- 08 Jun 21
When the world of live entertainment shut down completely, Matthew Tallon was faced with a dilemma. As a stand-up comic, how was he going to earn a living? He decided to go into insurance! With totally un-foreseen consequences, including a bout of Covid-19...
For four months during the pandemic, I worked selling car insurance policies for a major firm in Dublin. In this time, I found the inner workings of an insurance office to be a fascinating, efficient, and frankly quite beautiful engine, in which the output is sales and the fuel is human souls.
I started in September with four other trainees, all lovely, down-to-earth people. The kind of people you would never expect to wrangle an extra €100 from an old widow, though this is something each of us would all go on to do.
The more experienced salespeople all fit a very particular mould. They’re materialistic, brash and competitive. They love Jordan Belfort and Jordan Peterson, they wear Air Jordans, and just generally seem to worship all things ‘Jordan’. They keep ‘side-hustles’ like Forex or Trading 212 or something else that definitely is not a pyramid scheme.
On their desks you’ll find large self-help books with titles like “How to be a Lion Hunting a Gazelle, but the Lion is Enterprise and the Gazelle is MONEY!!! (in 30 Days).”
So, how do you take ordinary people and turn them into these sociopathic Jordan-drones? This is the Engine, the high-pressure, intense, and (during Covid) unsafe environment of the sales office.
OUT OF SALES QUICKLY
The culture is impeccably designed to maximise sales. Top-earners would routinely be lavished with praise in front of their co-workers, whereas the runts of the litter get called out and become the butts of group e-mail jokes. You have to hand it to them: the commission has been perfectly calibrated. If you’re moving big numbers, you earn a decent wage, just enough not to realise you’re still getting less than 1% of the price of the product. If you’re less fortunate, you make about minimum wage.
But because fear is a better motivator than greed, there are also loads of snares that lose you your commission for the month. One good example is pricing. I’m sure some of you will be unsurprised – but relieved – to hear that whatever price you’re quoted for insurance is higher than the real premium.
However, we have a ‘haggling script’ that we have to go through before offering these ‘discounts’. The calls are recorded, and if you’re caught giving the lower price before you absolutely have to, that can undo your entire month’s commission.
Not uncommonly, my co-workers and I were in the position where, for example, an elderly woman was telling us that she couldn’t afford her insurance, and yet I – or whoever else was unlucky enough to receive the call that day – would have to put her through a 10-minute speech about our unparalleled personal accident cover.
At this point, you’re left with two options: either quit, or become desensitised to it.
Being a part of this engine began to take its toll on me mentally. It was the middle of lockdown, and I wasn’t seeing anybody because I had an at-risk relative at home. Work really became my only universe, to the point where my sense of self-worth became entirely dependent on how well I had done that day. I hated that I let myself care, but in the end it’s physiological: if you’re doing something for 45 hours a week, it becomes the bar you judge yourself by. If my percentages were poor, I’d feel miserable the whole day.
What’s even more embarrassing is how good it felt the days I was doing well. Upselling for a higher commission, convincing someone to buy something they don’t even want – I found it truly intoxicating. If this sounds immoral, it’s because it is. There are some things you’re better off not knowing about yourself.
It should be noted that the office was almost exclusively men. It turned out that women usually quit or transfer out of sales within the first year. I thought maybe this was because of misogyny, but my trainer explained that it was because women make worse sellers than men. Another trainer ‘playfully’ called the women bitches when they made mistakes.
Sexist comments were regularly thrown around. Some of the women I was near would regularly cry after dealing with a particularly aggressive customer. They were encouraged to just take it, and no supervisor ever came over to offer them a break or make sure they were okay. So yeah, women tended to quit or transfer out of sales pretty quickly: I have no idea why.
The office also treated Covid restrictions the way I treat a book recommendation from a friend: at first, like, “Thanks, I’ll definitely check that out!”; then remembering how much effort it would be and deciding not to bother.
The desks were socially distanced, and we were technically supposed to wear masks. But it was all just for show. A lot of the employees were Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers. In fact, one of my ‘trainers’ didn’t believe in any medicine. “It’s all in the mind,” he asserted, possibly in the same conversation he said women can’t sell. Everybody moved about freely, and it became impossible to avoid close contact.
To be fair, it shouldn’t have been their responsibility. There was nobody there to enforce guidelines. If this seems like it would be an unreasonable expense for a multi-million euro company, bear in mind that there was a woman there whose sole job it was to call us if we took more than 45 seconds between phone calls and see why we were slacking off.
This situation culminated in me contracting Covid in January 2021. Despite the lax attitudes, I was shocked: I hadn’t heard of anyone else around the office being ill. A few days after I was diagnosed, I learned that people had been dropping like flies all over the building: we just hadn’t been informed.
One friend of mine was even told to come in after being a confirmed close contact. I was instructed to text my supervisor every day and let him know if was coming back tomorrow. Ill, drained, and disillusioned, I handed in my notice instead. In a way, it’s kind of lucky: I was really starting to see the appeal of that wannabe-Wolf of Wall Street lifestyle.
Of the five people in my training group, four have resigned within the first six months. The company benefits from this high turnover. They still make hundreds of thousands in sales from each of us. Every time they whittle out the people who cry when yelled at or with too much empathy to shake-down a pensioner more than eight or nine times, they’re left with a purer, more condensed workforce of sales robots.
I actually feel kind of bad for these guys. Most of them are very talented, driven individuals. They take pride in thriving in such a tough environment, in how much money they’re getting out of it. The commission structure reinforces their tenacious self-image, encourages them to see themselves as entrepreneurs instead of what they are – employees. And not very fairly paid employees at that.
They’re giving their energy, initiative and skill to create wealth for someone else. This is the most beautiful part of the corporate sales engine: it convinces people to sacrifice their passion as well as their labour.