The Cold Calling Cult
It’s a cold Wednesday in October and I’m watching Batman Forever in a whitewashed room with twelve other candidates, waiting to be called.
What followed was a mercifully short interview and a day of tailing a fresh faced 19 year old (apparently a ‘top associate’) as he explained that the Events Assistant job I had applied for was in fact door-to-door marketing. After about eight exhausting hours, I found myself signing a piece of paper and setting my alarm for the following morning.
Each day started with being stuffed into ‘Atmosphere’, a barren room with little ventilation and far too many whiteboards. We’d perform 90’s team-building exercises, such as group huddles and shouting shoddy acronyms, all while sharing tactics to ‘maximise territory’. Our office manager, David, then graced us with his presence, sporting a pair of highly polished (and surprisingly distracting) shoes. Anyone with a respectable number of sales the previous day would get enthusiastic high-fives accompanied by a lengthy motivational speech. In turn, each of us reached for the Kool Aid.
’What time is it?’, asked David.
‘Show time’, we hypnotically replied.
These mornings served to develop a particular mindset. Sales became a blacklisted word. Focus instead was put on ‘the field’ as a training ground to perfect our people skills. Those who expressed doubt were deemed ‘losers’ – lazy, unambitious and generally inadequate. When people did quit it was with shame and disappointment, believing that their financial loss was their own making.
After one or two hours of travelling our team would end up in a remote residential area. We’d split up and go door-to-door selling services until as late as 7pm. Most houses were empty and those that weren’t were rarely interested. I’d make an average of three sales per day, on paper £30, but I never saw any of it.
Everyone made small talk and exchanged rumours. One team member, affectionately dubbed ‘condom’, told us how the manager of the ADT security campaign couldn’t speak a word of English when she had started just five months prior. Another claimed our manager used to be a cleaner. The rumours were incredible and even ludicrous, but they had the strange effect of legitimising the whole enterprise. Anything was possible if we were willing to put in the time. There was a cult-like atmosphere, where peer pressure and promises of money played on greed and the fear of missing out. Ironically, these were the very selling tactics taught to us.
Occasionally managers would throw in a free meal or the odd breakfast for the Crew Leaders. Every few months a selection of people would be labeled ‘Rising Stars’ and they’d attend a ‘business conference’ at a hotel, which sounded more like a frat party. A small price to pay to sustain the free labour.
About a month after starting I found out about the The Cobra Group and immediately quit. I ran home with my tail between my legs, facing the I-told-you-so looks from close friends and family before licking my wounds and beginning my job-hunt anew. Although there were plenty of tough times, there were also laughs and banter, and I did build up some rather impressive leg muscles.
The heart of what makes the job so appealing is the ‘fast-track management progression’ system, wherein supposedly 9–12 months after signing on the dotted line you’d be raking in close to £90,000. Only 1% of employees ever make it that far, but none of us were aware of this at the time.1 Each day we worked for free. Many stay for years before the penny drops.2
The scheme is designed to get as much free or cheap labour as possible, typically targeting the young and impressionable. There are hundreds scattered all over the world, with thousands of victims taking to scam exposure websites, blogs, comments, forums and Facebook to vent. 3
Since 2006 the ones pulling the strings are the descendant companies of DS-Max. The setup involves helping a member set up their own limited company, which eventually generates a new manager that in turn sets up their own company – and so on. Each of these give a handsome cut of their profits to their descendant company to gain a share of their clients. This simple formula generates ever-increasing profits with little input from the descendant company themselves.
Astonishingly, although the business practices they employ are considered misrepresentative and deceptive, these companies still remain legal since their ‘salespeople’ are self-employed. 4 To top it off, the entire setup doesn’t qualify as an illegal pyramid scheme as money isn’t generated from internal sign-up fees.
Job Seekers Take Note!
Run Like the Wind if:
- They want you to start immediately, provide full training, and offer earnings close to £250–500 ($400-800) per week.
- They contact you within hours after you apply. Many are interviewed – the more through the door the better.
- There is a four step ‘business progression’ which takes 9–18 months to complete. You’d (theoretically) move from Field Representative to Team Leader to Assistant Manager/Owner to Manager/Owner. The last stage is where you’d earn the big bucks.
- You are required to sign an Agreement that states you are not associated with the company and that the role is 100% commission based. You are told that you are ‘self employed’ and need to pay for all expenses.
- You hear the chant JUICE, DS-Max’s slogan (‘Join Us In Creating Excitement’). The term ‘Law of Averages’ should also set off alarm bells.
- Your days consist of morning teachings with music blaring, a talk by a manager and 8–10 hours of door-to-door selling. Most of your waking hours are spent slaving away.
If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Use your common sense. Don’t be naive like I was.5