I had a range of jobs as I was going through uni – maths tutoring, bar work, waiting – but the one that is most embarrassing in the context of what I do now was sales.
When I saw the ad, the job looked perfect – three to four hours on weekday evenings, leaving my days free for lectures and my weekends for fun.
A few nights a week, I’d join a group of other students in a small suburban AMP agency. We’d each grab a phone book, turn to the next clean page and proceed to work our way through the numbers, marking off the names as we went.
If somebody answered, our job was to try to trap them into a conversation about superannuation and investment products.
The secret to this seemed to be to sow a seed of worry or doubt. Did they have a retirement savings plan? Did they want to be able to travel and buy gifts for their grandkids? Did they know how they were going to finance their retirement dreams?
The best targets seemed to be in their late forties or fifties, approaching retirement and starting to worry about it. This was before compulsory superannuation, so there were plenty of people in that boat.
I quickly realised that I was incredibly bad at this – perhaps because I felt uncomfortable tapping into a stranger’s deep insecurities.
Needing the money, I plugged away half-heartedly until one night a few months into the job when the owner called me into his office. The conversation went something like: “We pay you to make sales but in the entire time you’ve been here, you haven’t sold a single product.”
With a great sense of relief, I agreed to finish up then and there, heading off into the night with a lighter step.
With the banking royal commission probing sales practices, I’ve been thinking of this experience a lot lately.
The technology may have changed – firms now use marketing databases rather than the White Pages – but the practices are the same. Find a vulnerable person, tap into their insecurities, make the sale and pocket the money. And in too many cases, this results in somebody losing a large chunk of their savings through outrageous fees, shonky investments or worthless insurance.
Financial products should not be pushed over the phone to people who have not invited it. But even after the big financial scandals of recent years, we have done nothing to protect people from unsolicited sales.