On Saturday morning, a young man knocked at our door. He wanted to sell us new windows. Kris tried to brush him aside gently, but he was persistent. He didn’t leave until he’d scheduled an appointment to give us an hour-long in-home presentation about his company’s product.

“We do need storm windows,” Kris told me after he’d gone.

“That’s true,” I said. “But I don’t like buying from door-to-door salesmen.”

The worst job I ever had was selling insurance door-to-door to little old ladies in rural Oregon. I know the tricks and techniques these folks use to get into your home and make the sale. Sometimes knowledge isn’t enough. Kris and I have purchased our share of stupid things from door-to-door salesmen over the years, including:

  • A set of encyclopedias. We bought these in 1995, on the cusp of the digital age. They never saw much use. (Look for more about this on April Fool’s Day.)
  • A freezer full of chicken, most of which went to waste after a power outage.
  • A Kirby vacuum cleaner, which now sits unused because we have no carpeting.
  • Membership in a “consumers club”. We paid something like $1500 to join this organization, and then $70 a year thereafter to remain members. In theory, membership allowed us to buy furniture and electronics for cheap. In reality, we barely used it.

Kris and I are smart people. You’d think we’d know better than to buy this stuff. But we’re also nice people, and sometimes that niceness overpowers the intelligence. Most of the time I’m able to stand strong and to turn people away at the door, but sometimes I’m weak, and I feel sorry for the salesman. That momentary weakness is all it takes to end up spending $500 on encyclopedias I’ll never use.

I used to have a rule that I’d always buy stuff from kids who knocked on the door. But in 2001, I let some college kids cajole me into purchasing several magazine subscriptions. Several over-priced magazine subscriptions. Canceling these was a nightmare.

Since then, I’ve adopted a rule of thumb that has served me well: I never buy anything if I did not initiate the transaction. I don’t buy anything from flyers in the mail, from telemarketers, from e-mail ads, and, especially, from door-to-door salesmen. Why not?

  • They’re trained to sell. You are not trained to resist. During my time with the insurance company, I learned how to handle a variety of objections, and how to present my information in such a way that the customer almost sold herself. I wasn’t very good — some of my colleagues were. They could have sold ice to eskimos.
  • They create need where none exists. If you really need something, you already know it. You can do the research on your own. If you allow yourself to be pitched, the salesmen will create a need you didn’t know you had. He’ll make it seem sensible to spend thousands of dollars on a smoke alarm.
  • They prey on fear and ignorance. They want you to feel sorry for them. They want you to feel like you’re keeping up with the Joneses. They want you to feel like you’re protecting your family. A salesman wants you to make an emotional decision.
  • They use high-pressure tactics. They try to create a sense of urgency: “I only have one left”, “This offer ends today”, “We’re only in town for this week”. Don’t let the perceived scarcity influence you. And don’t feel guilty if a salesman berates you for wasting his time. Stand strong.

It’s all well and good to know how the salesman works, but what can you do to resist? Here are some effective techniques for handling door-to-door salesmen.

  • Don’t answer the door. The best way to resist any form of marketing is to avoid it altogether. Don’t watch television ads, don’t read junk mail, don’t engage telemarketers. And don’t open the door to a traveling salesman.
  • Don’t let him inside. If you do open the door to find a salesman, don’t let him in your home. Once he’s in, he has the advantage. Good salespeople know this. Some people feel it’s rude not to ask a salesman inside, but that’s not true. The salesman isn’t concerned with etiquette (and, in fact, takes advantage of social conventions by using them against you). The salesman just wants inside your home so he can make his pitch. Keep him outside.
  • Don’t listen to the presentation. Most sales pitches are constructed to get you answering questions (usually with a “yes”) as soon as possible. Don’t fall for it. Again, nobody wants to be rude, but which would you rather do: interrupt the pitch or buy an overpriced set of steak knives? I’d rather interrupt the pitch.
  • Be courteous but firm. The salesman is just doing his job. Yes, it’s a shitty job, and he ought to be doing something else, but ultimately it’s still just a way for him to put food on the table for his family. Stand firm, but don’t be a jerk.
  • Get a big dog. “No soliciting” signs don’t work. Salesmen ignore them or pretend not to see them. (They’re like a red flag: “I’m no good at resisting sales pitches, so please don’t call.”) But it’s difficult to ignore a large, snarling animal. When I was selling insurance, I avoided any home with a large dog. I wasn’t the only one.

Ultimately, your best defense is to just say “no” and shut the door. I’ve done this many times before, and though I sometimes felt guilty for about thirty seconds, this soon passes.

When Kris told me about the window salesman yesterday, I did some research. I knew that he’d caught her in a weak moment, and I was worried that her pride might make it difficult for her to cancel the sales appointment. I found several sites online with complaints about the company and its tactics. I compiled the information and went upstairs to tell Kris what I’d learned. I was going to volunteer to call the salesman myself.

“We don’t want to do this,” I told her. “The company does a hard-sell. The ‘one hour appointment’ generally lasts four hours. They don’t take no for an answer. Their windows are much more expensive than normal windows.” I sighed. “We need to cancel the appointment.”

“No problem,” Kris said, smiling. “I already did.”

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