Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Selling Kirby Vacuums Door-to-door and the Thin Line Between Honest Advertising and Scams

Originally published: May 4th 2011, 9:00 PM EST

Kirby is one of the most interesting companies in America. Not always in a good way though.

A few facts about the company- Kirby is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and was founded in 1914. It is currently owned by Warren Buffett's conglomerate Berkshire-Hathaway and has always sold its vacuum systems door-to-door only. In fact, in-home demonstrations and word-of-mouth are the only way the company advertises at all. The company sells over 500,000 machines a year worldwide, generating revenue of over $1 billion per year.

I spent a month and a half at the Huntsville office from the end of February to the middle of April, 2011. The money can be quite good if you are able and willing to convince people to pay $1500+ for a vacuum. They make it easier than it sounds, actually.

Like I said, the company is interesting, but not always good interesting. Here's my breakdown:

Good interesting
-The vacuum is actually quite good at capturing dust (see the first link at end of this page)
- Kirby never advertises on TV or online.
- ALL advertising and sales are either face-to-face interaction or occasionally through a phone.
- The job often involves a lot of driving around in vans, and a lot of late hours, so Kirby offices can become a tight-knit group of people.

Bad interesting
- Kirby circulates inspirational/instructional videos that encourage dealers to create unscientific fears in customers and embarrass customers into buying.
- Kirby sells many of its machines through underpaid, new dealers who are told about quick promotion opportunities that often never come up.
- All new dealers sign contracts stating they are independent sales representatives, but many Kirby offices tell them they are on a salary system anyway, so they can threaten to fire them if they don't follow that office's Program. As a result, despite "being on a salary", some new dealers earn less than minimum wage when they struggle to sell the vacuums for high-dollar amounts.

Kirby's business model is different and impressive. My main complaint is the way the company pressures dealers into strict adherence to the Program. The heart of the Program are the “5 musts” of a full-factory demonstration. Two of the “musts”, mattress test and shampoo, make good sense and are designed to give customer enough information to make an informed decision. 2 others, making a friend and the sales contest, are standard sales tools and are to be expected with advertising.
It took me a while to understand the 100+ pads though. 100 is a big number, especially when each pad has to be separately installed. Most people expect the demonstration to take 30-40 minutes when they agree to it, but a full demonstrations that pulls 100 pads takes an hour, and often a lot longer. I usually just did between 30 and 50 of them and felt that was plenty to show the customer what the machine could do, although sometimes I would do around 75.

The strategy admittedly works. Working with Kirby showed me how people respond to social scripts.
If your house looks like a mess from these little, white dirt pads [seen here] from a vacuum demonstration, and then a nicely-dressed manager comes in, you will probably feel embarrassed about how your home looks. In order to stop feeling embarrassed, you are much more likely to purchase an expensive vacuum cleaner from the nicely-dressed manager.

I might have stayed longer if it was just about getting customers to pay top dollar because they liked me. The Program though, encourages dealers to use ill-founded fear and embarrassment when necessary to get the sale. If I was good enough at it and needed the money enough, I don't doubt would have stayed. But even after a month and a half, I wasn't great at it, and the $250 a week I was getting wasn't worth putting up with what I disliked about the Program, although working with the people at my office really helped me learn how to be extraverted, and that alone made my time there worthwhile.


I actually have a lot of respect for Kirby people. It's a high-stress job, that requires you to constantly learn and adapt to new situations. Also, it's easy to believe the spin that Kirby puts on the health issues and also easy to accept the Program as simply part of the job.

What interests me most about the job is the advertising aspect. Most producers outsource advertising to slick PR firms. These firms make carefully-tested, high-budget ads for TV or online that depict whoever owns the target product or service as cool, and whoever does not own it, as out-of-touch. Kirby, however, uses only face-to-face interaction between customers and employees, who are often new to the job. Every firm in a market system must promote an image of the firm that is usually going to exaggerate the firm's strengths. Image is the only thing in determining the market price of a product, a service, or stock.

So does Kirby exaggerate the proof backing its claims of the dangers that dust mites pose to people's health? Does Kirby exaggerate the ease of using the machine and its ability to “protect the value of your couches and chairs”? Yes, but every firm in a market economy exaggerates its image to potential customers. The main difference is that other firms hire advertising agencies to “do the dirty work” of spinning and exaggerating how good its products and services are. Outsourcing the dirty work allows salaried employees to feel good about helping consumers that for whatever reason “have to have” the product or service, while CEOs and shareholders enjoy the bigger share of the profits.

Finally, I realized I would rather not get paid and be able to express myself, than to get paid by through the Kirby Program. Kirby is a high-stress job and it's easy for beginning employees to be used by the Program and come out with bad experiences. I found my time with Kirby interesting and exciting. It's an experience I'm glad to have had, but not something I expect to go back to.

Here are a couple of articles I found that help to explain what Kirby does:

About the actual Kirby vacuum-shampoo system -

experiences with Kirby salespeople -

about dust mites:
what Kirby says – (couldn't find a website that has the document that Kirby gives out to all its offices, but what it says is pretty similar to this one):
what Science says –

about being a salesperson:

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