From Missionaries to Salesmen

While trying to put together some posts, a colleague sent me an interesting article in The New York Times about Mormon young men selling for Pinnacle Security. Having lived and worked quite a bit in Mormon college towns, I have mixed feelings about these operations. Here in Rexburg, Idaho, recruitment offices for security and pest control sales companies are in prominent places throughout the town. One of my neighbors has done quite well selling for such companies.

However, Brigham Young University-Idaho President Kim Clark has been openly critical of these sales schemes. Clark’s concern seems to be about the get rich quick approach that many of these companies use in their recruiting efforts. In addition, while there may be potential for summer earnings, they are not a foundation for careers. Yet, they continue to grow in the area.

I could never do this type of work. I wasn’t a big fan of it while a missionary. But, for the gospel, I will do lots of things. Door-to-door is something that, like donating plasma, I cannot do anymore, even for money.

I also have concerns about the well-being of the young men involved. One of my best friends as an undergraduate had a horrible experience. The following quote from the article is almost haunting:

Sometimes, though, it rains, and when it does, Pinnacle’s sink-or-swim mentality for sales reps, especially new, unproven ones like Brandon Rogers, is tough love at its toughest.

Newbies, for fear they may retreat to their cars, are dropped off and left on foot without shelter or access to a bathroom unless they can gain admittance into a house to make their sales pitch. Mr. Rogers, who is 21, had three energy bars and no umbrella to last him through a long, wet day.

He had made one sale by dark, when they picked him up.

Being critical of these endeavors is easy from my ideological perspective. What are your thoughts?

29 Replies to “From Missionaries to Salesmen”

  1. I was horrified that the NY Times had exposed one of the most horrible, embarrasing, and typically tacky practices of intermountain west Mormons. Why does Utah LDS culture continue to generate such denigrating schemes for quick riches and why are such endeavors supported by so many members that have a testimony of the Restored Gospel? How are these young people raised that they would even give consideration to signing up for these things?

  2. Michael,

    “How are these young people raised that they would even give consideration to signing up for these things?”

    The prospect of a six-figure summer earnings is likely pretty enticing.

    Not sure if these are just Utah/Mountain West Mormons, since many of the students at BYU-Idaho, BYU, and UVU are from elsewhere in the country (as well as the west).

    I do think that “tacky” might be a good word for it, though I might just feel that way about sales in general.

    Thanks for your comment

  3. Thanks for posting this, though I am sad to see this story getting national attention since I have the same feelings as you and Michael. It reminds me of a classic Nibley quote, though:

    “The group leader of my high priests’ quorum is a solid and stalwart Latter-day Saint who was recently visited by a young returned missionary who came to sell him some insurance. Cashing in on his training in the mission field, the fellow assured the brother that he knew that he had the right policy for him just as he knew the gospel was true. Whereupon my friend, without further ado, ordered him out of the house, for one with a testimony should hold it sacred and not sell it for money. The early Christians called Christemporoi those who made merchandise of spiritual gifts or church connections. The things of the world and the things of eternity cannot be thus conveniently conjoined; and it is because many people are finding this out today that I am constrained at this time to speak on this unpopular theme.” (Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, some page number that I’m too lazy to look up)

    I was at a lecture a few years ago at BYU on Constitution day where a professor from Princeton was talking about the founding of the nation. While sitting in the end seat of the back row, a guy snuck over and handed me a clipboard before taking off. When I looked at it and realized that it was a sign-up sheet for summer sales to be passed around the auditorium, I promptly set it under my seat.

  4. Maybe the least pleasant parts of a mission do contribute to a tolerance (I won’t say skills) for this kind of summer work. But the discomfiting thing about this article is that people won’t stop at believing that a mission prepared the salesmen. They’re going to reverse engineer it and believe that missions and the Church are as shady and cynical and misleading and crooked as we’ve heard some of these businesses are. Pimping themselves this way taints what may have been noble earlier missions and reflects badly on current missionaries.

  5. Ben,

    Thanks for the Nibley quote. Of course, Nibley found a wide range of business activities to be unsavory. That is why I find Kim Clark’s response to be so interesting. He is clearly friendly toward contemporary business activities (as former dean of Harvard Business School), but very much seems to think that this is…well…”pimping” as Ardis describes it.

    That such a list would be passed out during the Robert George lecture is particularly sad, since the opportunity to hear from a scholar like George (who I do not agree with on much) in a university setting is such a blessing (one we would not have here in Rexburg). I commend you for discarding it.


    I agree. This image of Mormons is one of the reasons that I think many people have doubts about people like Mitt Romney (and others). For the most part people do not care about our theology, but instead think of us as Amway-types and therefore view us as “shady and cynical and misleading and crooked.”

  6. I believe that a recently called 70 was owner of Pinnacle security.It is interesting that the president of BYU-I would speak out on this. Kudos to Pres Clark.

  7. When I was that age many years ago, I had an interview for something similar. It was recessionary times, much like today, and jobs were scarce. The whole thing was set up exactly like a mission, and the guy I interviewed with must have been a MP at one point; he was straight out of central casting. I don’t recall the details, but we jointly and quickly determined that I was not a good fit for this kind of thing. Thank goodness! I can’t imagine spending a summer doing this sort of thing.

    Every summer we have a lot of young guys come to our ward who are doing summer sales. They’re good guys and I wish them well, but I’m glad I’m not in their shoes.

  8. This reminds me of the salespeople selling the Living scriptures. They are ruthless and unethical in their tactics. I completely agree with Michael, how can people believe that these sorts of activities somehow feel they are doing what’s right?

    People often don’t take the question seriously, “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?”

  9. “People often don’t take the question seriously, ‘Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?'”

    Ian, I do not think that many people take this question seriously and this does not apply to these guys anymore than it does the rest of us.


    When you say that you and the interviewer quickly realized that you were not meant for this type of work, it made me laugh. I often meet certain students, and I will think to myself “I bet this guy does alarm system/pest control sales.” I am usually correct.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  10. This is a tough one because it can really go both ways. I worked for APX last summer as a Data Entrist. Our job description entailed setting up subscription information for customers and interviewing them to make sure they knew what they were getting into. Some sales guys really took care of their customers and handled their business dealings in an honest and upfront way. They believed in their product and they cared about the people it served. Others were out to make the sale even if it meant screwing the customers over.

    So while I don’t think you can blame the guys who do this kind of work as a generalization, I do believe that the companies themselves are accountable for fostering this type of environment. APX recently screwed one of my buddies who, on promise of employment, moved himself and his pregnant wife across the country to install while she worked in the office. En route to the state of residence, they called him and told him that they could not, in fact, offer him or his wife any positions since sales volume had not been high enough.

    I would not work for APX again nor would I recommend it to anyone else. While I do believe that APX is the among the more reputable of the sales companies, that’s not saying much.

  11. jondh,

    Thanks for your comment.

    “So while I don’t think you can blame the guys who do this kind of work as a generalization, I do believe that the companies themselves are accountable for fostering this type of environment.”

    I agree with this sentiment. I really do not think these students are doing anything sinister. It is like holding the cashier at Wal Mart responsible for the damage done by corporate behavior. Likewise, the idea that we should make it rich first, and then focus on things of public and spiritual importance is found thoughout our culture. This is just one example.

  12. I completely disagree Chris. If you are selling something to someone that they can’t afford and/or that they don’t really want, I believe that is dishonest. Just because the person who bought it is an idiot too, doesn’t mean that the person who sold it to them wasn’t dishonest.

    Unless of course, I misunderstand your meaning.

  13. Ian, I do not think that we are that far apart. I do not think that the salesmen are all dishonest. Clearly, if they are using underhanded tactics then they are being dishonest. Most of the people that I know, including my neighbor sell in more affluent areas because that is where they are most likely to have success. However, this may be because he is higher up in the organization and, therefore, he gets the prime areas.

    I think that the system which these companies use, including their commission schemes, creates a ripe environment for dishonesty. Take the scenario I highlighted in the post. If you are left without food and shelter until you get a sale, you are more likely to push for the sale. I am just saying that it is primary the system that is creating the dishonesty (though, from jondh’s experiences, it looks as they do take some precautions). This may just be a difference in sociological perspective.

    Sadly, many of these students seem unaware of what they are involved in. This might say something about our culture. Not everyone has the intelligence and moral sensibility of jondh.

  14. I worked a summer selling pest control in Ohio for one of the bigger outfits based in Utah County.

    1. It sucked. The hours were long, the temperatures were hot, and I rarely got to see my brand new wife.

    2. I was a decent salesman, and made a lot of money in the early going, but at some point I saw one of the servicemen visiting one of my clients. I realized as I watched him perform the service that I was selling a Cadillac, but they were getting a Datsun. I sold very little for the rest of the summer, because I knew I couldn’t honestly convince anyone that the product justified the price.

    3. Despite my dislike of that kind of work, Pres. Clark’s criticism is just stupid. If he’s going to criticize it for not furthering careers, then I suggest he also include 100% of the on-campus jobs at BYU-I that students take, because I doubt many careers have been launched from swiping ID cards at the gym or cleaning toilets in the student center. What those jobs do allow, in many instances (even mine, which was horrible and not very successful), it allows students to avoid working during the fall (or even the spring, if sales were high), which allows for increased attention to studies. That does, despite what Pres. Clark may say, further careers.

    4. I knew dozens of guys who sold very honestly. I also knew some that were slippery and dishonest. There are dishonest twits in every industry on the planet, and this one was no better or worse.

    In the final analysis, I don’t recommend those jobs to people, even though I did it. The reason has very little to do with Mormon exploitation, honesty, or spiritual growth/atrophy. Rather, it’s because, like I said at the outset, it just sucked to spend my last “youthful summer” working that many hours for lucre.

  15. Scott,

    When I said that “Clark’s concern seems to be…” I was offering my interpretation of his concerns. Those are not his arguments, but rather my perception. I should have been more clear about this…the stupidity is all mine.

    As for on-campus jobs, I am not aware of many that deny access to shelter or restrooms as a means of encouraging more ID swipes. I actually think that early-morning janitorial builds a certain type of character and work ethic. They are also more family friendly, in my simple opinion.

    There are plenty of other alternatives. Summer sales and working at the campus gym are not the only ones. Many of my TA’s (actually they are just hourly student secretaries) have gone on to academic and professional success. This is due in some part because of their time working on campus.

  16. Chris H.,

    Keep in mind that I am no defender of summer sales jobs of these sort. That said, do you _really_ think that early morning janitorial jobs build _more_ character than 14-15 hour days in the hot sun with no breaks? Having done both, I am very confident about which one taught me more about toughening up and enduring to the end.

  17. It isn’t the long days or the hot sun that makes the story bothersome to me. It’s the linking of sales techniques that are little short of manipulative (“mimic and mirror” as “a way of inducing trust”) because the product can’t win acceptance in a straightforward offering. We’re all more than a little cynical of advertising and sales techniques, and most of us are on our guard more than ever when you know the salesman is just in it for the buck, not because he believes in his product (even if they haven’t analyzed the likelihood, potential customers have to know at some level that these 20-something young men from somewhere five states away don’t have homes that are monitored by Pinnacle Security and aren’t speaking from personal conviction).

    There’s an implication that these young salesmen who are exercising all these tricks now used the same tricks then as missionaries, that their reason for selling the gospel then is as cynical as for selling security systems now. That idea isn’t plainly stated, but it’s there — it’s the only reason for the article. If these salesmen were miscellaneous recruits from a job fair, there would be no story. It’s a story at all only because of the linkage to missionary activities.

  18. Scott, jobs which require “14-15 hour days in the hot sun with no breaks” would only make me bittter and angry. SInce I have never done such much and have been view by many as bitter and angry…I am not sure what to say.

    As for “toughening up,” my wife says that I am a big wimp, so maybe I am not the best person to tackle that part of the issue.

    The connection between the (shadeless) shady/cynical work and the missionary activities is quite plain, even if it is not particularly plainly stated. Of course, the author did not have to try hard, these RM’s were making the connection for him. As I stated above (#13), I do not think these young men are aware of how this might look. The Pinnacle folks probably think this is great advertising.

  19. Ardis,
    I don’t disagree with your interpretation of the article, or its underlying motivations at all. While I personally was not able to sell the products at all–essentially for the reasons you listed–I don’t believe that there is as big of a disconnect between the sales methods used by these companies and the methods used by effective salespersons in many retail stores. That was just my experience–it may be different in different companies. But like I said, I didn’t like the job, couldn’t sell the product honestly–because I didn’t value the product myself–and don’t encourage others to seek out employment there.

    However, I think it is unfair to require that a college student working a summer job have convictions about the quality of the product in order to be non-manipulative. I don’t think that very many retail sales clerks “believe” in their products, so to speak. Almost all employees in almost all industries are, at the end of the day, in it for the buck. Having a product you believe in is a nice bonus, but it’s less common in my experience.

  20. Thanks for the post, Chris. That Pres. Clark spoke out against against such summer sales companies seems quite significant to me (even if some of his reasoning ultimately breaks down, as Scott suggests in #15), for the reasons you point out in comment #5.

  21. The difference between on-campus BYU-I jobs and summer sales jobs is that the BYU-I jobs are not marketing themselves to be valid career starters. Nobody expects that being a janitor will be the foundations of a successful career in any field, but many who join summer sales organizations are told that a sales rep job will jumpstart their business careers. This claim makes Pres. Clark’s criticism valid.

  22. The sales companies, including Pinnacle, have been doing faculty outreach and other forms of public relations to improve there image. Most of their billboards in town are about providing security, and not about earnings potential. One person told me that some of this was in response to Pres. Clark.

    I am moving soon, I will miss those signs.

  23. #22 hit it on the nose. The jobs around campus are meant to be jobs that support and do not distract from their schoolwork. In my experience, I did alarm sales for 3 years, having an alarm sales job while simultaneously going to school significantly lessened the importance of schoolwork. After a summer when I came back and made good money, school really wasn’t the biggest priority. After my first year I had one year to finish to graduate. That year I came away with my worst grades and barely squeaked by. I felt like I had a great future ahead of me that was an alternative and better approach to what I could have when I left school. As if I had bypassed the entry level and only had to work 4-6 months out of the year and have it easy the rest. That’s false.

    Many people do well and make good money. However many people do not. Many people fail, not because they are bad people, but because selling is not their thing. The whole idea of only making money is a pretty hollow idea. Many jobs are like that, but is that the only thing to derive from a profession? I hear it all the time that so and so makes so much money so it can’t be all that bad. How low are our expectations if money is the only thing that judges the idea of something? In a culture that is obsessed with the get rich quick, it is the only bar that needs to be crossed to legitimize going door-to-door in most peoples minds. The majority of the time nobody looks at the multitude of consequences the job creates.

    In my mind, the biggest issue it creates is what happens to the skills learned on a mission and then used to make money and sell virtually meaningless items? What happens to those skills in the end? Are they able to be transferred back to gospel uses? Can people really believe them when they speak about the gospel using certain skills when during the week they use the same tactics to sell products that may or may not work?

    Read this talk by Elder Oaks. It puts to rest much of what we think about making a living and being a member of the Church.

  24. Having grown up in southeastern Idaho I would certainly dispute the claim that there are many other things to do to earn money. Please stop being so disdainful of what people have to do to make a living! I personally hate sales jobs, but someone needs to do it. I hope they do it with honor and honesty.

    I personally enjoy the writings of Hugh Nibley, but I think he was often off-base when it came to commenting upon business.

  25. Tom D,

    Sorry for not responding earlier, I somehow missed your comment.

    “I personally hate sales jobs, but someone needs to do it.”

    I am actually not sure if these sales jobs are actually needed. We can say this about certain sales positions, but I do not see how this applies to the pest control/alarm system schemes. There are plenty of other summer job options that one can do and most are done away from Rexburg. Again, working at Wal-Mart in Rexburg and selling alarms systems are not the only choices.

    “I personally enjoy the writings of Hugh Nibley, but I think he was often off-base when it came to commenting upon business.”

    Fair enough. For me, his comments on business (and greed and American capitalism) are the most accurate of his writings. Your sentiments are shared by many, particularly those in the business school in Provo.

  26. I wish I had seen this sooner – I currently work for APX and have a buddy that works for Pinnacle. I was told that we were established in Provo precisely for the reason that there were a lot of RMs around and they would make really good door-to-door salesmen. The comparisons are pretty obvious. Personally, I could never do the selling myself. But, it’s not a bad service, all around. There’s a fairly small percentage that need to use the system to call in an event – but who knows how many intrusions are prevented by the presence of an alarm system? It seems to provide some security (physical, emotional) for people in poor health. Sure, I’ve seen some of the shady stuff that goes on, but it seems to be more of an individual problem, not the company as a whole.

    I’ve seen stuff in the past (and present) where LDS businessmen seem to sort of assume a different persona at work. “honest in all my dealings? That doesn’t apply to business!” – seems to be the way things go.

  27. APX is a little better in this department (though that’s not saying much) because they both provide the service and sell their product. Pinnacle is merely a vendor for ADT. So it’s not skin off their nose if the customer isn’t satisfied; tough nuggies, they’re only there to make the sale. But APX, as a company is in trouble if their customer isn’t satisfied in the long run.

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