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Door-to-door sales win new life
By David Holthaus • • July 17, 2009

In the age of high-tech, digital marketing and Internet sales, the lowly door-to-door salesperson is still wearing out shoes, making cold calls, braving barking dogs and suffering rejection. They're also making sales - nearly $31 billion worth in 2007.

A surprising roster of companies, ranging from financial services to telecommunications, are returning to the age-old technique once thought to be the sole domain of the Fuller Brush man and the Avon lady.

Will Haase knocks on doors to sell investments, retirement plans and his expertise for financial giant Edward Jones. The 24-year-old tries to venture out of his Fairfield office every day to meet at least five new people face-to-face. Door-to-door contact is part of the culture of St. Louis-based Edward Jones, where financial reps are encouraged to prospect the neighborhoods surrounding their offices.

Haase is one of about 15 million people in the U.S. engaged in direct selling, according to the Direct Selling Association. In total, they tallied $30.8 billion in sales in 2007. The trade group counts Internet and phone sales in its figures, but three-quarters of the sales happen "face-to-face," it says, with 70 percent taking place in homes.

With sales pitches saturating television, newspapers, magazines, radio, Web sites, billboards and more, direct, eye-to-eye contact has become a way to create a conversation with consumers, said Chris Manolis, professor of marketing at Xavier University.

"It's a way to break through the clutter," he said. "You can get in someone's face and say what you want to say."

Haase figures he's knocked on 2,000 doors since he opened the office in Fairfield in 2008. "Maybe 5 percent come back and end up doing something," he said. That beats cold-calling by phone, he says, which usually returns 2 or 3 percent.

John Steele hired an outside sales force to sell oil changes and brake jobs door to door in the neighborhoods around his auto repair shop in Burlington. They hit homes within a two-mile radius of the shop, selling $69.95 booklets that hold more than $500 worth of oil changes, alignments and brake work.

"It's like buying a customer," Steele said. "The results have been very, very positive."

It also provides a way for him to track the promotion - he's gained 330 new customers and $19,000 in new sales since November 2008.

To do the door-knocking, Steele hired Louisville-based Iredia Marketing, a company started in 2004 that has pounded the pavement for more than 70 clients, including Subway, Pizza Hut, Firestone and Midas.

Some of its 20 or so salespeople - all of them independent contractors - make contact with up to 90 people a day, said Marketing Director Tom Jacoby.

"They're getting a substantial amount of new customers in the door," he said.

Time Warner Cable uses the door-to-door technique as one way to sell its high-tech services. Salespeople pitch Time Warner's bundle of cable TV, high-speed Internet and digital phone services, identifying households that don't subscribe and sending a friendly salesperson to make the pitch.

"It cuts through the noise of marketing with a clear direct message," said Time Warner Vice President Pamela McDonald. "There's nothing like direct face-to-face contact."

Procter & Gamble and others have used a form of direct selling to get consumers to try their products. P&G has hired New York-based House Party to coordinate home-based events across the country. In May, the firm organized 5,000 Clairol home parties where women colored their hair, tried other Clairol products and left with coupons and a gift. Although no selling takes place at the parties, "it's to encourage them to buy the product when they get to the store," said Terese Kelly, a spokesperson for House Party.

House Party has coordinated similar events for food giants Hershey, Sargento, Kraft, entertainment companies such as TNT, ABC Family, and TruTV and even carmakers.

School of hard knocks

Door-to-door cold calls take a stout constitution, both to deal with rejection and with more direct threats. Haase recalls one street where a dog followed his every step, barking the entire way. He's had doors slammed in his face, but only twice.

The experience is considered such a character builder that one company uses it to teach college students life lessons.

Southwestern Co. hires college students each summer, turning them loose to sell books, software and study guides. The Nashville-based company says its chief mission is not to sell books, but to build character and train college students for the business world, which it has been doing since it was founded in 1868.

Thirty percent of the recruits don't last the summer, said Dan Moore, president. "It really is the school of hard knocks," he said.

Students aim to contact 30 parents with school-age children a day. They stay with host families, whom they rent rooms from. This summer, students have been recruited from University of Cincinnati, Miami University and Ohio University, most of whom were assigned to work in Iowa and North Carolina. More than 100 students are working in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, most of them from out of town.

Author and publisher Stacey Kannenberg sold for Southwestern in 1981 and has since started Cedar Valley Publishing in Wisconsin, writing and selling the "Let's Get Ready" series of books for families. "Everything I ever learned about sales and business I attribute to those early days of selling door-to-door," she said. "If you can master that trade, you can literally do anything."

Finding better prospects

But times do change, even in this time-honored practice.

The archetype of door-to-door selling, Fuller Brush, scaled back the practice in recent years. Now, its salespeople spend only about 15 percent of their time on door-to-door calling, said Larry Gray, vice president of consumer sales for the Great Bend, Kan. company. Its 8,000 full- and part-time sales force - all paid on commission only - more often seek referrals from existing customers or look for buyers at hair salons or other places where women gather.

His years in the business have enabled him to spot the traits of a good door-to-door salesperson: self-motivated, energetic, persistent and resilient, able to handle rejection with optimism. He looks for someone who believes in the rallying cry: "If you get a no, you're just that much closer to the next yes."

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