Hard Sell In Poland

June 02, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

WARSAW, Poland -- His first week on the job, Grzegorz Maltanski wanted to quit.

It made him queasy knocking on all those doors, bothering all those strangers behind their dead-bolts and peepholes, trudging through the gray high-rises where the elevators broke and the stairwells stank of cigarettes and boiled cabbage. Better perhaps to have stuck with his studies and become a priest, then he'd be calmly listening to confessions instead of peddling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

But then he made his first sale, and life got easier. Six weeks later he's still at it, comfortable at last on Eastern Europe's frontier of the hard sell, a realm where Avon is calling, Amway is organizing, and Mr. Maltanski's company, Electrolux, is literally vacuuming away the cobwebs of the Cold War.

Ranging across Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and to a lesser extent Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, competing sales forces are going places they haven't been since before World War II.

Raw recruits accustomed to the low wages and even lower exertion of jobs with state-run concerns are now learning the harsh realities of business -- commissions, cancellations, long hours, pushy bosses, wary customers

"Many people we had in the beginning were not so much interested in earning their money," said Christer Gladh, general manager of Lux Poland, the nation's Electrolux distributor.

"They did not realize that people in capitalist companies also had to work, and sometimes work very hard," said Mr. Gladh, a Swede called in from Pakistan to whip the Polish office into shape. "They saw a lot of their friends surfing from company to company. We had a lot of employees, but not many salesmen."

Now he has six salesmen, six young men in pressed suits, with golden Lux logos gleaming on their pocket pens and tie tacks. A year ago they were a teacher, a tailor, a researcher, two aspiring businessmen and, in Mr. Maltanski's case, a 29-year-old theologian and family man wondering what career to pursue after having given up ambitions to the priesthood several years earlier.

From this base Mr. Gladh hopes to build a Polish sales network of 500 people with 40 branch offices. But if he is to be successful it will take more performances like the one Mr. Maltanski gave on a recent morning in the tiny living room of the Chmielski family, on the eighth floor of a high-rise in Warsaw.

As he removed a bulky Lux Royal demonstrator from its huge Samsonite case, Mr. Maltanski was a study in deft motion, shooting his cuffs, hitching his pants, using his hands and eyes, the very things Mr. Gladh has been teaching in the morning sales meetings.

The daily meetings can be embarrassing. If you're not cutting it, a snapshot of your smiling face pasted on a blackboard soon lags behind the photos of your colleagues as they're moved further across the board with each sale they make.

Such worries were far away as Mr. Maltanski reached the heart of his demonstration. He whisked the roaring Royal across a few square feet of the Chmielskis' thin carpet, then poked his hand into the machine to retrieve the dust bag, like a magician reaching into his hat. Moments earlier he'd shown Boguslaw Chmielski and his three daughters that the bag was empty, displaying it from every angle and even pulling it inside out.

He briskly shook the bag onto a small blue cloth, with a popping noise like that of a wet dog shaking itself dry. A huge ring of dust tumbled onto the blue cloth. Then another. Then a third.

The girls gasped. Mr. Chmielski's jaw dropped, and he crouched on the rug for a closer look inside the machine, thinking perhaps it was some sort of trick.

But, no, everything seemed in order. And when Mr. Maltanski repeated the results a few moments later by vacuuming a couch cushion, the eldest daughter exclaimed with a blush, "It's amazing. It's like we haven't been cleaning at all."

As if on cue, the youngest daughter then sneezed. Mr. Maltanski took a moment to mention the harmful health effects of too much household dust. Twenty minutes later Mr. Chmielski signed on the dotted line.

Sales don't always go so easily for either Mr. Maltanski or for Electrolux's Polish operation.

When Lux Poland opened in 1993 it did what every other door-to-door outfit did as it streamed in from the West. It headed for the neighborhoods housing the 5 percent of Warsaw's population with the most income, the area known to sales managers as "Beverly Hills."

"That was OK at first," Mr. Gladh says, "but after a while we were all running into each other at the same clients. You'd have some people being visited by a different salesman every day, and with similar products."

It didn't help that along with the flood of new products came con artists and fly-by-nighters.

So by the time Lux began moving into other neighborhoods, people were beginning to keep their doors shut. Lux looked for a new strategy in Poland, the trouble spot on its Eastern front.

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