When Does a Persuasive Pitch Go Over the Line?

April 4, 2002 -- Some door-to-door salesmen will go to great lengths to make a sale.

Charles Robinson, for example, says that when he was an independent distributor and salesman for Kirby carpet-cleaning vacuums, he sold units to people who didn't have carpet — and even to one customer who didn't have electricity.

An estimated $1 billion worth of Kirbys are sold every year. They are sold exclusively through independent distributors who buy vacuums from the company and then sell them to the public in their homes. Across the nation, Primetime uncovered more than 1,000 consumer complaints about Kirby vacuum cleaner salespeople. ABCNEWS' Chris Wallace conducted a hidden-camera investigation to find out how far some salespeople will go to convince homeowners to purchase a vacuum and its accessories — which can cost upwards of $2,000.

Feeling Pressured

Karen Muesch, 44, says a Kirby salesman quoted her a price of $2,700 after giving her a demonstration of the vacuum.

"I said, 'There is no way I can spend $2,700 on a vacuum cleaner,'" remembers Muesch, who owns her own business and was home alone when the salesman came to the door.

At that point, she says, the salesman's manager showed up, and the two of them ganged up on her.

"I just felt so trapped by them and pressured," says Muesch. "It was unbelievable."

Muesch says she finally gave in and bought the vacuum after a five-hour sales pitch: "I had a headache and I did sign the contract. I had myself a Kirby machine for $1,100."

Some Kirby salespeople have been accused of deceiving people to get into their home by saying they've won a free carpet cleaning, of making sales calls that last up to six hours, and of targeting the elderly.

Footage from a 1994 meeting made by former independent distributors captured salespeople making fun of how old and sick their customers were. The Kirby company said it did not endorse the tape and no longer does business with the distributor who made it.

Targeting the Elderly?

Last year, the state of Wisconsin sued 14 Kirby distributors for deceptive practices. Wisconsin's Secretary of Consumer Protection, Jim Harsdorf, says that Kirby's distributors targeted the elderly. While admitting no wrongdoing, the distributors agreed to pay the state $56,000, and to give refunds to any customers who were treated unfairly.

Elizabeth Wilker, 76, was sold a vacuum for $1,200. Her son Larry thinks the salesman took advantage of his mother.

"I think my mother was scammed," he says. According to Wilker, not only was the purchase made three weeks before she was hospitalized for mental illness, but Elizabeth already owned a Kirby that she rarely used.

Former distributor Tim Gottschalk admits that he made thousands of dollars off one elderly woman. "Over a 12-month period, she ended up buying 13 different sweepers," he says, adding that he believes the woman — who kept trading each Kirby in for what she thought was a newer model — had Alzheimers.

Kirby says these kinds of tactics violate company policy. But Gottschalk, Robinson and other former distributors say these practices reflect the aggressive culture that the company rewards.

"You don't leave that house until you get the deal, and that's what you're taught," says Robinson, who was forced out of the company in 1997 and sued Kirby in a dispute over pricing, which was later settled out of court.

Both Robinson and Gottschalk say they regret their actions.

Hidden-Camera Investigation

To see how some Kirby salespeople can get consumers to buy a vacuum they don't want or can't afford, three women in three different states let Primetime wire their homes with hidden cameras before calling Kirby distributors.

Several of the salespeople made similar pitches, telling the customers that they were just one sale away from winning a free trip.

"When we'd go out," says Gottschalk, "we'd say we needed one more sale." In fact, he says, "It was just a pitch … do whatever it takes to get that Kirby sale."

The real key to the sales pitch, according to former distributors, is the power of their "demo." Salespeople use the vacuum and then show the customers how much dirt it picks up.

"You take the dirt, stick it in their face," says Robinson. "And there's been dealers literally stick it within three, four inches of their face and say look at that stuff."

The secret, former salespeople say, is that the little white pads, which pick up dirt, would also work with other vacuum cleaners — not just a Kirby.

Then, when it's time to negotiate the price, Kirby salespeople are happy to take trade-ins to lower the price of the vacuum. According to Robinson, some salespeople asked for personal items such as guns or gold coins. He says this can be a way to make even more money off customers.

That's not the only way to make a sale. When dealing with the elderly, some Kirby salespeople looked for a special source of money — Social Security checks — even accommodating the arrival of a potential customer's check.

A Three-Hour Pitch

Primetime watched as a young salesman named Dan tried to sell a Kirby to 71-year-old Carita Fisher. He demonstrated the Kirby's features, using one attachment after another, and cleaning everything in sight.

Forty minutes into the demo, Fisher asked the price and found it was $1898. More than an hour and a half later — two hours and 21 minutes into the sales pitch — Dan was still cleaning and still selling.

Fisher said it was a bad time to make a big purchase because her husband had just had a stroke.

"Sure, sure, sure," said Dan. Then, without even a pause, he said, "Well, let me pick up these suds. Do you think you would want the shampooer, or would that be something you could add on?"

Fisher was dumbfounded by his response. "He just sort of ignored it, like it wasn't important … I thought boy, he doesn't give a darn about anything."

Two hours and 49 minutes later, Fisher said: "I'm just going to say no for right now, but I'm going to keep your name."

Dan answered curtly: "My name is not going to clean the carpet.

After Fisher said she was not interested in making a purchase 17 times — and three hours into Dan's pitch — he left without a sale.

The Company's Response

The Kirby company turned down repeated requests for an on-camera interview. In a series of letters, however, the company said it has no "day to day control" over independent distributors and salespeople, but requires them to "operate legally and ethically."

Pointing out that last year alone the company "terminated 14 distributors" for "unacceptable" practices," Kirby wrote: "We take seriously over-aggressive sales behavior."

But that didn't stop Dan, who we caught up with after he spent almost two hours at another woman's home.

When Primetime confronted him about his sales practices, he tried to grab the camera and said "I don't want this in here."

Asked if this was how he was taught to sell a Kirby, Dan answered, "You can talk to our lawyers."