The hard sell from hell

'Earn pounds 1,000 a week,' scream the ads. But only a very few manage to hit the telesales jackpot. By Jonathan Green
They promised him undreamed of riches. Wide-eyed to the capital and eager to make his fortune after leaving college in rural Norfolk, Jason Ingham-Berry was going to be a media tycoon.

To impress at his interview, he convinced his potential boss he would make such a good salesman that he would be wearing a Rolex and driving a Ferrari within the year. The interview took just 10 minutes, no qualifications were asked for and Jason was to start amassing his fortune the following day. "I felt wonderful," he says. "I was going to earn all this money and I had been offered the first job I had applied for in a few minutes."

Jason had responded to an advertisement in the media sales recruitment pages of a newspaper. It was an ad like this that screams off the page: "You can earn pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000 every week!". And another jostling among similar calls to wealth runs: "You must be ambitious, self-motivated and want to earn in excess of pounds 50k pa."

On his first day Mr Ingham-Berry joined 50 other people, selling advertising space in trade magazines by cold calling companies around the globe. He worked off 100 per cent commission, around 12 per cent on each sale, which could net him as much as pounds 800 a time.

Yet becoming an Eighties-style mogul is not as easy as it appears in print. Over the next six weeks he didn't clinch a single sale. Consequently, he was making no money at all. "I came to London with pounds 2,000 and was spending it just staying in the job," he says. "All the salespeople would go out and we would all pretend we were big shots. The trouble is, everybody was lying to each other. I was spending all this money living the lifestyle and trying to fit in. The others didn't tell me they were taking out enormous overdrafts just to feed themselves."

His dreams came crashing down. Managers ran teams of salespeople, verbally abusing them if sales targets weren't met. He describes how some people were told to run up and down stairs to work up adrenalin. And others were told to stand on their desks so that they would be "talking down to the client" on the other end of the phone. "It was dreadful," he says. Managers would listen in with a second receiver while he was selling. Mistakes during the sales pitch would be seized upon and suggestions made on paper during the conversation.

Mr Ingham-Berry became demoralised and gave up trying to convince himself he would nail that elusive sale. Then he snapped. "One morning I got up and couldn't face it. I never went back but had spent all my money paying to do an absolutely, bloody terrible job."

Media and telephone sales is a massively expanding business. One estimate is that the telesales industry is worth pounds 10bn and employs 800,000 people. Companies require articulate, money-hungry sellers and recent graduates make perfect fodder.

After poverty stricken years at university dressed in moth-shredded jumpers and surviving on a diet of baked beans, the big "k" ads and offers of careers in the "media" are overwhelmingly seductive. But as the industry burgeons, so too do stories like Mr Ingham-Berry's.

A small percentage of media sales companies offer basic wages and large commissions or, even tougher, employment on a commission-only basis. It is the cutting edge of the industry where most new recruits fail quickly and only a very few make the money suggested in the ads.

Alan Morgan is head of the Graduate Recruitment Company, which supplies graduates to media sales firms. He describes a lot of the money advertised for commission based jobs as "a load of tosh. There are really dodgy companies that are a nightmare to work for," he says. "They just want bums on seats working the phones and they don't really care who. They have massive staff turnovers and I would say 10 per cent leave on the first day and 70 per cent after three months. They give the industry a really bad name."

These sink or swim economics are perilous for new sellers, says Bahrti Patel, deputy director of the Low Pay Unit, who has been monitoring media sales companies. "We would put these firms in the same category as home- working jobs which are well known to be a rip-off. They employ people so cheaply that you can be the one who ends up out of pocket. If you don't sell you are discarded and there are no employee rights."

The demand for staff who quickly burn out or fail is huge. Companies advertising for staff in the recruitment pages often do not give company names so that they can run several advertisements for new recruits on the same page. According to a spokesperson at the Advertising Standards Authority, as long as the ads make clear earnings are commission-based then no industry codes are being breached. "On target earnings" or "OTE" is the jargon used to mean earnings on commission.

Sterling Publishing Group confirms it has sometimes run three anonymous advertisements on the same page in the London Evening Standard. In its offices behind Paddington Station, west London, between 300 and 350 salespeople at any one time are selling space in publications such as the International Review of Water and Wastewater in Developing Markets. The two sales floors are frantic with activity. The majority of salespeople are smartly dressed males in their twenties.

They can opt to work for a basic wage of pounds 10,000 with 5 per cent commission. But 85 per cent of salespeople work on commission only with pounds 100 a week paid as a "subsistence" fee. New recruits are given a few days' training and then set to work. Within several weeks failures are told to leave. If you are not making money for yourself then you are not making money for the company.

Managing director Michael Summers explains the harsh realities of his company's employment policy. "This is a highly competitive market," he says. "After seven to eight weeks if they haven't sold a single page then we are likely to discontinue the arrangement. It's clearly not good for them and not good for us."

Mr Summers is hazy on the boasted potential earnings made in his company's adverts for new staff. One recent ad stated, "Earn While You Learn!! pounds 1,000 OTE." How many people are earning pounds 1,000 a week and reaching sales targets? "It's really very difficult to say," he says. "A meaningful number. Not just the odd single person."

Staff turnover figures are not to hand either. "But at the intake end there is a turnover of people," he admits. "We only provide the opportunity and a number come in and grasp that and make a success of it. The sort of numbers that are reflected in these ads are capable of being earned and are earned," he says but he admits: "not by everybody but by some people."

And, in truth, very occasionally a salesperson can make the sums displayed. After five years in the business, Richard Lynn, 30, says he now earns more than 75,000 a year as a divisional sales manager for Highbury House Communications. A politics graduate, he found his first job with Cornhill Publications, a Sterling company, through an advertisement in the Evening Standard.

For the first six weeks his earnings were on a par with Mr Ingham-Berry's. Then he made a sale that paid almost pounds 700. Inspired, his earnings gradually rose over the next six months until he was poached by a rival company. "It's like everything else in life. You've got to work at it. I was going to give up just before I made that sale. People have got to understand that being rejected by potential clients all day can make you very disillusioned and not everybody can do it."