There was a recent case reported in The Guardian about the sales reps who are taking their "employers", PerDM, to court for breaking employment law.
My interest in this case is more than casual, as in a previous life, I too have worked as a sales rep for the same company. So I have a personal interest in the case, as well as first-hand experience of how "PerDM" and other sales companies operate. In many ways, the sales industry epitomises what happens when the psychology of the psychopath is put into practice in capitalism.
The character Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho" worked in big business (or something to that effect), and his personality is often portrayed as purely psychopathic.He lacks emotion, empathy, and has no moral scruples about anything he does. He is also a serial killer.
In reality, though, few psychopaths are openly violent; they are more than capable of causing chaos through their actions, but more than usual will use non-violent means to achieve what they want. It is not that they have moral scruples against using violence; it is just that they would use violence when it is convenient to their goals. Even psychopaths are rational, compared to the mentally insane.
How the sales industry treats its employees
First of all, a sales "company" like PerDM has few real "employees" as the term is generally understood. The vast majority of them, for tax purposes, are classified as "self employed"; the exception are the managers of the individual branches of the sales company who will usually have set up their own branch in an area with no local company presence, along with a minimal administration. This is how the company expands with the minimum of costs. The company model is simple, and as described in the article mentioned, works like a "recruitment pyramid scheme".
Salaries are based fully on commission, so the number of sales dictates the employees salary. The promotion ladder works by new employees (A) learning the basics of the sales strategy and meeting a pre-set sales target. Once this is achieved, "A" chooses new employees for "training-up"; once that employee has trained-up a number of new employees who have reached their target sales and have their own "generation" of trainees, "A" will move up the ladder and begin to earn his own commission off the sales of those trainees below him. This pyramid of advancement will continue as long as more "generations" of sales staff are created under him, until "A" has acquired, through the commission earned from his trainees gives him enough capital to set up a branch on his own. And so a new branch of the sales company is created.
Sales companies get contracts from all kinds of businesses, as the sales techniques used are cheaper than conventional advertisement for the company in question, and more effective. Door-to-door sales is generally considered the most effective in terms of "percentages". The "Five Per Cent Rule" is considered in the sales industry to be the marker i.e. that five percent of people encountered face-to-face will say "yes" to the sale, under normal circumstances. Naturally, the most effective salesmen can achieve a percentage far more than the norm.
So on one hand, these types of sales companies expand like a Capitalist virus, while circumventing employment regulations and jumping through tax loopholes to maximise profits. And in the current economic climate, they are thriving. As someone in the industry once explained, when the the economy is doing well, the sales industry does well; when the economy does badly, the sales industry does well. Companies always want more sales in the good times; in the bad times, they need sales even more.
The psychology of the salesman
As a result of this, salesmen tend to compared with conmen, and for good reason.
As the sales reps' salaries are dependent on your sales, people sink or swim very quickly. Those who cannot make door-to-door sales work for them, lick their wounds and leave, if they cannot afford to work for free (or persevere until they become better at the job). The sales company loses nothing; what few sales the "newbie" has made still adds to the manager's commission regardless, and the company incurs zero costs towards its employees as they are classified as "self-employed" for tax purposes. Any travel expenses are taken on the employees own shoulders.
While their is a sales strategy that all sales companies have, the pure Capitalist nature of the job naturally encourages employees to be dishonest. For many, the temptation to use deceit or misinformation to "make a sale" can be too great; those with the gift of the gab prosper, and those who don't will be required to learn it in order to make sales. Those without "the gift" or with too much of a moral backbone stand little chance and will fall by the wayside.
The sales "strategy" operates around psychological tactics to break down a potential customer's resistance. In this way, the "strategy" resembles a form of manipulation akin to an unscrupulous trickster. The salesman will use a number of his "weapons" of manipulation until he either succeeds in making a sale, or fails and moves on.
Apart from the temptations towards manipulation and deceit, the nature of the job also encourages a superficial and insincere attitude towards people; the pure Capitalist nature of the job also encourages sales reps to see people as a cash cow. And as selling is akin to manipulation, it also transforms employees into actors, changing their personality and behaviour depending on the person they are selling to. In other words, sales staff begin acting like sociopaths.
The psychology of the sales office
The sales company's sales strategy also trains its sales staff into a specific psychological mindset. The sales industry operates in a bubble, which can become infectious. While the environment with sales companies varies from place to place, a badly-run sales company may be ran with a sadistic and highly stressful environment in order to meet targets; a well-run company will more likely emphasize "positive mental attitude" (not unlike in a Scientology centre, or a cult), that may well appear freakishly over-zealous to the outsider. Any struggling sales staff will feel intimidated in a badly-run office; in a well-run office, they will either become motivated by the unrelenting enthusiasm of others, or alienated by it, and leave.
Working in the sales industry is like nothing else, a world unto itself, and consumed within itself. In this way, it is an archetypal example of unfettered Capitalism at its purest, as described by Ayn Rand. As the sales staff are encouraged by the nature of their job to become like sociopaths, this attitude becomes more concentrated the longer, and more successful a person becomes in the industry. Sales managers, by definition, therefore are likely to have several degrees less empathy and fewer scruples than their less experienced sales staff.
When you have become hugely successful in the sales industry, you are bound to believe in your own infallibility, as well as have little time for the weaknesses and failings of others. When you have made your own fortune in an industry as uncompromising and unforgiving as sales, you may well believe yourself to be akin to a god, and for good reason.
It is for these reasons that the sales industry is equally-good at attracting people who are natural psychopaths, as well as turning people into psychopaths (or more exactly, sociopaths).