Creative marketing the market can do without
Hard-sell system takes toll — on honesty
Have you checked your Bell Canada phone bill recently?
Take a look. A close look.
Frank Farr, a retiree living in Brockville, was surprised when he did. He discovered he was paying $5 a month for a touchtone phone feature he never ordered. "I don't use any of that stuff," he said. "I don't even have an answering machine."
Pam Devine of Brampton had a similar experience. She recalls a telemarketer for Bell trying to sell her on the rental of a more expensive telephone. She expressed an interest, but eventually declined the offer.
"On my next bill I found the rental for the more expensive telephone. When I called Bell and brought this to their attention, they said this happens quite frequently, but that the average person never bothers to check their bill."
Charges are often explained away as one-off glitches or computer-entry errors, assuming a customer catches them. But one insider working at Bell's consumer direct-marketing centre in Toronto told the Star that it's not uncommon for some staff, many earning a substantial part of their pay through commissions, to intentionally place services on customer phone bills in hopes they won't get noticed.
The practice is known in the telecommunications world as "cramming," a little known and little studied sales tactic that is more associated with boiler rooms and deceptive telemarketing rings than the brands we've come to respect and trust.
Bell says cramming isn't an issue at its call centres. "From what I understand there hasn't been a problem with our call centre reps," said company spokesperson Nessa Prendergast. "And as soon as we find out about something like this happening, we take it very seriously."
But another perspective from the front lines tells a different story. "Products and service are regularly placed on customers' phone bills, without their knowledge or consent," said the inside source, an employee for several years at Bell's call centre at 50 Eglinton Ave. E. He asked to be kept anonymous for fear of reprisal.
Such services are also misrepresented, he said, with certain pertinent details withheld so customers believe they are getting better value than they are. "I've heard telemarketers, on inbound and outbound calls, say misleading things to customers to get the sales . . . . If it has happened to you, it has happened to thousands of others."
He's not suggesting Bell management is condoning or even aware of the problem, and he emphasizes there are many hard-working sales agents who frown on such unethical tactics. It should also be said that the following observations relate to a single Bell call centre and are not necessarily reflective of other operations.
The picture painted is of a 300-employee call centre with high staff turnover and young, inexperienced sales representatives, all facing intense pressure to sell, sell, sell. Each of the front-line agents will handle from 60 to 80 calls per shift, and failure to produce could lead to a short career.
Employees get a base salary, but it's the commissions that get noticed and elevate people through the ranks. It's the commissions that win internal prizes, such as tickets to the Toronto Raptors and vacations to the Bahamas.
Selling telecommunications services isn't as easy as it used to be. Bell's traditional business of making money from local and long-distance phone services has been eroding for several years as more people communicate by e-mail, wireless phone services, and text/instant messaging. It's a trend throughout the industry that has forced service providers to develop and creatively market new products and features.
Some of this market erosion is being offset by demand for mobile phone and high-speed Internet services. But Bell has increasingly relied on the sale of new features, including everything from touchtone services, such as call display or call waiting, to insurance plans for phones, inside wiring repair and satellite dishes.
"With competition these days there is a lot of push for people to sell, and it's a skill you have or you don't. Some people are finding it challenging to meet some of the objectives," said Brenda Knight, president of the Canadian Telecommunications Employees' Association, the union representing call centre agents at Bell.
Knight said everybody is expected to sell, not just the telemarketers who call your home.
"The client calls in and says my phone is not working, the rep has to try to sell," she said. "The market is pretty saturated, there's now competition. It's tough, there's no doubt about that."
The fact is, households can only spend so much, and selling non-essential services is often akin to planting crops on dead soil. Knight said the issue of sales agents "taking shortcuts" is nothing new and is not unique to Bell or the telecommunications industry, but she did say there has been a noticeable increase in Bell agents taking stress leave in recent years.
Mary-Ann Bell, senior vice-president of contact centres for Bell, said the company has a "zero tolerance policy" when it comes to unethical sales practices and has a number of checks and balances in place — audit mechanisms, random call monitoring, coaching and other "intelligent" support tools — to make sure agents are held accountable.
"We make it very, very clear to our employees that such behaviour is not going to be tolerated," said Bell. "Obviously we can't have 100 per cent control over all of the agents. We look at the results of each employee, and every time we see a material and sudden change in results, leading us to suspect something, we will investigate."
She said 50 to 60 per cent of all Bell call centre employees are under some sort of commission sales plan and complaints about agents themselves represent less than 1 per cent of total customer complaints received by the company.
"It's not very frequent," she said, adding that when it happens an order can be traced to an agent and proper disciplinary action can be taken.
Likewise, the issue hasn't resulted in any material complaints to our telephone regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. "Accurate billing and charges are something that are certainly a concern for the CRTC," said Philippe Tousignant, a spokesperson for the watchdog. "If people came forward with complaints related to that, then we would look into it."
Yet the subtle nature of cramming, the small value of the unauthorized transactions, and the ease with which billing problems can be explained away as innocent errors, doesn't lend itself to widespread complaint. Besides, to whom should customers complain about sales agents?
Often, the first line of complaint is to call the customer support agents themselves, though Bell says calls and e-mails of this sort are supposed to be elevated to a senior manager of a customer care team.
Until recently, cramming was much more likely to go unnoticed by Bell customers. Ma Bell was one of the last phone companies in Canada to offer a monthly, itemized bill that breaks down the price and description of purchased services.
Customers did get an itemized bill at the end of the year, but the rest of the time charges were lumped together on a single line, making small increases difficult to spot or challenge. For example, a customer might open a detailed bill at the end of the year and find that a $3.75 charge for inside wiring insurance was placed on the bill in August, amounting to $18.75 of unauthorized charges throughout the rest of the year.
"The majority of customers don't ask for a credit, they just say take that off my bill," said the inside source, adding that these newly found charges can add up when the selling playground consists of seven million customers.
If several months go by before a charge is noticed, chances are slim that the commission for the service will be stripped back from the agent who processed it and often it will be the agent's word against the customer's claim. "The penalty to the agent is negligible," he said.
Mary-Ann Bell said the company's policy is to take back the commission from the original agent who made the sale if the service is cancelled, for whatever reason, within the first three months. If the service is cancelled after three months, the commission is typically not taken back.
This, in itself, illustrates the value of detailed billing for customers. The CRTC figured last year that it was time Bell followed the same billing practices of Telus, Sasktel and Manitoba Telecom, who all offer monthly, itemized bills. Bell fought the idea, arguing that its customers had never demanded such bills and never complained about not having them.
Trying to strike some kind of middle ground with the regulator, Bell proposed to offer these detailed bills on a monthly basis only to people who specifically asked for them. The CRTC rejected the compromise, and on Dec. 23 last year it ordered Bell to offer itemized bills as a standard practice. That order went into effect in June of this year, and customers now have a way of investigating suspicious charges.
Dan Gonder, a former Bell technician and founder of Trent Telecom, a telephone repair and installation company in Peterborough, said he often comes across people unknowingly paying for Bell services.
"I would show up a lot of times, and these would be elderly consumers, and they've been paying rentals on a set for years and years and years. I'm looking at their bill and they're paying for stuff they don't even use anymore."
Gonder said the playing field isn't level for consumers because they often lack technical knowledge or proper information to challenge sales agents. Take the issue of a dead phone line and a call to report the problem. Often, customers are told they can pay more than $100 to get it repaired or can pay $3.75 a month to have it covered by Bell's insurance plan.
"You'd be a fool to not take the inside maintenance program, but most problems are network problems," said Gonder, adding that network-related problems must be fixed at Bell's expense. By Bell's own admission in regulatory filings the rate of failure for inside residential and business phone wiring is "very low," so customers who get talked into insurance plans usually don't need them.
From the perspective of someone who has worked and observed in one of Bell's call centres for several years, the tactic isn't a bit surprising.
"Because it's a saturated market, you're getting poor customer lists, with poor selling potential, and this predisposes the reps to stick things on bills underhandedly," said the insider.
"Not everybody does that, but there is a large percentage that do. The public needs to be aware of what really goes on and how customers are manipulated to generate revenue."
John Lawford, research analyst with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said the statistics kept by the phone companies and the CRTC aren't detailed enough to track complaints about unauthorized charges or "hard selling" tactics.
If a customer were to complain, it's more than likely to get lost under the general heading of "billing" or "quality of service."
He supports the idea of creating an independent telecom ombudsman, similar to a privacy commissioner or the federal banking ombudsman, who could investigate complaints and get to the level of detail that the CRTC isn't equipped to collect or analyse.
"I'm sure the cramming of charges is happening, but we're in the dark because we don't have figures on it," said Lawford. "An independent ombudsman could do a polling across the industry and get some numbers on the issue."