough).  They’re mostly selling to the folks who sign up for them.  Stream isn’t doing that.  In fact, next spring, assuming the program’s worked right, they’re rolling out that to their customers directly.  Recommend enough folks who pay their bills on time, and you the customer get your bill comped, too.  In other words, they’re seriously doubling down on the idea that they want to really be a player with customers, not simply selling to their sales guys like some of the other, shadier mlm/network-marketing folks out there (That’s right, Herbalife, I’m looking at YOU).  In fact, as D Magazine noted a couple years back, their commitment to customer-base, rather than ponzi, growth nearly killed the company early on.

In this case, “Nothing fails like success” almost turned prophetic.

Now for me, who likes direct sales/network marketing, but HATE scams and bullshit in general (I mean, come on, my job as a history professor was more or less nothing BUT teaching my students to think critically and sniff out bullshit).  The interesting thing, in terms of reaching out and talking to folks hasn’t been talking to various sales folks (all of whom get this), but the fact that that most of my friends are ALSO serious introverts, several of whose reaction to hearing what I’ve been up to has been to immediately wall up and completely shut down ALL conversation for the space of fifteen minutes or so.  And one of the dudes to do this is himself a serial entrepreneur, (aka, somebody who gets this stuff!) who STILL couldn’t bear to hear it.  Which is really interesting, because I am completely convinced that introverts are the people most inclined to profit from this sort of thing, precisely because every man-jack of us is allergic to “bullshit for the purpose” and HATES being “sold at.”  Tell somebody who’s an extrovert “hey, this call’s not personal per se, I’m calling to see if you can help me out and pitch something at you,” and your extrovert goes “yeah, sure, hit me.”  Because she’s happy to hear from you in the first place — connection, not content, is her Gold Standard.

Your introvert goes “wait — the only reason you picked up the phone is to SELL ME?!  DIE!!

Introvert just before deploying her devastating EYEBALL-CANNON OF SCORN.

But in spite of that, I have hopes.  Part of which is, sooner or later, once you can get past an introvert’s amazingly-active bullshit filter (seriously, we can smell “fake” at fifty paces), they’re often intensely curious, and they’re also much more sensitive to how the people they’re talking to actually feel and what they need.  They just don’t like getting sold at.  Which brings me to the second part, and the question some people may be asking now… “wait, if the author himself is a hardcore introvert, why does he generally like network marketing?”

That’s because yours truly is a historian and has a somewhat-more-keen-than-usual sensitivity for change over time.  And part of that is the understanding that, prior to the 20th century, almost ALL marketing and ALL business, unless you were a farmer, a laborer, or in a few niche trades, was network selling.  Corporations have only been a thing recently, and corporations which could shove aside any and all competitors due to the price advantages of mass production and mass distribution networks, are quite new in human history.  Did you sell wool?  Make clothes?  Make bacon?  Chances are, you relied on word of mouth, and definitely the strict line between the commercial and the personal that we perceive in the beginning of the 21st century didn’t exist.  Because the entire middle class was made up of entrepreneurs — when there’s no such thing as a corporation, and your business was dead as soon as you were by definition, entrepreneurship was the name of the game.

This isn’t how your great-great-grandma sold pies. YUM, PIES…

The increasing decentralization of production in the 21st century changes things.  Yeah, we’re not quite to the stage of one-off custom cars and computers being competitive, and there’s a good chance we won’t get there because they’re a category good rather than an actual product.  Otherwise, though, have you noticed lately how “mass production” increasingly stands for “useless crap I don’t actually need?”  We’re entering a stage where we can shop out and find things which are the design and model we specifically need, and increasingly, we can go out and find craftspeople and cottage-industry people who can make us specifically the stuff we need.  Remember twenty years ago when shopping meant “let’s go to the mall and see if any of the crap there is actually something I would think about wearing?”  Yeah, instead, now you get kickass companies like Eshakti that let you get the insanely-cute dress you want without leaving your home, and which increasingly are built around letting you put together exactly what it is you wanted in the first place.

Seriously. Just LOOK at this owl dress. Is that not Teh Kyoot?

Facebook may be spamming you with all sorts of links you could give a complete rat’s ass about… but the whole “hey, I recommend this because I think it’s cool?”  Yeah, we do that.  And we’re doing a LOT MORE OF THAT.  I’ve referred potential customers to entrepreneur buddies of mine, potential creative gigs to my animator buddy, all sorts of stuff like that.  I do more of that than I can shake a stick at…because they’re my buddies.  Duh.

So, while the Arabs may be right about “getting sold” when they say “only the Devil recommends himself,” saying “hey, this OTHER guy is pretty darned cool, go buy stuff from him,” THAT is already well in swing. The historical pendulum is swinging back towards the middle, and blurring the lines.

Even among us introverts.

Though it’s still WAY harder to sell electricity than an awesome t-shirt about velociraptors.

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