Five Things I Learned at Image Cable Systems

I’m doing a series of posts on what I learned from the various jobs I’ve held in my life.  First up was a list of the five things I learned during my time at my hometown gas station when I was in high school.  Now, having signed up to do some volunteer phone calling for the Ryan Meili campaign, I was inspired to talk about my second “real” job in my life – as a door-to-door salesman for a rural Saskatchewan cable TV company called Image Cable Systems during summers while I was doing my undergrad degree.  (As part of the job, we had to do phone surveys of existing customers – very similar to the calls to existing NDP members I’m doing now – which is why I thought of this.)  Oh, and I see Image has morphed into a wireless Internet and cable company, still focused on rural Saskatchewan. 

I got this summer job near the end of my final year of high school.  Image wanted me to spend the summer going door-to-door through my hometown trying to sell new cable subscriptions and up-sell existing customers with one of the four packages they had at the time (I even remember them – Extended Basic, Music, Movies and Variety.)  Mini-satellite dishes were just starting to hit the market so to be honest, selling cable subscriptions and packages, especially to people in your hometown, was almost like shooting fish in a barrel.  (“Oh dearie, your mom was such a good nurse to me when I was in the hospital – I’ll take that MuchMusic package you were talking about!”)

Image initially ran this campaign in six of their largest communities (with a local kid or two working in each town) and it was so successful, they kept it going through their whole system of 50 (?) communities across eastern and central Saskatchewan during subsequent summers.  I visited probably 25-30 towns during the four or so summers I worked for them (including my hometown twice – once my first summer and once during my final one!)  I also even got extended into the fall during my second last summer to make sure that all the towns they wanted to hit got covered.

Here are some of the things I learned…
1. By far, the single biggest thing I learned (or got a lot of practice at anyhow) was how to talk to/get along with/deal with people of all ages, personalities, attitudes and so on.  It wasn’t as bad as selling vacuums door-to-door but you were still cold-calling people, never sure if they’d set their dog on you, tell you their husband had just died or call you in and offer you tea and a sandwich.  (All true stories by the way.) 

2. This will sound crass but I got a taste of how good it feels to make lots of money.  Image structured their pay system very generously – we got paid a base wage that was already higher than minimum wage (more than what most college students could ask for already!) plus we were paid on an escalating scale for every sale and upgrade we made plus bonuses.  For example, for the first 50 new subscriptions we sold, we might get $5.00 each and $2.50 for every package sold as an upgrade to a new or existing customer (so a new customer who ordered all 4 packages meant I got $15).  Once I got to 50 new sales, I might get a bonus of $50 too. For the next 50, it was something like $7.50 and $5.00 and a $100 bonus when I got to 100 sales.  And so on and so on. 

In my most lucrative summer, the team I was working with (two technicians doing line checks and myself doing sales) made over 300 new sales and Image won a national marketing award for the campaign so you can do the math to figure out how much money we were raking in.  When you average it out for the entire summer, I made the equivalent of the hourly wage I’m getting now, fifteen years and two degrees later!   That was the fall that I went on an exchange to England and it was so awesome to not have to worry about money at all during that trip.  (I’m quick to add that this experience didn’t spoil me completely and I chose to work in non-profits for a lot less than many of my contemporaries were making for nearly a decade after convocating with my English degree.  And I also chose to work in public libraries rather than academic or special libraries which are often higher paying.)

3. That I do my best work when working autonomously – if I’m given a lot of freedom to do the work as I see fit, bend rules when necessary and make things happen.   I’d already realised this on a smaller level at the Esso where we only had two employees on during the busiest weekends during the summer.  Otherwise, you were the only employee working.  But working with Image Cable confirmed this.  Being on the road, either working by myself or as part of a team, meant that HQ in Yorkton gave us a lot of trust that we would do the work required without a lot of oversight (I think we had to call in first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening with updated sales figures but we were otherwise on our own to decide how to work our way through a town, what to do when it was raining, how many times we might go back to prospective new customers, etc.)   Obviously the fact that we were selling at a pace that won Image a national award meant we were doing what was expected of us and more.  (I often wonder if they reconsidered their compensation scheme once it got to the point that they had to pay three team members $50 each or something equally ridiculous for every single new person we signed up?) 

That also led to one funny situation – during one summer, Image had two teams working simultaneously in two different communities.  But for some unknown reason, in a couple of the largest communities, they would place the two teams in the same community at the same time.  The other team wasn’t doing as well (I think they ended up with half the sales we did for the entire summer) and obviously, there was some potential for jealousy.  (Actually now that I think about it – that was probably why they placed two teams in the same town.  They wanted the other team to see what we were doing and maybe learn from us?)

Anyhow, one rainy morning, my team decided to slack off and sleep in for a bit before going out having had a late night the night before going past our scheduled quitting time to finish an installation for a new customer.  So after calling in at 9am, we all went back to bed.  (Oh, we also made extra money by scrimping and saving every way possible on our, again overly generous, per diem. Shared hotel rooms.  Buying groceries for meals instead of eating out. Staying with friends or family instead of using hotels where possible.)  We were awoken half an hour later by a phone call from our irate supervisor.  “Why are you still in your hotel room?”

My co-worker explained that it was raining plus we’d worked late the night before so we were starting later today.  That might’ve been enough for some people but my co-worker was kinda pissed – that the other team had told on us and that our work was being questioned when we were doing so well – so he  demanded that my supervisor call the house of the elderly lady where we’d stayed until 10pm the night before to get her cable hooked up (completely against the rules that had been set for us which said we had to wind-up by 9pm every night.)  The supervisor didn’t want to call but finally relented and did – the story checked out, the customer was extremely happy with our service – and the other team, who had told on us, ended up looking even worse!   

4. Although I’d grown up in rural Saskatchewan, it was a great experience just to get to visit so many different small towns, meeting so many different people – see what made each town unique and what made it similar.  We often had long hauls (mine were especially long since I usually had to drive the hour and a half to Yorkton at the start of the week to meet my team before we carried on to our scheduled town for the week – which could be another 3-4 hours away.)

5.  How to steal cable which sounds kinda flippant but actually probably had a big influence on my current views on copyright in the digital age, file sharing and open access.  (Another big part of the reason we were so successful is that the technicians doing line checks were basically looking to ensure that everyone was getting what they paid for.  In those early days of cable technology, any local electrician or really, anyone with a ladder and some ingenuity, could climb to the “trap” and make it so that all the channels flowed freely.  If you hit a town where somebody had given free cable to a dozen of their friends, the potential to make 8-10 sales if approached the right way was pretty high. 

Another anecdote – I went up to a house that was stealing and an old lady opened the door.  I launched into my usual “soft sell” spiel – “Madame, we’ve noticed that you were receiving unauthorized cable TV signals and I wanted to provide some information about the services we have available at these various pricing structures…”

“My goddamn son said I wouldn’t get caught!” she blurted, grabbed the package from my hand and slamming the door in my face.  (I later learned that she’d mailed in her application for service right to the Yorkton office – and again, as a token of the company’s generosity – we got credit for any sales that came in directly to HQ anytime we were in a town or for a month after we left in recognition that we may have been the reason the person signed up even if they didn’t right at the moment.)

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