Go Southwestern, Young Man

For Those With Gumption The Gruel Is Worth It

For over a year now we've seen a series of articles in The Crimson about our work with the Southwestern Company. Previous episodes have charged that the company uses unethical and illegal recruiting practices at Harvard, that we are defying a ban by the dean of students and that "Southwestern students" practice a form of nepotism in undergraduate organizations (such as the model U.N.) ensuring favorable staff positions for each other. The latest installment contains an assessment of the program by two participants, based upon less than six weeks total experience. For the first time since the parade of articles began, we have decided to respond--simply because these articles present such an inaccurate and misleading picture of the Southwestern program that the Harvard community is left with only a faulty and unfair view of the program.

Of the 17 Harvard students who went to Arizona last summer, 15 finished the summer. Of the 15, two have graduated, one after five summers in the bookfield, the other after bringing his younger brother into the program during his second summer. Two others have taken time off from school during their senior years to work full-time in a special field management program, and will again sell this summer. One of the 15 has chosen not to return. The remaining ten will all return, four for a second and six for a third summer. In all, of the 13 students who are eligible to return for another summer, 12 will return.

We all have different feelings about the program, but the unfounded blanket insinuation that those of us who work with Southwestern are unethical in our business practices seems disturbingly inappropriate in a newspaper and community which pride themselves on rationality and a strong sense of justice. The purpose of this piece is to lay the facts on the table so that the issues can be discussed in an atmosphere of reason, rather than one reminiscent of a self-righteous witch hunt.

This piece is a singular response to the barrage of articles over the past 14 months. We fully expect The Crimson to "stick by its story," for we recognize that many of the facts presented here may be disagreeable to some of those with strongly preconceived notions against the facts. Fine; we present them anyway. We are disturbed by the innuendos in the articles concerning us as individuals, and about the conclusions drawn from narrow experience and inadequate knowledge concerning the program in which we work. We have accumulated more than 300 weeks of selling experience among us, and are extremely familiar with the workings of the Southwestern Company. What an individual in the Harvard community decides about the program after it has been presented in a fair and complete light is entirely his business, but the fact remains that up until now, such a fair and complete picture could not be assembled from the inaccurate and misleading implications found in this paper.

The criticisms seem clustered around three main issues: Southwestern salesmen are unethical fanatics; the company misleads and double-crosses its workers; and recruiting tactics are unethical and illegal.


First, we would like to correct the notion that Southwestern salesmen are unethical. A salesman who misrepresents himself or his product could conceivably make a few extra sales--before getting caught and thrown in jail. But whether an individual salesman acts ethically or not is his decision alone. Each Southwestern salesman agrees, in writing, "to operate in his own way, within his designated territory, in selling books published by the company," and that "Dealer shall be free to exercise his own judgement as to time, place, and manner of selling books purchased under this contract, within the territory designated by company and agreed upon." Southwestern trains its students only in reputable, honest sales practices, for it could not maintain its good standing as a charter member of both the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau unless it did. The fact is that Southwestern is now in its 108th year of continuous operation, and has worked with over 100,000 college students since the depression. It is inevitable that out of such a large number of people some would be unethical or dishonest. But to label all salesmen unethical on that basis makes no more sense than to label the entire medical, legal, scientific, academic, and journalistic professions corrupt because of the corrupt actions of a small fraction of their total membership.

It is commonly held that Southwestern salesmen manipulate people who don't need the product into buying it anyway. If anything becomes clear after an entire summer of selling with Southwestern, it is that even the very best salesmen hear far more rejections than acceptances. Anyone who attends a Southwestern interview learns that the average salesman, who earns over $2,000, hears some 27 rejections per day in the course of hearing just three acceptances. The best salesmen do no more than listen to a person's needs, and then determine if and how the product might help to fill those needs. No "techniques," no lies, no bullshit. Southwestern company clearly instructs that its salesmen spend no more than 20 minutes per house. If no sale is made within that time, they pack up and move to the next house. The fact is that the average Southwestern "manipulator" fails resoundingly 27 out of 30 times. The best salesmen are also the best listeners. If a student did ignore people's problems and did not try to solve them, it's because he himself chose that course of action.

Each salesman makes his own decisions as to whom he will try to sell to within his neighborhood territory. The statement of one Southwestern worker who quit that, "I had sold three houses in a row that day, and I was selling to people who couldn't afford the dictionaries," is especially noteworthy. If he felt that they could not afford the books, then why did he take their order at all? In the neighborhoods in which we work, there are literally thousands of other families who are financially able to save up the three to seven dollars a week necessary to pay for the books by the end of the summer. Southwestern instructs its salesmen to approach only those who are able to buy them if they want them. Again, the individual student is expected "to exercise his own judgement," and that includes deciding whose order he would feel good about filling.

Sales school and its atmosphere of "people acting crazy" also received an interesting treatment in one Crimson article. The picture presented is one of regimented hardship, mandatory sleeping on concrete, blind obedience and a denunciation of self and creativity. It is possible to view sales school that way; but then again, it's also possible to view your entire first semester at Harvard solely in terms of the freshman mixer.

No one has ever denied that working with Southwestern is a long, hard, tiring summer experience. Without proper training, it would probably also be impossible. Everything in sales school is designed to help a student prepare himself for a successful summer.

Everyone in Hum 103 or Ec 10 knows the advantages of sitting in the front row. The Harvard team certainly tried to be "a leading force," other Harvard groups in other spheres tend to do the same. The competition was good-natured, and only those who volunteered slept outside at the Capitol. Two weeks ago, hundreds of students rose early or camped outside Byerly Hall to try for 200 clean-up jobs; it seems hardly more unusual that few students would do the same at sales school to better hear and see presentations which would help determine their success over the summer. Standing ovations do not happen after every speaker; when they do, they are well-deserved. Additionally, the ovations, the optional (how could it be otherwise?) cold showers, and the cheering are designed to help do two things: to keep the blood moving and the mind awake during the early morning and the five hour lecture period; and to capitalize on the William James theory that action precedes feeling. For example, look at any University dining hall early in the morning. Many of us moan and groan because it is early morning. But each time we do, we remind ourselves--audibly--how lousy we feel. By acting depressed, especially early in the morning, it's easy to keep feeling depressed. In contrast, by acting alert and awake, it becomes easier to feel alert and awake. Why be upset about that?

Yet these aspects, so heavily emphasized in the article, are minor parts of sales school. Student managers help new dealers to learn what are, for most of them, the entirely new skills of how to sell and how to run a business. Sales school has to be tightly scheduled--there is a huge amount to learn and not much time in which to learn it.

Second, we would like to correct the notion that Southwestern misleads its workers. The implication that the company's training produces fully programmed, monotonously non-creative selling fanatics, and not self-sufficient, creative entrepeneurs as advertised--bears no resemblance to reality. It is entirely possible that a student could deliver the same, memorized talk at every house all summer long, but if he did it would be by his own choice. Every family has different needs and consequently different responses to us and the products we sell. If we fail to respond flexibly to different circumstances as we are trained to do, then it is our own fault. The memorized talk is to provide a foundation; the rigid schedule is to provide direction. It would take years to become bored with the presentation, even if it were given in exactly the same way at each house, simply because every family responds differently to it. And since students have every opportunity to be as creative as they would like to be, failure to communicate effectively with the people, and failure to learn about and from them, only indicates that the student salesman failed. It does not mean that the job prevented him from succeeding.

Not a single one of us who worked all summer enjoys knocking on doors. None of us likes working 75 to 85 hours every week. We are agreed that we don't like hearing 27 rejections in a day; we've all gone through days where we've been turned down more times than that. The sun gets hot; it rains from time to time; homesickness is ever-present. Those of us with cars drove as much as an hour and a half twice a day to get to and from the territory. Sometimes dogs bite, doors get shut and little children giggle at the "bookman" in his shorts and tennis shoes. Yet 12 out of the 13 who can are going back. Why?

Each of us has a different reason for returning. Our personal reasons include wanting to gain self-confidence, more discipline, more skill at establishing rapport with middle-class working people, and better skill at time management. One of us is returning because he likes the group he's with. All of us dislike one part of the job or another, mainly because it is not at all easy or glamorous work. The money is important in most cases, because face it--Harvard ain't cheap. But no amount of money could fully compensate for the frustrations and sacrifices endured by those who work a full summer. Service attitude is important. As Business Today reported in 1974 of the nature of business: