Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

I recently received a phone call from a friend I hadn't talked to in a couple years. Delighted to see her name come up on my caller ID, I immediately answered the phone.

"Hey!" I said.

"Hey!" She said.

"It's been a long time!" I said. "I've missed you! How have things been?"

"Oh, you haven't missed me," she said. "You've been busy in your new house in your new neighborhood taking care of your family. But things have been good for me. Did you know that I'm expecting number four? Any day now."

"Are you? That's wonderful! How's this pregnancy been for you?"

So we chatted for a minute, until we reached that key point in phone conversations where ones switches from exchanging pleasantries to expressing purposes.

"So," I said, "What's going on?"

"Well," she said, hesitating a moment. "....I've missed you! I haven't had a walking partner since you moved."

Ah, I thought. She's lonely. She's having one of those days when she's absolutely starved for adult conversation. She's reaching out. I'm glad she feels comfortable calling me! Even after all this time!

So, even though I try to keep personal calls to a minimum when I'm at the office, I settled in for a chat, performing as many mindless tasks as I could while we caught up. Why don't people just call each other more often? I wondered. Just to chat. This is so nice.

Then, after forty minutes of visiting, she asked if I was still working at the same place. I told her about how Harbor House had closed and Abe and I had had to do a little rearranging of responsibilities, that he was finishing his master's degree while I worked full-time. And then she told me about how her husband had, over the past couple of years, become increasingly unhappy at his dead-end job. After a lot of thought and discussion and prayer, they decided he should quit. So he did.

"So that happened a few months ago and we've been jobless ever since," she said.

"Oh dear. I know how that feels. Been there, done that. So what sort of job is he looking for?"

"Well..." (More hesitation.) "He's actually kind of self-employed right now. He's working for Melaleuca."

(Imagine an ominous rumble of thunder rolling in the background.)

For those of you not in the know, Melaleuca is a "wellness company" that relies on a multi-level marketing structure to both peddle its products and recruit other people to sell its wares. So it was at this point that I should have realized what was going on. And a little alarm bell did go off in the back of my head, but I immediately turned it off, telling myself, This woman is your friend. She's talking to you about her husband's career change. She's not going to try to sell you anything.

So I replied. "Oh!"

"So yeah. We haven't been making enough to get by without dipping into savings, but we're hoping things will take off. The way we make money is if we get people to sign up for a Melaleuca membership," she said. "How do you feel about Melaleuca?"

More thunder.

"Oh, it's okay," I told her, realizing that my friend was going to try to sell me something. "I like the products. They're good products. I do think they're overpriced...and I don't like that you have to commit to purchasing a certain amount each month."

"Oh. Well," she said. "They've got this great deal going on this month. The annual membership fee has been reduced to just $1.00. This month only. And I just thought it would be great to share this bargain with you."

I wondered if she was reading this directly off a computer screen.

"Um, I'd have to talk to Abe about it. Can you fax me the information?" I asked.

And then she explained that they do presentations about signing up for the products, that I would have to come to a presentation.

Again, I told her that I would have to talk to Abe about it and that I'd get back with her. Then I quickly began attempting to extricate myself from the conversation. She, however, had more spiel she had to get through before we hung up:

"One of the things I like about Melaleuca," she told me, "Is that their cleaning products are so safe. My son is always getting into things and I just feel good knowing that..." at this point I completely tuned out, because I had already heard this identical story from someone at church whose husband was also selling Melaleuca products. Her daughter was also forever getting into things and it was just nice to know that her little darling wouldn't die if she happened to break into the cleaning cupboard and chug a quart of carpet cleaner. I imagined them both reading and memorizing a bright, white, glossy card labeled, "Marketing Melaleuca Products to Young Mothers."

"Another thing I like about Melaleuca," continued my friend, "Is that..."

I knew she felt like she had to get through her list of Melaleuca's many virtues, so I sat patiently and waited for her to finish. Then I forced out a cheery farewell and hung up the phone, staring at it for a long, sad moment.

I felt dirty and used.

And I felt like my friend had also been used.

And it made me sad. And a little bit mad.

And now we have reached that key point in every blog post where one switches from antecdote to thesis. And my thesis is simple: Multi-level marketing is the devil. Really, seriously, the devil. Satan. Beezelbub. Lucifer. The Evil One.

This may sound extreme. But hear me out.

A company decides to use an MLM model to sell its product. After all, the MLM model is an easy way to make money by the sweat of someone else's brow. All the company has to do is to manipulate a few people into believing that the product is so fabulous that everyone will want to buy it and that, furthermore, people will love the product so much they will want to sell it. "Anyone who sells these products will make plenty of money," they tell their recruits, "But if you really want to make good money, you'll need to recruit people to do sales as well. But no sweat! People will be begging you to let them sell the product! So get started on this money-making adventure that, with a lot of dedication and a great attitude, will surely make you rich! You can be your own boss! The controller of your own destiny! All you have to do is pay a $1,500.00 start-up fee and the right to sell these products for us will be yours!"

And so it begins: manipulating the human impulse towards hope.

The starry-eyed sales force believes in the product, they believe in the company, and they believe that they have found a way to be able to pay for their child's college education, build up their retirement fund, or spend more time with their family. They turn out their pockets and dig through their couch cushions to pay the start-up fees. The company blithely takes the money, hands over the marketing rights, and turns them loose.

But turn them loose on whom? On an audience of people who are looking for a particular product? A car salesman doesn't follow around his friends and neighbors, stalk people in grocery stores, or otherwise make himself a nuisance in the world at large, saying, "You look like someone who could use a new car. Do you like cars? Look at the cars I'm selling. Don't you think these cars are nice? Did you know that my car company supports families? My leaky roof sure could use fixing. Did you know I make a commission when you buy a car from me? I could fix my roof if you would buy a car from me!" Instead he waits for people to come to the car lot where he works...and then he wheels and deals. Even cold-call telemarketers are at least selling their product in an equal-opportunity way: they're dialing random numbers and trying to persuade people they've never met before to buy a product. But multi-level marketers? They're taught to use their relationships to make money.

It's a sadly familiar scenario: your favorite aunt approaches you about Kiniquita oils. She tells you about how they've solved all of her health problems. She expresses concern about your health problems and begs you to try the Kiniquita oil. You demur. She casually states that it has been really difficult to make ends meet since her husband died and that her Kiniquita sales made it possible for her to put regular meals on the table for her eight children. She then tells you that she thinks the Kiniquita oil would really help with your frequent headaches. And what kind of a louse would let her eight young cousins go hungry? You buy some oil. But you also start avoiding your favorite aunt.

A friend told me that her husband had just begun developing a friendship when he received a phone call from his new friend: "John," said the man, "Can you come over? I need to talk to you." John, a professional counselor, was concerned that something was wrong and that his friend needed some support. So he drove to his new friend's house, only to be welcomed into a room full of people preparing to watch a PowerPoint presentation about a how selling a certain fabulous telephone system could make you rich. As you might imagine, their friendship never left the runway.

A guy from my high school class recently moved into my church ward. Our kids are the same age and we started chatting while standing in the foyer with our restless babies. We talked about how our families should get together and have a barbeque or something. He called one day and left a message....I enthusiastically returned his call, thinking that he was calling to make plans. He was actually calling to see if we could attend an MLM presentation. I told him we would, but then life got crazy and we never did it. I didn't really want to do it anyway, so I started ignoring his calls. He started ignoring us at church.

One wonders if a person who has been entrapped into selling in an MLM scheme ceases to see people as people but rather envisions them stamped with dollar signs. Instead of thinking, "I sure would like to know that person," she thinks, "I wonder if he would be interested in selling LavaLava juice under me." Another friend = another potential sale. Maybe even a $ale$ underling!

These companies often use an almost-religious angle to manipulate people into believing in the company and the product. I am reminded of an email correspondence Abe had with a college friend shortly after we graduated from BYU. The friend had emailed Abe to try to persuade him to sell VIOP phone systems. Abe did some research on the company and found a lot of information showing that the company was basically a pyramid scheme that was designed to take suckers' start-up fees and leave them coughing in the dust. So Abe and his friend emailed back and forth, Abe demonstrating with math and logic that it would be extremely difficult-- not to mention unethical-- to make money selling the phones; the friend arguing back that he was "just being negative." Abe emailed him a link to a blog about the specific scheme he was involved in; the friend emailed back with the following: "The world is full of negative people, Abe. Full of them. Anyone can find something bad if that's what they're looking for. Listen to me, someone you know, not some stranger on the internet. The fact that whoever wrote the blog tried to undermine the integrity of the company simply exposes their ignorance, and can therefore be considered as salt that has lost its savor, if you will, and is good for nothing but to be cast away and trodden under the foot of man. My point is that sure, it's good to look into something before you get involved, but shouldn't you ask the people that know?" My husband, not wanting to see a friend wasting time and energy on a fruitless endeavor, sent him a chart showing him the improbability of making money with the scheme....the friend emailed back saying, "So now you know how many people I need to get signed up for this, please get your phone through me. Thanks buddy!" They haven't communicated since.

My dear friend at least had the decency to feel uncomfortable about the whole exchange. I could sense that she wasn't entirely at peace with having to wield her interpersonal relationships as a tool in her husband's attempts to make money. I ultimately told her that we weren't interested, but felt bad turning her down because I wanted to help her out. After all, this was their livelihood! But that is seriously part of the evil of the MLM...the people who use the structure as a marketing tool-- the ones on top who benefit the most, not the regular people roped into doing the selling-- knew that their sales force would be able to play on the loving impulses of their friends and families. And I can't buy into that. If my friend called me up and said, "Could you give me and my husband $100 a month?" I would have been more receptive. Because when you get down to the core of the matter, that's what people are asking you for when they come asking you to purchase some product from the company they represent. The product is a buffer. (And sometimes it's a good buffer! I mean, Melaleuca products are swell. And I like Mary Kay and Pampered Chef and Scentsy products too. But I really hate the pressure and/or guilt-filled way they can be sold sometimes.) But anyway...what I'm saying is that, if I'm making a love/guilt expenditure, I'd rather all the money go straight into your pocket, rather than into some fat executive's.

Robert Fitzpatrick, author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes, clearly describes the problem with a sales model that encourages people to sell to friends and family: "The commercialization of family and friendship relations or the use of 'warm leads' which is required in the MLM marketing program," he writes, "is a destructive element in the community and very unhealthy for individuals involved. Capitalizing upon family ties and loyalties of friendships in order to build a business can destroy ones social foundation. It places stress on relationships that may never return to their original bases of love, loyalty and support. Beyond its destructive social aspects, experience shows that few people enjoy or appreciate being solicited by friends and relatives to buy products. "

So back to my earlier assertion, the one about MLMs being the devil.

My premises are simple:

1) God = love.
2) The devil hates God and therefore hates love.
3) Because the devil hates love, he seeks to destroy it.
3) MLMs destroy loving relationships.


MLMs = the devil


Lara said...

Ah...your post made me chuckle and squirm simultaneously. In defense of Melaleuca, since I work there and they helped my adoption and all, I am perhaps biased, but I do believe it is a good company. And I know that the corporate emphasis is on good products that sell themselves rather than the MLM aspect with products as an excuse, if that makes sense. And the corporate philosophies are pretty sound. It's actually heavily discouraged to ever, ever quit your "day job" to represent Melaleuca. Those who do...well, they are just stupid. As far as MLMs go, if you're into that kind of thing (and I am not), I think it's one of the safest because they don't take advantage and require buy-ins and crap like that.

But on the flip side, yeah, any kind of direct marketing does put a strange pressure on relationships. All and any. Everyone becomes a potential customer or whatever. Gotta agree with you there. And I am grateful to say that I can use the "I work for Melaleuca so I can't consider your company because it's a conflict of interest" excuse any time I need it. :)

When I went on maternity leave, I had someone in the ward call me up and invite me over for a Melaleuca presentation...until they realized I wasn't quitting and I intended to go back to work in 12 weeks. They obviously wanted me to sign up until they realized I was still off limits. Funny.

QT said...

Well played.

I feel similarly about MLM's, and yes, they can be very destructive to relationships. I know someone who was essentially tricked into one by their own bishop, so it's not just friend - and - family relationships, but also "spriritual" relationships, if you will.

Chris said...

Your premises is both valid and sound.

I was approached recently about the WalMart gift card pyramid, and the presenter just came out and said "Would you ever consider an MLM?" to which I replied "Hell no"

kendra said...

I feel the pain of friends trying to sell you stuff. About a month ago 2 people from my past tried selling me crap!

I do love melaluca products, but i can't imagine anyone in this area making money off of it. Also, can you please send me $100 a month? I could really use it! Please get back to me! ;)

Seth said...

I couldn't agree more! Thank you for writing this!

Scott said...

Amen and amen. I remember several occasions when the Deans of the Marriott School had to issue stern warnings to the student body
about the pitfalls of MLM's and Ponzi/pyramid schemes. Seems like every year another "hot new company" would show up and get everyone fired up about making a quick buck. At first I was surprised that business school students -- who were at that very moment learning sound principles of investment, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, etc. -- did not seem to be any less susceptible to fishy sales pitches, but I suppose that's just another example of the mental blind spots we all have, especially when money is involved.

These relationship-based sales companies are such a bad deal for the people at the base of the pyramid. No doubt a few people on the top make lots of money (assuming the company lasts long enough), but I don't know how they can sleep at night. I feel badly for your friend. She's obviously in a tough position and I'm sure her intentions are good, but the damage done to friendships will far outweigh any financial rewards she'll get from peddling (and cojoling others to peddle) lotion and laundry detergent. I think most MLMers make that discovery pretty early on and quickly back out. Perhaps the most depressing thing about these systems is that the only way to really do well is to push beyond that initial realization, continuing in spite of numerous social cues and warnings about putting people in incredibly awkward situations. Eventually they get to the point where it's A-OK to use the kindness or pity of friends and family against them in order to enrich themselves financially. That's a pretty perilious way to do business, but I think it explains why some MLMers are so creepy.

P.S. What's up with that Amway graphic? Some kind of Engrish pitch to the Asian market?

Cameron and Melissa Johansson said...

I just love this post! I have a friend (who I considered to be my best friend) try to get me to sign up for two different MLMs. We had both been busy with our seperate lives since high school and hadn't really hung out. But we still considered each other to be our best friend. She texted me and first asked how I was durning my pregancy and then again after I had Ryker, and then it always followed with a "Hey I have a great way to make some extra cash each month! Want to hear about it?" Sad to say the I just never texted her back! Now we just don't even talk! MLM definately ruins relationships! I to do not believe in MLM. Cameron has some friends who are currently participating in one and keep trying to get Cameron to sign up. He has even been dragged to the meetings! Luckily he knows how I feel about them and won't sign up!

Becky Wilson said...

You so eloquently wrote how many people feel I think, thank you. I agree with you 100%! Now I think I'll rant for a minute. MLM's are a cancer on relationships and can take a long time to mend fences after the damage has been done. I have had many similar experiences with old and new friends calling up "just to say hi" and end up trying to sell me on something. I've seen my parents and some of my siblings fall prey to these schemes, and watched as they've lost money. It is the worst when it is family that tries to suck you in. Brandon's sister got seduced into an MLM recently (one of the acai juice companies) and ended up quitting her full time job because she "wasn't happy and wanted to work for something she believed in" (by the way, she was seduced by a guy who she had a major crush on in her singles ward, knew she had the crush and was looking for ways to spend time with him, so he talked her into quitting her job and coming to "work" with him, shameless devil) I had many conversations with her about how it would be so nice to have a quick fix and an easy way to make money, but the hard reality is that if you need/want money, you have to get a job and work your butt off for it, often times doing something that you are not in love with.
Brandon has a chronic/severe auto immune disease. Since we've been married my hatred of MLM's has increased because people who know of his illness will try to use it as a way to get us to sign up for their "healing" products. Do they think I don't spend excessive amounts of time searching for ways to help him already? Maybe their intentions really are pure, maybe they are really trying to help us, but using it to try to get money out of us is offensive and hurtful. Brandon's sister tried such a tactic. I politely told her that I would not allow her and her new "friends" to come to our home to hear their presentation, she didn't understand why I wouldn't even listen and so I told her essentially what you wrote in this blog post. I told her that I wanted her to be happy but I can't help her with this. I told her that I would however help her find a job when she came to her senses and realized she needed little things like health insurance and a steady income. After struggling for over six months and draining her savings, withdrawing her 401K and social security, she realized she did in fact need a real job and I did find her a job a few months later that helped her get back on her feet so she could find a different job that she really liked.
I really resent the guilt I feel when someone "needs my help with their new business" so I have decided to stop feeling guilty and find different ways to help them in their time of need. I will babysit, I will bake some bread, I will help them update their resumes and maybe if I really, Really like the product they are selling like Mary Kay or Scentsy I will buy a few things here or there if I have a little extra money, but I will not sign up and I will not sign over my time, my money, my sanity and my relationships. There are people out there who do have success in such endeavors and I am happy for people's success, but it gives others false hopes and fuels the fires of rash actions and hurtful behavior that you can't ever take back and can only hope, over time to recover from.

Anonymous said...

Please God, let this post spread far and wide.

Is there ANYONE who hasn't had genuine friendships ruined by MLMs?

Leslie said...

Can I just take this moment to eloquently and profoundly put my feelings into words by saying A-FREAKING-MEN?

So well written, Rachel.

I second Anonymous's plea.

Collette Smith said...

Perfect post title, Rach. Awesome rant. Cleansing, isn't it?

I have also ceased turning cartwheels when people who haven't contacted me in years suddenly turn up on my doorstep. Nine out of ten are peddling that THUNDERING BEEZLEBUB-RIDDEN MLM MYTH, preying on people who can't afford to be preyed upon.

P.S. Adding my Amen to Anonymous' prayer.

P.S.S. "Salt that has lost its savor"?!?! Saints preserve us!

Collette Smith said...

Also, I really liked Becky's ideas for helping friends without perpetuating the madness.

Jamie and Michael said...

Rachel, I loved this so much, I posted a link to it on my blog. Great stuff, really!

Thora said...

Oh, my. This is the best post ever. I have a high school friend that her and her husband work for Primerica - an MLM company that sells life insurance. Thankfully they live across country from me, but I do keep in touch with her (by blog), and every time she talks about "growing" their business it makes me want to claw my eyes out. I've known people who do this, and I always want to avoid them - except for the few (a couple are in my ward right now - a pampered chef, scentsy and mary-kay people) who all manage to be successful at what they do, all while still not being pushy. Most importantly, none of them have ever tried to personally push me into buying anything. But I have known people....

Also, last summer Living Scriptures came through Columbus. And there was a salesman moving around the ward, and he came to my house. I told him that I wasn't going to buy anything, and that my husband was a Phd student, but he said he wanted to do a presentation anyway. That should have been my key to tell him to hike back home. But he came in, and as part of his presentation, told me a 'touching' story about a family in school, who GOT STUDENT LOANS out to pay for the Living Scriptures, because it was an investment. Really, REALLY?? Because to me that sounds like someone who can't do math, and also thinks that salvation is sold through animated scripture stories. And then at the end of the presentation, he acted completely floored that I couldn't spare $30 a month, for at least a year, for Living Scriptures. Urgh!!!

Ok, I feel better now. Thank you for addressing this topic. Also, why do Mormon, whom I love as a whole, feel a need to be involved with these kinds of schemes so much?

Thora said...

Ahem, I meant mormons. I am sure Mormon himself does not struggle with MLMs.

Kate said...

You are hilarious.

And I've never, ever been tempted to join an MLM. I don't care if your products are so incredibly amazingly better than any I've ever used; I've been getting by just fine with the regular stuff that costs about 10x less, so I think I'll just stick with that, thanks!

heidi said...

Yippee Yeehaw! The Rant is up!

But, what, only 16 comments? Why is it that more people don't care about this topic, and what you have to say about it? :D

On the serious side: this obviously did strike a nerve for many of your readers. As for me, and the MLM side of things: I have been almost entirely and completely unaffected by "MLMs." In fact, I had to google the term to figure out what it was that your impending rant was going to be about. However! I DO know about RANTS! And so I can say this:

*God I love that title.
*Entire piece is exquisitely presented and both logically and heart-fully reasoned.
*So much so that I can barely recognize it as RANT. Rants--at least as I know them--are more full of incoherence and raw anger. This just made good sense.

Also--I can so resonate with the frustration of "math and logic" not working against of blind willfulness. Or willful blindness? I guess maybe Scott's just being compassionately reasonable (and right) about all of us having our blind spots when it comes to money, financial survival, relative freedom from "The Man." BUT--"salt that's lost its savor"! WTF! Come on! That's like saying, "Jesus wants you to do xyz... or the terrorists have won."

I have two final observations-plus-questions:
*It seems weird to me that your (other) readers have had this seemingly universal experience and yet I have not. Do you think maybe it's a Mormon thing? Or maybe just coincidence? Or maybe I look like I have no money, so people just don't bother?

*I notice that I am immediately mesmerized by the way you describe things and basically just don't want your writing to stop. I want to keep reading it! Do you think there's a way that you could get the pay and benefits you currently get from your "real" job and start doing a post like this one every day, instead? Along with the occasional bit of fiction?

Not that I want you to see ME as a dollar sign, but--I'd definitely subscribe (financially) to that. (Marc Maron has a fabulous free podcast that people can make contributions to. And sometimes they get coffee, too. I thought of that in connection with this because I like the idea of keeping a good thing going--like your blog and his podcast. Also I made the connection because he rants a lot. His podcast is called "WTF with Marc Maron.")

So although I entirely agree with everything you said, about not seeing friends and family as ATMs, I hope you will see us as that because I want more of your writing, through whatever means necessary!

And I hope this grows to 20 comments. Because I love multiples of four, and I ruined the total by making #17.

Margaret said...

You are so completely 100% right. I've had that experience, where you think an old friend is reaching out and then they actually want you to come to a sales party. The only time I've enjoyed talking about a MLM product with someone is because she was stopping random people in Wal-Mart. I'd much rather deal with it from a stranger than from someone I can't be friends with without being awkward anymore. And, to add fuel to your fire, my husband served his mission in the Philippines and said that MLM programs were just destroying that country. He even had a bishop pull that with some investigators, and (surprisingly) they decided not to join the church...
My favorite is when the people in Wymount would start these things-- we were all broke students, where the heck did they think we were going to get money to pay for that stuff?! :D

Lara said...

Damn it Rachel, I'm supposed to be doing school, not being sucked into your beautifully written rants and lovingly posted mother's odes!

But here's what I have to say about MLMs-I can't say it has ever ruined a genuine friendship, since I don't have many friends, never mind genuine ones. However, when we first moved to Colorado and started going to church here (Mormons do seem particularly susceptible!)a few of the girls my age in RS reached out to me a little and became Acquaintances. A few weeks went by of being Acquaintances and fellow Young-Mothers-Who-Brought-Their-Kids-to-the-Park-Together until one day one of them invited me to her house where she was doing a presentation on kid's books. I felt a sickening plummet somewhere in the region of my liver, but said I would come. The day came and I went. There were about 10 other young mothers there, and we all passed around kids' books. I love kids' books and have spent many a wonderful hour gazing at their lovely pages, as a child and as an adult, but just knowing that the people who interacted with me first just wanted me to buy something made me feel ill. Everyone there bought something except for me. The girl in charge I could tell felt snubbed. She didn't talk to me much after that.


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