Business·GO PUBLIC

Bell customers, employees flood CBC with complaints about high-pressure sales

CBC's Go Public heard from frustrated Bell employees and customers coast to coast after our investigation into allegations of high-pressure sales tactics at Canada's largest telecommunications provider.

Consumer advocacy group calls for CRTC inquiry

Shaelene McInnis says she had to “argue very strongly” to get Bell to stop charging for internet service her in-laws couldn’t use. She wonders how many seniors are being billed for Bell services they don't need. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Bell Canada customers and employees from coast to coast are speaking out in the wake of a Go Public investigation into customer upselling at Canada's biggest telecom.

"Enough is enough," said Shaelene McInnis of Oshawa, Ont., who discovered that Bell was charging her aging in-laws for internet service, unbeknownst to them.

"They've never even turned on a computer!" McInnis said. "They have absolutely no need for internet services."

When she called to find out why the Bell bill was so high, she learned that a customer service representative had signed them up for Fibe TV, which is delivered through a network enhanced by fibre optic and automatically includes a fee for internet service.

She threatened to cancel all Bell services if the customer service rep wouldn't lower the bill.

"When he was trying to avoid taking it off the bill, I said to him, 'How many other senior citizens are you doing this to? How many people are you charging when they don't need internet service at all?'"

Customers complain 

McInnis is one of dozens of unhappy Bell customers who emailed Go Public after reading a story earlier this week about Andrea Rizzo, a Bell call centre employee in Scarborough, Ont., who said she is under intense pressure to make a sale on every call.

One Bell customer wrote to say she felt misled.

"After fulfilling a two-year [cellphone] contract, I was told by a rep on the phone that because I was a valued customer, my phone would be upgraded for free," writes one Bell customer. It wasn't, she said, and her bill skyrocketed. "I fell hook, line and sinker."

I fell hook, line and sinker.- Bell Canada customer

Another Bell customer said a rep offered him a TV/internet deal of $78 a month, but "after three months of constant calling and confusing answers with confusing bills, I was told that no such deal existed and was basically told I made this up."

Others wrote that they were billed for upgrades that were not requested, charged for months for internet service that had yet to be installed, have spent hours on the phone trying to cancel products and services and were often disconnected during those calls.

"I experienced three frustrating weeks attempting to cancel my landline," one customer wrote. "I had to emphatically insist I did not want their service."

Bell responds

In an email to Go Public, Bell did not address customer complaints CBC has received.

"Bell succeeds in a highly competitive marketplace by ensuring we serve our customers well and that's always our focus," spokesperson Nathan Gibson wrote.

"Bell is a trusted Canadian institution that has built a reputation for service and technology leadership with our more than 23 million customers nationwide."

'Bell was hell'

A flood of Bell employees, past and present, are speaking out, too.  

"I went on stress leave and returned to find things even worse when I came back," wrote a former manager who said "high-pressure sales tactics" and "employee mistreatment" were common.

Public Interest Advocacy Centre executive director John Lawford is calling on the CRTC to take a 'holistic' look at sales practices at Canada's telecoms, with an emphasis on upselling or misleading sales. (CBC)

A customer service rep said he and his colleagues "are actually penalized if we let a 'downgrade' go through without convincing the customer to keep the package or add more."

Many wrote about the extreme stress of trying to meet sales targets and the fear of losing their jobs.

"If you meet the stats, they raise them," wrote one customer service rep. "I've sat at my desk in tears many a day."

"Bell was hell," wrote a longtime employee who quit just a few years short of retirement because the culture was "toxic."

'Upsell their grieving relative' 

Several Bell employees described a tipping point for them: taking calls from people requesting that an account be closed after a death.

"When a customer dies, we're still expected to save the service and upsell their grieving relative," one customer service rep wrote.

Another wrote, "When my coach told me I had to push services on folks who were calling in to report the account holder's death, I refused, and things did not go well after that."

Bell's Gibson disputes those allegations.

"The behaviour you describe would be completely contrary to Bell's culture and values, which are reflected in a clear code of conduct that applies to all Bell team members — more than 50,000 people across the country," he wrote.

"Bell team members can always report any concerns that they have with their job situation for action anonymously and confidentially through our intranet, by email or phone, and can do so through a third-party governance agency if they choose."

Labour issues 

Toronto labour lawyer Lior Samfiru says the allegations being made by Bell employees are troubling.

"If it's true that no matter who you're talking to, you have to upsell them on x, y and z, that's wrong," said Samfiru. "They should give more discretion to their salespeople to identify appropriate situations to upsell, and certainly not to penalize people for not upselling to someone who shouldn't be sold to."

Lawyer Lior Samfiru says pressure to sell inappropriate products to customers could spell legal trouble. (Andy Hincenberg/CBC)

He also said employees who feel their work environment puts so much pressure on them that it affects their health could make a legal claim against the employer on grounds called "constructive dismissal."

"In other words, the employer's put them in a situation where they shouldn't have to do what they're told — it's uncomfortable, it's immoral," Samfiru said. And if their claim succeeds, "their employment is deemed terminated and they can leave with compensation."

Samfiru said in some cases, customers who have been sold products and services they shouldn't have been sold "may have cause of action against Bell, as well, for costs that they have incurred."

Call for CRTC inquiry 

The growing number of allegations about Bell employees using high-pressure sales tactics to upsell customers has prompted the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) to call for a public inquiry.

"The CRTC needs to take a look at the sales practices of telecommunications and broadcasting companies in Canada with a particular emphasis on upselling or misleading sales," PIAC executive director John Lawford said.

"Right now, there's nothing in the Wireless Code that says you have to sell customers products that are suitable," said Lawford.  

"If sales practices that are inappropriate and ripping off consumers are endemic in the industry, that's completely appropriate for the CRTC to say 'We're going to set out rules.'"

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.