The Carpet Chronicles

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For nearly two years, some 1,500 house calls, I sold, or tried to sell, carpet and flooring in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Before taking the job I’d had a successful sales career with Levi Strauss & Company, from 1986 to 2004; the “best years of my life,” ages 26 to 44.  I then spent nearly six years with a Redwood City-based printing and packaging concern, a stint that ended with the 2009 recession. 

After time on the couch receiving unemployment, my wife handed me a circled sales job advertisement from the Sunday Chronicle.  I made a call, submitted my resume, and within seven days was enrolled in a two-week training program at a hotel 45 minutes inside Fairfield.  Well into the training, my astute wife – tired of my coming home and complaining about the pace of the instruction – implored me to stay at the hotel for the final days, which I did. I ended up being one of two of 18 attendees to pass the exam, scoring 86 percent.  I got the job.

I graduated with an English degree from Santa Clara University in 1983, which made me both arrogant and able to document every sales call I made. 

My previous sales career was sheltered by the cushy corporate world of base pay, retirement contributions, bonuses and extravagant “off-site” seminars, complete with swag, awards, free food, hosted cocktail bars and lazy Luau bands.  This flooring gig was the opposite: one on one sales, two if the spouse showed up; 100 percent commission; little administrative support; and constant pressure to “make the sale” within two hours of contact. 

Naive and driven, I became the top salesperson in the Bay Area by month three.  The call schedule was hectic and exhausting.  I’d receive a text around 8 a.m. identifying the morning requests; at 1 p.m. I’d get another text with the addresses of my afternoon/evening presentations.  The appointments were scheduled every two hours starting at 9 a.m., ending at 9 p.m., six days a week, with Saturdays finishing at 3 p.m.. A typical day might include two morning and three afternoon/evening visits, as the dispatch manager had to accommodate travel times and each “lead” – generated by prolific daytime television ads – was scheduled to make it manageable to drive from home to home, city to city. 

I’d be in the shower, hear my phone ping and my heart would take a brief drop, as I never knew where I’d be headed.  I drove to Windsor, twice to Guerneville, Morgan Hill and Suisan City.  A more than 100 mile day was common; my longest was 236 miles, when I had a call at a trailer park north of Napa.  For most of my stint I drove a 1994 Lexus GS 300 that my brother had gifted me with about 140,000 miles on it.  At 345,000 miles I turned it into a local dealership to upgrade to a newer model after the transmission began to fail, receiving $500 toward a new vehicle for my troubles.

The company held weekly sales meetings that exposed how cutthroat they were with regard to closing deals.  At one meeting, roughly twenty chairs were arrayed in a circle, with names placed in each seat, ranging from cushy high back office furniture to folding chairs to a bench, intended to demean those who weren’t top producers.  The company designed its sales training to identify representatives who could maximize profits, seeking out the few who could succeed through the rigor of their drills and provide higher than reasonable margins by exploiting company pricing guidelines. 

After a two month “trial period”, salespeople were required to become independent contractors, which meant they had to create their own Limited Liability companies, responsible for their our own vehicles, gasoline, insurance, and earnings.  I asked the consistently number one sales guy – a quirky Indian man – what I was lacking with regard to staying atop the sales ladder.  He told me that I needed to have “blood on my fangs”. 

Though I degraded from being an “A” representative to a “C” I stuck it out because of my fascination with people and properties, and the insights I garnered from entering and measuring a wide variety of living quarters, invading personal spaces, like bedrooms and closets.  I always took the customer’s side; sold deals at the lowest spectrum of the pricing guidelines.  I did have a couple big contracts:  one for carpet at a 6,000 square foot gated home in the Santa Rosa hills, for $11,500; another for $17,000 for hardwood for an entire home in San Francisco’s Excelsior District.  I made about $600 on the first one; more than $1,000 on the second.  But those were exceptions. I went from being a rookie star to solid regular, ended up a shaky veteran. 

The turnover for salespeople was constant, with an average rep staying six months at most.  Despite trainings at weekly sales meetings that emphasized a strict 10 step sales process, I’d just do my best to engage with the customer in an honest way to determine if the opportunity was real or not.  According to the company, 20 percent of calls were “lay downs” – easy deals by customers ready to buy – 20 percent “no deals” by folks “kicking tires” – people who were just shopping or renters with no authority to make a decision – with 60 percent who needed to be convinced/sold on the product in just two hours. 

The majority of customers were middle- and low income, with an occasional wealthy person thrown in.  I thrived on getting to know people from a myriad of different backgrounds, and was fascinated by the wide range of living conditions. One day I went from a call at a seedy housing project near Candlestick Park for a 400 pound Samoan man with curly toenails on crutches – nice guy – to a $9 million home in Sea Cliff for a mean lady who demanded I enter the property through the service entrance.  I replaced carpet for an aging, chain smoking, frail cat woman in San Mateo whose habit had caused a fire in her bedroom; a couple at a Daly City condominium who smoked so much I had to keep going outside to breath, opened the window near me to do the paperwork. 

I did my best to just be myself and defuse anxious situations from untrusting people whose homes I was entering. A woman at a cramped subsidized housing complex in the Fillmore District greeted me cheerily, then flew off the handle, yelling and cursing when I told her we had a $500 minimum; she only needed four 18 by 18 inch tiles for her tiny bathroom.  I experienced uncomfortable calls, where one spouse desired the product while the other was dead set against it, resulting in unpleasant arguments.  A young husband in Alameda wanted to surprise his wife with a room installed with hardwood.  He asked me to come back after the installation, where I found a woman in tears screaming at him for what he’d done.

My involvement with the company ended with a job offer from a sole proprietor flooring enterprise based in Palo Alto.  I took that position, filled with a gleeful sense of freedom when I returned my burdensome samples of carpet, tile, hardwood and vinyl to the company’s warehouse.   

This is the final installment of “The Carpet Chronicles.”  Potrero Hill resident Paul McDonald recorded more than thousand encounters in his two years as a flooring salesperson, which he hopes to publish as a book.