House Calls Still Part of Sales Jobs : Door-to-Door Visits Go With Territory


One clear December evening, Dean Gravel, one of Kirby’s top vacuum salesmen in San Diego County, pulls up in front of a mobile home in Lakeside.

The first signs are good. A spanking-new Nissan sits in the driveway, an indication that Kenny and Chris Benson, who were referred by a relative, probably have good credit. Gravel doesn’t take the equipment with him at first. Chris answers the door, with 3-year-old Crystal in tow.

Gravel, 27, doesn’t wear a tie, part of the freedom of being his own boss. He introduces himself, looks around the small living room with its Christmas tree and decorations, and heads back to his compact car to get the stuff.


Doesn’t Get Hopes Up

Now Gravel knows the Bensons are “normal people.” That means he’ll probably engage them in conversation about normal things like buying cars and houses.

“You shouldn’t go in looking for a sale,” he said. “I just try to put on a nice demonstration. It’s a numbers game. You do so many demos, you’ll sell something. If you try to size them up, you’re usually wrong.”

From the back of his car he hauls out one large box, a couple of smaller ones and a leather briefcase. He puts them all down in the living room and invites the family to gather around and observe a demonstration of Kirby’s “home cleaning system.”

Gravel’s calls on the Benson household and the 45 or 50 others he will visit this month are testimony to the fact that there is still a place for a door-to-door salesman.

In this age of big, multimedia ad budgets, giant promotional campaigns, high-powered telemarketing and warehouses that sell appliances by the truckload, a surprising number of direct sellers like Gravel thrive. Gravel earns about 12% on each of the Kirbys he sells, which usually go for about $1,400. Successful on about half the calls he makes, he has an annual income of more than $30,000.

According to the Washington-based Direct Selling Assn., 3.6 million Americans are in the direct-sales business, 78% of them women. Avon is the largest single user of the direct approach, with a sales force of more than 450,000.

Few Deals Over Phone

Door-to-door is one direct sales method. Telephoning is another, but sales are seldom closed over the phone, according to the association. Home visits based on referrals are usually more effective.

After a lull in the mid-1980s, direct sales nationally for 1988 are expected to increase 6%, from $8.8 billion last year.

Kirby has been selling direct since 1914. Its sales network operates in 25 foreign countries. Its direct-selling competitors include Electrolux, Rainbow, Filter Queen and Tri Star.

“We feel we have a product of a particular quality that does certain things that require a complete and thorough demonstration before a customer can appreciate the machine,” said Marshall Herron, director of distributor administration at Kirby’s Cleveland headquarters.

“There are two reasons direct selling’s effective,” said George Hescock, executive vice president of the Direct Selling Assn. “One, a substantial number of people like the personal service of having an in-home demonstration. Two is convenience. People don’t have to shop.”

What makes a good door-to-door man or woman?

Needs Two Things

“In the final analysis, a guy that will work hard until he gets good, and then continue to work reasonably hard,” said Lou Edsell, Gravel’s boss and owner of PCK, the largest of San Diego’s five Kirby distributors. “There are two things a new guy needs: enough initiative to be on his own and the ability to accept rejection. Our guys probably get more rejection in a month than most people do in a lifetime.”

Gravel apparently has what it takes. He’s getting a $3,600 Christmas bonus, and he recently won a trip to the Kirby factory in a sales contest. He moved 30 Kirbys in 45 days.

Motor Built to Last

Kenny Benson, an auto mechanic, silently takes in Gravel’s shtick, nursing a beer. Chris and Crystal sit close by. Gravel explains that his company has been around 75 years, that the die-cast aluminum motor is “built to last,” that there’s a “25-year rebuild agreement.”

“Dirt comes in here and pushes to the side, away from the motor,” he says, kneeling on the carpet with the streamlined power plant in front of him. “It’s got a separate fan. And they added wider wheels to make it easier to push.”

Gravel has been selling Kirbys only 14 months, but he’s smooth. He makes a lot of eye contact. Teases young Crystal. Smiles often. Qualifies the Bensons financially without their even knowing it.

“How long you guys been living here?” he asks. “Do you own the trailer? I guess that just about comes out the same as a house payment.” The Bensons plan to move to a new home in Rancho California, another good sign that they can probably afford a Kirby, and that they probably have good credit.

The demonstration begins. Gravel explains how durable the stretchy steel-reinforced hose is. He ties it in a knot and invites Kenny to give one end a tug.

“Remember I told you Kirby makes a lot more than just a vacuum? This is where it gets fun.” And Gravel recites a list of features that would make a “Saturday Night Live” satire look tame: sander, scrubber, massager, furniture vacuum, window screen cleaner. Before every demonstration, Gravel puts a fresh filter in the “Dirt Meter,” a shiny metal canister on the side of the main unit. After each run over carpeting, furniture or screen door, he pulls each round piece of fabric out and lays it on the floor. Invariably, it’s full of dirt.

Got a Clogged Drain?

There’s more. The Kirby’s a compressor that can spray water to wash windows, or blow out clogged drains; a hand portable good for cleaning furniture; an upright floor vacuum. Gravel proceeds to demonstrate.

“Where’s your vacuum?” he asks. “Want to bring it out?” Kenny is skeptical, but Chris hauls the Kenmore out of the closet.

“How do you like it?” Gravel asks.

“I don’t,” she says. Another good sign.

Now it’s time for the salt demonstration. Gravel borrows one of those big containers of it and pours big rows on the carpeting--in the shape of a large K. Crystal helps him rub it in until it disappears. Gravel has Chris make 30 passes with the Kenmore.

Then he goes over the same spot with the Kirby, and the filter comes out heaped with salt.

Costs a Lot More

“Which would you rather do?” Gravel asks. “Get a little of it, or all of it? Obviously, you only paid $100 for that thing, and this costs a lot more. But most vacuums only last four to six years. The Kirby has a 25-year rebuild agreement, and it will last that long. That’s how you get your money out of it.”

By now, a dozen or so dirty filters rest on the carpet in front of Gravel.

“There is one problem with the Kirby,” he says, pausing for emphasis. Everyone is wondering how this do-everything marvel could possibly have a weakness. “That’s all it does,” he says, smiling triumphantly, the demonstration completed.

“Let’s talk about the price here. Let me ask you a few questions, then I’ll show you the price.” Gravel pulls out a tally sheet.

“What features do you like best?”

“The shampooer,” Chris says.

“The power vacuum,” Kenny says.

Car Salesman Rears His Head

“If you had to duplicate all the equipment you’ve seen--an upright vacuum, canister vacuum, floor polisher, air compressor, paint gun--how much do you think you might spend?”

Kenny thinks for a minute. “Five thousand, at least,” he says.

“Is this the type of equipment you’d like to have if the price is right?” Gravel asks.

“You sound like a car salesman now,” Chris says. The first bad sign.

“Don’t say that,” Gravel protests, maintaining his cool, smiling. “OK, let me show you what the price is. It won’t bite you. It’s $1,249, plus $100 for the shampooer and $50 for the sander. That’s $1,399. Did you still want two of ‘em?”

The Bensons look at each other.

“Not at that price,” Kenny says.

“My Mom only paid $1,000 and she got everything. She bought it from a district sales rep.” Surprisingly, Gravel, who has just spent an hour and a half on the demo, doesn’t look crestfallen. Comes with the territory. “I want one,” Chris says, “but I’m not ready to buy tonight.”

Still Shampoos Carpet

Gravel doesn’t make a sale but still shampoos their living room carpet, as promised when the appointment was set by his office. The knees of his jeans are wet when he loads the Kirby back into its boxes.

“How did you get into this, anyway?” Kenny asks.

“I got out of the Navy, and I always wanted to be in sales. You can get rich. You’ve got to start somewhere and climb the ladder.”

No sale tonight, but Gravel seems unperturbed. He isn’t sure whether he will call the Bensons again. “If you don’t close ‘em, it’s hard to follow up,” he says.

They sound like they want a Kirby for their new house, so he makes an entry in his “little black book.” It’s too late that night for another appointment, so he goes back to the office to check in. The next night, he makes two more calls and comes up with two more strikeouts.

“I’m due today,” he says two days later.