Power struggles: the tribulations of China’s young salespeople

The world’s power bank need is expected to hit US$16 billion in five years. In China, a huge salesforce sees things turning tough, with new prime locations for charging stations hard to find.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By YU Hao


Our screens are home to thousands of memes featuring ordinary people engaged in everyday activities like riding the subway or cooking breakfast, eyes blindly staring into their phones. It is a universally recognized commentary on the ubiquity of both the devices and the human response to the device. People like to stare at their phones.

It’s only a matter of time until almost everyone is connected almost every waken hour. And many of us are already monitoring ourselves and others through our phones, even while we sleep.

The power behind the screen

All this screen time demands a lot of power. Phone manufacturers are unable or unwilling to meet all this demand through on-board power alone. As phone functions become more uniform across brands and price ranges, power banks are a new forward thrust for the industry.

The world’s power bank need is expected to hit US$16 billion (103 billion yuan) in around five years’ time. In China, many look at their phones rather than their companion while dining out, so spare power banks are very welcome finds at restaurants, cafes, bars, or even snack stands.

Around 2017, power bank companies began to fight for prime spots beside restaurant cashier desks. On the forefront line, are “business development agents.” Part salesforce, part brokers, things are getting tough for those at the sharp end.

A juggling act

LIU Yang from a small city in Hebei Province is the business development manager for Sulv, a small power bank sharing company. His job is to get his foot in the restaurant door and do whatever it takes to keep it there. But since all the power bank companies are more or less the same, why should the restaurant choose Liu?

Liu juggles pay-offs and profit shares until everyone is satisfied, and the most flexible part of the deal is his cut, which sometimes shrinks to the point where it disappears altogether.

The restaurant, or any other client, receives an entrance fee from the power bank company when the station is installed, typically 100,00 yuan, but rising too much more in busy CBDs, nightclubs, and hotels in bigger cities. The amount the company will pay is fixed, with all companies offering more or less the same amounts. It’s up to the business development manager to find whatever it takes to sweeten the deal for the client. The agent then receives 20 percent of the company’s income from each charging station. That division of profits between the company and the client is, once again, negotiable. Shortfalls (or surpluses) in either direction affect the agent’s cut. Liu once visited a restaurant where the previous agent had altered the contract to put all the turnover into his own pocket.

“The only thing that matters is nailing the restaurant for the company,” said Liu. “It wore me out.”

Siqi joined the BD team of Jiedian, a major shared power bank company, in 2019. She said salesmen habitually promised restaurants whatever they wanted to hear. This has become the standard industry model. The prospectus of Xiaodian Technology suggested the money spent on these entrance fees more than doubled from 2019 to 2020.

“They make promises they know they can’t deliver on, but what the hell? Just get the deal signed.”

Take it on the run

Few of these bright young market expansionist last more than six months. Liu Yang said the first thing the company wants them to do is to grab more restaurants, but without connections, the only leverage they have is price, and their only weapon is their own slice.

“They worry so much about their performance that they offer 70 percent of turnover, which means they get pretty much nothing,” said Siqi. “They quickly learn to play with the rules.”

Sooner or later a BD will get there or get gone. A BD who closes enough deals becomes a BD manager, then a city manager and regional manager. The system does allow clever DBs to generate a sizeable income for themselves.

Clearly, the biggest problem for the BDs is the dwindling supply of unoccupied prime sites. As a city fills up with charging stations, the possibilities of promotion, and the need for BDs in general, falls.

This is partly the reason why the business is so ridden with petty fraud. DBs know their days are numbered and a chance to get promoted is high above the sky, so why not go for a smash-and-grab deal and go?

Winds of change

China’s city streets are the workplace of a vast army of young people, generally newcomers, being paid on commission. Liu Yang was a real estate broker before joining Sulv. He is aware that his local market is close to saturation. but he knows the game now and plans to try his hand among the brighter lights of nearby Beijing.

According to Siqi, way back in 2018 people made real money and she missed out. She quit power banks a while ago and now holds a similar sales position with another Internet firm, walking familiar streets.

“We are just following a trend, or following the money,” she said. “We really do arrive with big dreams. We are disposable for the companies, but they are also disposable for us. We gain little, and go wherever the wind blows us next.”

(The names of the interviewees have been altered.)