Orange County, California
It’s my first day at Moxie Pest Control, a Mormon-owned company that spans southern Los Angeles. Our training room smells of new carpet and is empty except for two rows of folding chairs and a whiteboard with a vertical row of names. I see mine on the bottom of the list.
A group of guys in white Moxie polos are chatting, sprawled around the room, swapping stories. They look at me as I walk in, then go back to talking. There is a kind of contained testosterone in the room, and I sense myself being sized up. A banner over the whiteboard reads “Wolfpack South OC,” the nickname for the team. A few of the guys introduce themselves, speaking with the laid-back drawl of Salt Lake City.
Our trainer, Rick, a gregarious 30-year-old who spent time in Russia as a Mormon missionary, begins what will become a summer-long seminar of sales technique. Rick is the epitome of a Provo All Star: good-looking, supremely confident, and a born salesman.
There are 16 of us. We learn how to craft our pitches, emphasizing the problems, finding “hot buttons,” preempting objections. Rick makes us stand in front of the group and role-play, mocking our mess-ups and forcing us to change ingrained habits like talking fast, shifting weight, saying “um” between words. It’s a brutal boot camp, and everyone is deadly serious. We also dive into the physical and “paraverbal” aspects of sales: mirroring a prospective client’s posture, speaking in slower, lower voices to sound confident, subtly nodding to influence potential customers, along with a host of other sales tricks.
I realize that I am, somehow, the only non-Mormon on this team. Most of the guys (there is only one gal) have already served two years as elders in the Mormon church, which means they’ve been knocking on doors since they were 18. I sense a rite of passage in this career, young Mormons testing their work ethic in the workforce. The habits and culture of the Mormon church pervade the company culture. The guys don’t drink or smoke, and they use words like “shiz” rather than more colorful alternatives. They crack jokes about “Gs,” which is slang for the religious garments that Mormons wear underneath their clothes. There is a sort of summer-camp feeling, an electricity, that pervades the proceedings.
Despite the training, the first day of actual sales is brutal. Dropped off in the middle of unfamiliar suburbia, armed only with a clipboard and pen, the reality of selling a pest control service on the spot to a complete stranger in their own home is every bit as hard as it sounds. I spend most of my day peering through cracks in the door, whimpering out a half-pitch, hopefully. The psychological strain of constant face-to-face rejection and walking miles in the hot sun batters the borrowed sales technique right out of my brain. I don’t land a single interested customer.
Three days later, I’m still unsuccessful, feeling hungry as I watch the other new guys begin to put numbers on the board. There is a shared new camaraderie, wolves gathering around the kill, but I feel more like an outsider than ever. Frustrated one night, I manage to convince Rick to help me with my pitch. He tells me I’m talking too fast, teaches me how to roll objections, and gives me pointers on stance: “Don’t shift your weight when you talk, and keep your arms like a T. rex, elbows locked to your sides so you aren’t gesturing too much. It’s distracting.” He also tells me that I wrinkle my forehead when I talk, calling it “deer in the headlights,” saying it makes me come off as annoying. I thank him, chagrined.
The next day, as my team drives out to the “hood” we’ve been given, the guys banter back and forth as I feverishly mutter my own pitch. Four hours in the hot sun, no leads yet, and I’m discouraged, dehydrated, but knock one more door. I’m determined. “Talk slow, talk slow,” I tell myself. “Make them listen.” When a lady in her fifties answers the door, I slow my pitch down to a crawl: “Hi…I’m…John…I’m…the…bug…guy…for…some…of…your…neighbors.” It works. After what seems to be an endless half-hour, she tells me she has ants crawling over her back patio and does actually need pest control. I have my first client.
Something changes profoundly after the first sale. A new confidence. I’m part of the hunt. Part of the pack. After a few days of success, I sell three accounts in a row — which at $150 commission per sale is a nice payday — and my position in the group shifts. I’m not Mormon, but I’m making money, and in practical terms that means respect.
I won’t realize it until months later, but I’m beginning to think differently, the first stages of what I will later half-jokingly call my PTSD: post-traumatic sales disorder. The idea of being rewarded for convincing another human being to change their mind has a psychological edge, and when coupled with a hyperawareness of vocal tone, physicality, and word choice, it dramatically changes your outlook on communication—it jades it.
The Wolfpack begins to sell in earnest, engaging in weekly competitions to track down sales. I become familiar with these kids from Utah. As we grab energy drinks before driving out to new neighborhoods, I hear stories of Mormon life, growing up in a tightly knit community. I sense the tremendous pressure these guys are under — in some ways, there is no failure option for them. Mormonism preps these young men to be fathers, gods in the afterlife, and lays an expectation of perfection that affects every aspect of their life. Part of this is great; there is little wasted time, no bad habits. Along with this is a cultural wall, to act un-Mormon is to risk being ostracized. I hear the guys warn one another about the dangers of dating “ratchets” — non-Mormon girls. Underneath their jesting is a sense of solemnity.
The work is hard, but it becomes fun. I learn about the “ownership principle” from Rick. Use words that imply ownership. If you say “MY company, MY services, MY technicians” when you are selling a product, people will respect you more. And people buy from people they respect. It translates to a new braggadocio on the doors. We bring home stacked contracts like the pelts of a kill.
Summer goes from hot to sweltering. We move south, hunting prospective buyers on the doors in mornings and evenings, when families are likely to be home together. In the hot part of the day, the team rolls en masse to the beach, jumping in the waves and bodysurfing like a pack of dolphins, riding the California breaks to the shore.
A few of the guys are glassy-eyed, homesick, and beaten up by the difficulty of daily rejection. I notice a few members slipping away to spend more time at the beach. I hear roommates talk about missing life in Provo, how they are returning to school, and how much they miss dating. Eventually a few dreams of summer dollar signs end, and there are empty chairs in the morning meetings.
The Wolfpack is in full swing by mid-July. I find myself liking the guys. They’ve nicknamed me “Gentile John” for my non-Mormon affiliation. I’m proud of the nickname, but my pride is partly hubris. My sales have picked up, and I’ve adapted a few tricks from some of the more seasoned pros. In door-to-door sales, a key technique is to ask for a tour of the customer’s home or backyard to look for “problem areas.” I become an expert at finding the smallest traces of insect life, shaking my head and talking in a low tone as I describe the possible extent of the “infestation,” a carefully chosen word. I demonstrate with my hands, running my fingers through the air like a spider. In training, Rick laughs as he describes how these sorts of tactics unsettle the customer, make them more likely to buy. The theatrics become a major part of my routine. When I find a real spider, I squish it with my pen or clipboard, joking, “That one’s on the house,” before trying to close the deal.
One day I bring home 11 sold accounts, a team record. After that I inherit the swagger of a seasoned salesman, caught up in playing a game, only vaguely aware that I might be turning into something unsavory.
At night the team frequents the skate park, showing off boarding skills honed on the winter slopes of Utah. The lone woman on the team, twentysomething “Kelly,” has stopped hanging out with the guys, and I can’t say I blame her — it is a boy’s club. I get the impression that summer camp is becoming Lord of the Flies; there is a definite camaraderie, but underneath it is a knife’s edge. The Wolfpack has fully evolved into a group of jostling alpha males, accustomed to convincing anyone of anything. It bothers me at times, but I’m caught up in the rush of making money, and summer is almost over.
For a Provo All Star, the summer sales season is the arduous part of a yearlong ritual. Money is made to be spent on cars, lift tickets, snowboard gear, and dates with potential mates. The Wolfpack hunts for a few more weeks, and then the season draws to a close. As the team disperses, dreaming of back-end commission checks, I pack up my car and return to my apartment in Hollywood.