I sat in the offices of Midtown Promotions, watching the receptionist field calls from job prospects, still surprised at having been one of those callers not even twenty-four hours prior.
I was in it for real on Day Two, no turning back now. Day Two, also known as the Day of O, short for Day of Observation in DS-Max (now known as Innovage) companies, is a field-test that no one has been known to fail. DS-Max, it has been said, will take anybody. So far, Midtown Promotion’s methodology for handling new recruits seemed to be tracking parallel to what I’ve read are the standard practices and procedures for DS-MAX type businesses.
Eric called me into his office to quickly run down the day. “You are going to be with these two gentleman, okay?” he said, sitting down in his leather chair. He indicated Carl, a manager-to-be, and James, an employee on his third day. Carl was in his late forties, in a nice grey button-down shirt and red and blue-striped tie. James was in a suit and green tie to match the lime-green strap around his neck that held his IDT-Energy badge. He was in his late twenties, a suave and good-looking Jamaican immigrant with a wry smile that seemed to say, “Don’t worry, I will get what I want.”
This is part 3 of our undercover report into IDT Energy, an energy reseller in the New York area…
“They’re going to initiate you into the sales and promotional campaign, okay? They’re going to show you the outside promotional side, how we do contracts. Ask them questions because upon their evaluation and the final interview with us tonight at seven, we’ll determine whether you meet our search criteria. Brian, best of luck.”
Eric barely had time for a handshake before barreling past me, flipping eagerly through a stack of papers. I sat back down in reception, waiting for the morning meeting to clear out, really wishing I could shove my tape recorder under that conference room door. I wondered if, behind those doors, employees were pledging allegiance to Midtown Promotions, or chanting “juice.” Maybe they were even being given clean ConEd shirts to replace yesterday’s.
Also waiting outside were five other prospects, chewing their nails and texting up a storm. My friend with the headband from yesterday wasn’t there,; all of these young employees-to-be were in business casual wear, which means my attire the day before was the right choice. What I couldn’t figure out was why we were wearing ties when, pretty soon, they’d surely be slipping us some shirts with ConEd patches.
The only thing I could hear over the ringing of the receptionist’s phone was a smattering of applause emanating from the meeting room once every few minutes. I rose from my seat and walked to the conference room doors, hoping to peek through the crack between them. Soon, about twenty-five people spilled out of what I could see was a large, furniture-free room with a blackboard. The last employee out closed the door behind him and gave me a puzzled look.
“What was all that clapping?” I asked James later that day.
“That was the managers, the head people, giving us all the energy we needed for the day. And we were going over yesterday, seeing what was working for everyone.” After a moment of thought, he added, “It’s easy to lose the momentum… so that keeps the momentum going, too… keeps you focused.” In researching DS-MAX online, former employees had referenced something that sounded similar to this, called “Atmosphere.”
After the meeting let out, Carl, James, and I headed off to Elmhurst, Queens, so they could sell and I could learn. As we went down the stairs into the 34th St. station, something began to dawn on me. All three of us were still. wearing ties and slacks. Nobody seemed to be carrying a bag that could fit ConEd uniforms.
I asked, “Hey, so… a couple months ago… some guy came to my door and he was in a ConEd uniform selling IDT. How come we’re not doing that?”
Carl’s eyebrows went up over the rim of his sunglasses. “That’s something different,” he said.
“Were you here when they were doing that?”
“I started in October.”
“It was only a few weeks ago,” I said, “They wanted to switch me to IDT. When I came in today, I fully expected everyone to be wearing Con Ed uniforms.”
Carl pointed to his dress shirt and snazzy tie. “I wear this every day.”
I got the sense Carl was being straight with me; he really didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Still, I pressed the issue. All he would say further was, “Isn’t that illegal?”
On the V train, Carl broke down the commission structure. He said it was $6 or $7 per application, up to $20 for businesses, with good people scoring 13-20 applications per day, which worked out to something around $600 a week. I wondered to myself how much the not-so “good people” got, before taxes, for their sixty hours.
Meanwhile, James peppered me with questions about what I wanted to do with my life, where I grew up, where I lived, etc. I wasn’t sure whether he simply took a relentless interest in me, or whether he just wanted to practice his already well-developed conversational skills. This tactic sounded similar to what one former DS-MAX manager described about dealing with new recruits on “The Day of O:”
“…Find out what he likes and dislikes. What he is motivated for or running away from? If it is an older guy — talk about management. If it is a kid talk about learning and growth. If the guy hates being in a cubicle then promote the fresh air. If she likes international business talk about how many country’s ds-max is in.”
We arrived in Jackson Heights and hopped a bus into Elmhurst, arriving at our first house at 11:30. Carl picked this area, around 81st St. and Northern Blvd. He said he’d been “doing well” with it on Monday and Tuesday.
For most of the day, Carl knocked and stood at the door, while we stood off to the side. Carl didn’t want us to look overwhelming. He figured more people would open the door if they thought it was one-on-one. For the first ten minutes, we got no answer for any of our knocks. Carl mentioned how do most of our sales after school lets out. Two two minutes later, he hit the proverbial jackpot: a landlord who owned lots of New York property and paid his tenants’ electric and gas bills.
He was Colombian, in his late sixties, thin, and balding. The landlord seemed perpetually stressed by how little money he was making. “The market is slow, so I don’t buy,” he muttered. Carl ignored the chatter just— he was buried under the paperwork, writing down account and phone numbers, addresses for each service location and separate billing location. It took him about three minutes for each application, and with two applications for every property (one for electric and one for gas), he had filled out a total of fourteen forms. By the end of it, the poor guy was covered in sweat.
Carl’s engrossment gave me a chance to give him a good look-over. A middle-aged black man with very short hair and a striking demeanor, he could be your bodyguard, if only he looked threatening and dangerous. He sweat constantly. “Don’t mind me,” he said sheepishly early on, “I sweat when it’s two degrees below zero. I used to work in an ice-cream freezer; it was twenty-five below every day. My whole uniform would come out soaking wet.” With his suit, sunglasses, binder full of forms, and a small towel always drying off his forehead, Carl could’ve been a 1960’s aluminum siding salesman.
“I pay so much money,” said the landlord, “I pay seven thousand dollars a year…” Carl interjected, “That’s why I’m here. To save you money.” The landlord continued, “They say to me when I call, I have to pay. [Otherwise,] call Bush. I’m not kidding.” In the last two months’, at one house, he was billed nearly $1,100. “I don’t cry about it, I don’t cry about the bills. I’ve had twelve surgeries in my body…”Most of the rest of the day’s sales were was less eventful:
• A woman who said, “My roommate pays the bill and we haven’t opened the new one yet.”
“Do you have an older copy of the bill? We can use that.”
“No, she keeps all the records.”
“Are you sure? Can you call her?”
“I can call her.” Then, a few moments later, “Yeah, she’s not— uh, I can’t reach her, so…” No sale.
• “Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. Interesting.”
“Do you live here?”
“No. I’m just the painter.” No sale.
• “Hello, good afternoon—”
“She not here.”
“She? Who’s she? You don’t even know who we’re here to see.” No sale.
• “Hi, good afternoon, sir. My name is Carl and this is James and Brian, and we’re from IDT-Energy. (Pause) Is there anyone in the house that speaks English? (Pause) All right, you have a good day, sir. (Pause) “We get a lot of cancellations from Chinese people,” Carl mused, “They’re the biggest cancellation rate.”
Most of the day’s sales were with non-English speakers. Since Carl spoke Spanish and I had forgotten most of mine, their conversations were lost on me. “Does anyone in the house speak English?” was our constant calling card. Often, a child acted as translator for immigrant parents. The kids came to the door, homework and pencil in hand, and explained the savings program back to the adult. The parent usually signed, giving the papers hesitantly back to Carl, and, by the end of the day, James, who started to take more initiative at the door.
At one point, James called up to a child in a second-story window who wanted to know why we were looking for his parents. James looked at Carl for help. “Should I say the same pitch? Should I say IDT or Con Ed?”
“Do the same as you would if they were at the door. Make sure you say ConEd. They hear ConEd, they’ll come down,” said Carl. That house is where James made his first sale.
At another house, James commanded, “Just get your bill, we’ll be right here.” “Oh, oh, okay,” said the Chinese woman, flustered by James’s unvarnished attempts at a hard sale.. Returning to the door, the woman seemed more relaxed. “We use very little, but we pay a lot. You IDT? Not Con Edison?”
“Con Edison got deregulated in 1997, so they can’t make energy,” Carl explained, sweetly. “Now, we’re the suppliers, we supply energy. See here, on your bill? Where it says when you ‘go to a new supplier to reduce your charges and lower your taxes?’ Okay?” The Chinese woman nodded.
As Carol was about to get into discussing Keyspan, everyone but the woman watched as the front door swung toward us with a gust. It closed, and locked.
She didn’t have her keys. Of course, just then, it started to rain. Carl and I cast a chagrined look at each other.
James offered the woman his umbrella to keep while she stood in the doorway, waiting for her son to come home from work. It could be an hour or more, she speculated. Her next-door neighbors came out of their house to bring in their kids.
Carl said, “Why not go inside with them? You want me to see if they can help you?”
The woman nodded vaguely, not looking at us.
“You can’t ask your neighbor?” asked Carl again.
She hemmed and hawed. James and Carl asked her neighbors’ permission to let the woman in. Warily, they said yes. Suddenly, the Chinese woman began sneezing non-stop for at least five minutes straight. “It’s allergies,” I told her neighbors.
When we left her, the woman stood under the doorway, almost walking in place, and not looking in our direction. Her neighbors shrugged, went into their house, and closed the door.Right: IDT-Energy’s Terms and Conditions. Click to enlarge.
We hardly rested all day long. Lunch lasted 10 minutes, including pizza, on me, and a bathroom break. I spotted James, though he never got me back, even after cashing his paycheck at a check-cashing place later that week.
Back on the streets, James took the lead while I hung back to chat with Carl. It was apparent James had done the math after moving up from “clearance,” a sales job that involved wheeling junky toys and gadgets around in boxes to local businesses. This caught my attention, as online reports mentioned how DS-MAX-type businesses often focused on selling small items n the street, in parking lots, and to small businesses.
Indeed, according to DS-MAX’s trademark application, their goods and/or services include:
Mops; bakeware; bath sets, namely sets containing two or more of garbage cans, tissue covers, toothbrush holders and soap dishes; bottle openers; bowls; bowl sets, chopper boards, namely kitchen boards for chopping vegetables and the like; canteens; car seat coolers namely food coolers used inside a vehicle; car dusters, namely dusters to remove dust from vehicles; comb sets; cups; cutting boards; freezer boxes, namely plastic containers for food; frying pans; hair brushes; graters, namely cheese graters; garbage baskets; household dusters; kitchen graters, namely cheese graters; kitchen scrubbers, namely pot scrubbing pads; ovenware; plates; plastic bowls; poultry cooking sets, namely turkey basters and turkey sewing needles; rubber brooms; scouring pads; shower caddies; serving spoons; soup ladles; spoon sets; tea sets; vacuum bottles; travel mugs; utensils for barbecues, namely, forks, tongs, turners; insect traps; portable beverage cooler; non-precious metal candle holders and candle holder sets; non-electric cooking pans; household containers for food; hand-operated kitchen tools, namely egg beaters, whisks, rolling pins, spatulas, turners; fitted picnic baskets; plastic food, coffee and teas canisters; portable blenders, namely hand-operated blenders for mixing beverages and liquid food; salad tongs; scrubbing brushes; empty soap bottles; tea strainers, wine strainers, cooking strainers; household spatulas, household spatula sets; teapots made of non-precious metal; brushes for cleaning vegetables art boards, namely boards used for drawing, painting or creating art; art sets, namely sets containing two or more of crayons, paint, coloured pen sets, pens and paper; atlases; photo albums; bibles; boxed stationery; calendars; crayons; crayon and paint sets; diaries; dictionaries; encyclopedias; erasers; flash cards; eraser sets; greeting cards; markers; juice books, namely cookbooks containing recipes relating to juices; memo pads; lunch bags; pens; pen sets; pencil cases; pencil sharpeners; note cards; office diaries; paper boxes, namely gift boxes; personal organizers; phone indexes; puzzle books; recipe books; stacking boxes, namely storage boxes for storing paper; stationery boxes; staplers; calligraphy kits comprised of calligraphy pens and paper; compasses for drawing or drafting; desk stands and holders for pens, pencils, and ink; empty designer gift bags made of fabric or paper; paperclips and letter clips; desktop organizers, organizers for personal use, organizers for stationery use; document portfolios, stationery-type portfolios; paper mail pouches, paper pouches for packaging; stationery sets comprised of stationery paper and pens and envelopes; answering machines; batteries; battery chargers; battery converters; binoculars; boom boxes, namely mini, portable stereo sets; calculators; camcorders; cameras; CD-Rom cases; CD players; cordless phones; electronic organizers; emergency lights; fire extinguishers; fridge magnets; headphones; magnifying glasses; mouse pads; pre-recorded CD-ROM’s containing music and games; FM radios with scanning tuners; radios; radio speakers; telephones; televisions; emergency auto kits comprised of a hand held spotlight and battery charger; dog alarms, namely alarms for ensuring canine pets do not leave their containment area; electronic game programs; cassette recorders, car cassette players; personal cassette player with a radio, personal CD player with a radio; computer game cassettes, computer game software, computer game discs; magnifying lenses; pre-recorded CD-ROM’s not containing software; pre-recorded videos, namely movies and instructional materials; video game software; thermal forks, namely barbeque forks with a temperature indicator IC 008; US 023 028 044; G and S— beard trimmers; cutlery; cutlery sets; flatware; hair clippers; cutters, namely box cutters; eyelash curlers; driver tools, namely hand-held screw drivers; hair removers, namely razors; hand tools, namely non-motorized tools, namely screw drivers, pliers, wrenches, files and rasps; knife sets; knives; kitchen knives; pliers; pocket knives; pizza slicers; razors; slicers for slicing fruits and vegetables; scissors; scissors sets; socket sets; travel kits, namely manicure sets; can openers; manicure sets; nasal clippers, namely clippers to trim nose hairs; pedicure sets; non-electric peelers, namely tools to peel the skins from fruits and vegetables; hand-operated food processors; hand-operated ratchet sets; hand-operated screwdrivers and screwdriver sets; non-electric shavers, air hockey games; backgammon sets; baseballs; bean bags; black jack games; board games; card games; chess sets; dart games; dolls; doll houses; catchers, namely fishing lures; handheld unit for playing electronic games; magic sets; jigsaw puzzles; paper and model playing kits, namely toys of all types made of paper and paper model toys such as trucks and airplanes; pinball games; plush toys; poker games; puppets; toy racing cars; stamp sets, namely sets of toy rubber stamps for making impressions; soccer balls; rolling hoops, namely toys comprising hoops that can be rolled; three-dimensional puzzles; squirters, namely toy water pistols; toys, namely, water guns, wind-up toys, plush toys, dolls, cars and trucks; walky talkies, namely toy communication devices; toy building blocks; card games, board games, battery-powered computer game with LCD screen which features animation and sounds effects, travel card games, travel board games, travel hand-held computer games; inflatable beach balls; and handheld units for playing video games.
Anyway, James made a lot of money in clearance and, after a few signatures for IDT-Energy, could see there weren’t enough hours in the week to make the same in his new position. James didn’t complain, but he kept asking Carl about how often Carl works and if Saturday is a bigger day than, say, Wednesday.
As the rain and vicious wind continued, we ducked into a large apartment building. We hit a series of doors where the maid or the kids were the only people around, then later made one or two sales in James’s name. About midway through, a very tall man in his late fifties swung open his door and bellowed, “What do you want? Hurry, hurry, what do you want?”
Carl gave his entire pitch in one incredible run-on sentence, but the old man just yelled at him to go away. Later, the old man interrupted us as we were selling to someone down the hall from him. “I despise ConEd and Entergy,” he yelled, mistaking us for a rival ESCO.
Back at HQ, I had to fill out a quiz on the five steps of sales. I had no idea how I would memorize those five steps and all their multiple subheadings and very precise, vague language. Nonetheless, I gave Carl a nice write-up on the questionnaire that asked things like, “Based on what you observed, what did you enjoy the most?” Then I moved on to the actual quiz, which thankfully was more or less “open book.”
The questions, none of which I had trouble finding the crowd-pleasing answer to, included: What did I enjoy the least? What good working habits would make you more successful? Why is it important not to let the “no’s” bother you? etc.
After that, I was ushered into Eric’s office for my “second interview.” His blond hair was neatly combed and goatee perfectly trimmed. Despite working 70+ hours a week, he always looked like it was ten am, had had eight hours of sleep, and his coffee had just kicked in.
7:20pm: Eric’s office
Eric: Hey! How are you, sir? Welcome. Have a seat!
Eric (referring to the piles of neatly stacked IDT-Energy apps): Don’t mind the mess in the office. So, you were out there today. Questions, sir, any questions?
Brian: Uh… nothing that I… Carl was pretty helpful, I probably bombarded him in the first hour, but after that it was learn-by-doing.
Eric: Very good. Right, and as you understand as far as what you’ve seen today… Carl… it’s part of his responsibility that he’s normally doing “twenties.”
[e.d. As in, number of applications per day.]
Eric went on to describe for me “just how much can be made” by multiplying Carl’s totals with the number of other hard workers, 5-6 days a week, times three offices, times 52. I couldn’t keep track of the numbers made it sounded like a lot of money.
Eric: Now, are we currently looking [for] long-term career people for sales? No. Don’t get me wrong, some people like it, enjoy it, make good money with it. Um, but the aspiration side of it, we are looking to expand it. Currently, the owner has six locations on the Eastern seaboard. We’re looking to grow it further, but the only way to grow it further is internally… we are looking to promote from within. So, we are looking for people who want to learn the system. I know some people come in for just summer schooling… so we’re fine with that. Is that something that’s of interest to you, Brian?
Was he already beginning to tenderize me for “The Opportunity,” where the office encourages the low-level worker to worker up to a leadership position and eventually open your own office that takes part in fulfilling the contracts the “spawning” office gets?
Brian (reflecting back Eric’s excitement): Yeah! Yeah!
Eric: And if I were to accept you, would you be able to start immediately?
Eric: And no other questions before I wrap up? I know it’s been a long day for you, I know it has been for me…
The only I could think of was, yeah, where are you hiding the ConEd uniforms? Instead, I just shook my head and got the hell out of there.
I had hit the pavement for ten hours, with no fake Con Ed outfits to show for it.
But what about James asking Carl whether he should say IDT-Energy or ConEd? That sat uneasily in my stomach, along with how we were successfully targeting non-English speakers, frequently through their children.
My body ached. I could hardly stand up. My shoes stunk, my feet stunk. My hair was a mess. I had unnatural cravings for boxes of sugar-drenched energy bars. I couldn’t get any sleep. I didn’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it. I will not do it. I have to do it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Note: No definitive ties have been established between Midtown Promotions and DS-MAX/Innovage.