Taggart stood up and left.
“That summer,” he told me. “I went out and made $250K.”
A decade later, Taggart has never returned to a college classroom. In his mind, he never needed to. Door-to-door sales — first with an alarm security company and later with solar — proved far more lucrative, and far less stuffy, than anything a degree might offer him. His second summer, he told me, he earned some $550,000. The 31-year-old has garnered so much success, he claims, that The New Yorker is sending a correspondent to profile him.
And he’s not the only one out selling. In college towns throughout Utah and the West, the allure of big bucks fuels a seasonal migration of mostly young men into a curious subculture known simply as “summer sales.” While the selling heats up when the weather warms, the process of luring a small army of new recruits takes place during fall and winter. For the thousands of young people who enlist, they learn doorstep scripts and jargony wisdom.
The top sellers make six figures in a period of three or four months, and plenty leave the experience happy. But after interviewing more than 20 current or former door-to-door sellers and reviewing dozens of contracts and documents, there are some who encounter a darker side of the summer sales industry that rarely makes it into slick recruiting brochures.
“When you hear about summer sales being a scam, everything you hear is true,” one salesman told me, who pocketed over $1 million last summer. “Guys for sure get screwed over.”
Several salespeople described issues with the way money is distributed at the companies, and some complained about receiving far less cash than they anticipated. Others detailed a cutthroat culture on sales teams that sometimes involves punishing underperformers. One salesperson, who requested anonymity since he still works in the industry, was shot in the back with an airsoft gun on multiple occasions as punishment for having zero sales.
“I ‘bageled’ so much my first summer, so I got shot bareback so much,” he told me. “It lasted for maybe a week or two before someone’s mom called HR.”
The summer before, he said, the same team leader used a BB gun. Others tell stories of being whipped with a leather belt or having to plunge into a wastewater pond after failing to make sales.
Yet another salesman, who also requested anonymity because he maintains some relationships for job references, described struggling with anxiety after his summer out selling. While he was grateful to have a flush bank account, his return to Southern Utah University was jarring, as he struggled to engage with people due to the vitriol and stress he encountered selling.
Even though he was able to put a down payment on a house and buy a used BMW with the extra money, he said he’d rather work a minimum-wage job than go through the experience again.
While I spoke with some who did make significant sums of money, many others experienced unmet financial expectations.
Last summer, a friend approached Hadley Brooksby and told her to join a pest control team. A group of her friends were going out together, and the sales pitch was typical — centered on the prospect of an incredible cash haul.
“When you hear about summer sales being a scam, everything you hear is true.”
“We were promised that we’d make $30,000,” Brooksby told me. “We didn’t come close.”
Brooksby’s contract outlined a specific commission rate: starting out, she would pocket 25% off of every sale, and once she hit $75,000 in revenue, she’d be bumped to 40% (hence the $30,000 figure). Even as the summer wore on, and as it became obvious she was nowhere near the higher threshold of sales, her team lead still discussed a pay increase.
“Don’t worry, I have a lot of pull with the company,” he’d say. “I can bump up your commission.”
It never happened, and Brooksby and her friend made half of what they anticipated.
More concerning to her, though, was the culture. Everything seemed geared toward men. Salespeople were told what body language to use and how to stand on a porch, which seemed natural for men but uncomfortable for women. They were given specific lines to memorize and jokes to crack to potential male clients, like “earning brownie points” with the wife if the pest control treatment worked or “sleeping on the couch” if it didn’t.
“It would almost feel inappropriate for me to say that,” Brooksby said. “There were some moments that were like, if these weren’t my closest guy friends, this would not be an OK work environment.”
Other women described a similar atmosphere, and one said that she was shown PowerPoint presentations with the same jokes, despite working for an entirely different company. Another woman said she negotiated a higher starting commission with her team lead but was explicitly told not to tell the other women on the sales team that she was making more. Women are no less capable at door-to-door sales, several individuals told me. One said she knew a number of women who outperformed their male counterparts, despite operating within what many described as a “bro culture.”
Frustration over contracts and commissions are a common complaint. Many companies allow sales leads to negotiate commissions with recruits and pocket the excess. But salespeople described it as less of a negotiation and more as an offer. Contracts contain some specifics, but many I spoke with said they didn’t know that they were making less than other team members or that their team lead was earning extra cash from every one of their sales.
Sales reps usually receive a payment, typically around $50, when they close a sale. They receive additional compensation through “backend checks” in the late fall or early winter, after installation (for solar or home security) or servicing (pest control) is completed. If clients cancel their service before the checks are sent — even if it is no fault of the salesperson — those later payments never come, and salespeople receive a fraction of what they expected to make.
Some might make summer sales into a story of those who feast or famine, dismissing those who complain as not being cut out for the work. But not everyone on top is satisfied with the way things operate.
People dedicated to “cleaning up” the industry — like Taggart, the college dropout-turned-sales pro, and Drew Hansen, a million-dollar pest control seller — want to “unify, uplevel and bring honor and integrity” to door-to-door sales, forming part of a new industry that is largely dedicated to recruiting and training sellers. Taggart has written a book, launched a podcast and started a door-to-door sales consulting company. He even birthed “D2DCON,” where both Taggart and Hansen will speak in January. “D2D” stands for door-to-door; “CON” refers to the two-day convention, not a swindle, though entry-level tickets cost $749.
Top sellers are wined and dined at elaborate galas, or flaunted on social media with their selling statistics advertised like a batting average. Other groups incentivize with watches, TVs, phones, dinners or cash rewards. Earlier this year, Taggart leaned into the competitive edge by creating a nationwide “knocking league,” where teams of salespeople competed in a massive bracket to see who could sell the most. In addition, top sellers in each industry earn “Golden Door” awards, fashioned by Taggart’s consulting company, the D2D Experts.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics,” Taggart said.
The allure of winning gold starts from the beginning of the recruiting process. They contact friends, or friends of friends, or send mass messages to complete strangers on social media. (“Hey Sam,” someone messaged me on Instagram recently, “I know you don’t know me, but I’m putting together a sales team.”) One Utah state senator recently tweeted a headshot of his “super fun and friendly” college-aged son, asking if anyone would be interested in joining his pest control group.
New recruits are shown average “rookie” pay, usually in the tens of thousands, and often promised that they’ll reach that figure. But, like Brooskby, many don’t. Several of the salespeople I spoke to described the extravagant incentives offered to them: courtside tickets to NBA games, an all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico, a goose-hunting expedition in Kansas.
For some, it works out. But others leave disillusioned. When a seller inevitably makes a fraction of what they expected, companies avoid liability by hiring salespeople only as independent contractors instead of employees. Thus, despite working 50- to 70-hour weeks, salespeople receive no hourly wage, no overtime and no benefits.
They fill out 1099 tax forms, formally distinguishing themselves from the company. But contractual agreements often require the salesperson to repay the full housing cost, travel or other expenses if they leave early or are terminated for other reasons.
Some companies track salespeople via GPS while on the job and will deduct compensation for breaks and detours. One person told me that he left a pest control sales team early last summer and is still repaying $4,800, the cost of the full summer’s rent and the goose-hunting recruiting trip.
“They’ve got you by a leash,” a former pest control salesman said. “You’re technically an independent contractor, but if you’re not doing things as they want you to or need you to, they’ve got a hold of you.”
In 2011, an ominous headline appeared in Forbes Magazine: “10 Top Dead Or Dying Career Paths.” Door-to-door sales were deemed “no longer effective.” But reports of the death of the summer salesman have been greatly exaggerated.
Recruiting has only grown, insiders told me. And of those I talked to, about half still plan to go out again next summer. I asked the other half if they regretted their decisions to leave, and most said no. But some remain enthusiastic supporters.
“You learn so much about hard work,” one former saleswoman said. “And the money isn’t bad.”
The staunchest defenders of the door-to–door industry point to its downsides being the result of a few “bad apples,” or even the feelings of envy some have toward those who are young and wealthy.
“People tend to associate (summer sales) with lack of integrity or being money-obsessed,” Taggart told me. “It’s like, no, we’ve just found a vehicle that is way faster to success, and it makes them uncomfortable.”
But having that much money at a young age can result in some unwise or even unhealthy decisions. Some spiral into big purchases and even debt, getting sucked into an annual cycle of selling, going broke and needing to sell again the next summer just to pay off past expenses.
Taggart’s group attempts to teach salespeople about investing, filing taxes and financial responsibility. But, admittedly, the main focus is on perfecting the art of sales. Pest poison and solar panels are no longer the only products: Taggart is now selling selling itself.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics.” — Sam Taggart
But separating sellers from the companies that produce products carries its own danger. Those who arrive at your door may no longer answer to a company aiming to make your home safer or pest-free, but rather one that’s geared toward gaining sales alone.
One seller who had previously gone door-to-door as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints described yet another concern. Serving as a religious missionary requires keeping others’ interest in mind, he explained, but in summer sales the goal is maximizing profit: “It’s a little awkward, shifting from thinking outwardly to thinking so inwardly.”
This can lead to other moral qualms. One parent of a salesperson, who now makes less annually than their son, said the occupation “ruined” his appetite for a “real career,” killing his desire to go back to school. When you can net six figures in a summer, there’s no need to work year-round.
In summer sales, there are idealists, realists and reformers. But for some, as the annual cycle of paychecks and payoffs churns, life starts to mirror the haunting line from Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama:
“The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”