When it comes to direct sales, my friendship is not for profit
(Photo: Pixabay)

Recently, I had lunch with a friend of mine who said that she was convinced the same $1,000 has been circulating among Marine Corps spouses for the past decade. We were talking about multi-level marketing (MLM)–also called “direct marketing” or “networking marketing”– and the industry’s wide and deep roots in the military community.

My friend laughingly said that no one actually made any money through direct sales because so many of us work for MLMs, that we’re simply recycling the money from family to family. Obviously, she was joking, but I’ll bet this story sounds familiar:

Your service member receives orders and you PCS to a new state, city, or country. When you get there, the first thing you do is make sure to get on all of the networking groups and contact lists for spouses so you have someone to show you the ropes in your new town. Within 24 hours, someone has contacted you about a “party” they’re hosting, and since you’re a newbie and simply excited to be included, you immediately RSVP, only to end up at another Stella & Dot, Pampered Chef, Jamberry, LulaRoe, Rodan & Fields, Pure Romance, Scentsy, or [insert your favorite MLM here] sales event. Although your new friend has promised that there “is no pressure to purchase,” you feel like a jerk for drinking her wine and not supporting her, so you go home with $50 worth of jewelry you’ll never wear because, gosh darnit, you’re allergic to cheap metal!

The amount of pressure we put on our friends in the military community to support our careers in direct marketing has become overwhelming for a lot of us. We’re bombarded with requests to purchase everything from leggings to health shakes. We’re also bombarded with requests to join our friends’ teams as salespeople ourselves.

A few years ago, I decided that no matter how much I love someone, I would never again participate in purchasing from an MLM. Ethical questions about the structure of MLMs aside, I was simply spending way too much money to support my friends’ businesses by purchasing things I didn’t want or need.

The truth is, most of my friends weren’t twisting my arm to purchase anything, and they would probably have been just fine with me drinking their wine and going home empty-handed. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to be “the mooch” in the room, and you also want your friends to know that you support them. The pressure to participate by purchasing is internal not external, making it that much more difficult to overcome. It’s certainly the reason I’ve ended up with a drawer full of candles and nail wraps I will never use.

There have been a few who’ve given me the hard sell or who only invite me to sales “parties” and never to simply have a cup of coffee. It’s as though they’ve commoditized our relationship. . . and I only represent dollar signs. Sadly, my non-participation has typically resulted in straining or ending those relationships, but I figure I’m better off without them.

I don’t judge anyone for trying to make the best of the military family lifestyle by finding a job that travels with them. Like most military spouses, I have struggled with unemployment and underemployment myself, and I know the frustration of trying to find a new job every few years. Direct sales seems like an easy answer for those of us who move as much as we do and who struggle with finding and affording childcare, as do many in our community.

I only ask that those who do chose the MLM or direct marketing path recognize friendship is not for sale. Keep in mind, you are not the first person to ask that friend to buy a product (whatever that product may be). If burgeoning salespeople don’t want to be unfollowed on Facebook, refrain from filling feeds with sales pitches. And although we all know spouses wear no rank and it shouldn’t be that way, be aware that if your service member outranks your friend’s service member, it can add another level of pressure and obligation to the sales pitch.

If someone says no, don’t ask again. If someone has a hard time saying no but never shows up to one of your “parties,” take the hint: They’re not interested. Don’t write them off because they don’t want to purchase your product. As military spouses, we need our community to be tight-knit and supportive and sometimes the pressure associated with MLMs undermines that closeness. At the end of the day, we all need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and work on fostering meaningful relationships that aren’t dependent on purchasing power.

By Liesel Kershul