'Mismatch' between what telco customers expect and what they actually get, CRTC told

Government-ordered hearings into complaints about Canada's largest telecommunications providers got underway Monday with an industry-funded ombudsman saying his group has limited insight into problem sales practices.

CCTS commissioner Howard Maker tells CRTC he has limited insight into problem sales practices at telcos

Howard Maker of the CCTS has suggested creating a 'suitability analysis' to test the suitability of a telco package for each customer. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Government-ordered hearings into complaints about Canada's largest telecommunications providers got underway Monday with an industry-funded ombudsman saying his group has limited insight into problem sales practices.

The Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services — a private-sector body — has found the biggest problem is a "mismatch" between what customers expect and what they actually get, CCTS commissioner Howard Maker said.

But the data collected by the CCTS reveals just the "tip of the iceberg without revealing what may be happening more broadly," Maker told a federal regulatory inquiry into allegations of misleading and aggressive sales practices.

"We know there's a lot that's under the water line that we don't have access to — to see and to comment on."

Maker's comments were to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the industry's regulator, which has been ordered by the federal government to look into allegations of misbehaviour by sales representatives.

"If, at the end of this proceeding, the record were to show that the misleading and aggressive practices are common, it would be a serious concern for us," CRTC chairman Ian Scott said in opening the first of five days of public hearings.

Several individuals also presented to the CRTC, outlining experiences they had with sales people who promise a good price when they buy a package, while the actual bill bears no resemblance. There were complaints about cancellations fees, disadvantageous pricing for customers in some locations and a ruined credit rating after a customer complained to the CCTS about telco practices.

Disabled users at a disadvantage

A group representing blind-deaf people said telco sales people were unaware of accessibility pricing that should be available to disabled users and disabled people often ended up paying inflated prices for the data and text services they need.

The CRTC has been ordered to provide a report to cabinet by the end of February.

Maker said that it's often difficult for the CCTS to deal with complaints — particularly with door-to-door sales and transactions at some retail stores — because of a lack of documentation about what was promised or agreed upon.

"We're left to put the pieces back together when the customer says this is not what (was) bargained for," Maker said.

He suggested the providers be required to determine if a product or service is "suitable" — as financial services companies are required to check and document by "know your client" legislation and regulations.

In telecommunications, suitability could be determined by asking what a customer wants to do with the product or service as part of the sale process and providing documentation, he said.

Need a 'suitability analysis' for customers

"I think the exchange of information like that is absolutely critical to making sure people get what they want at the price point they're looking for. So, certainly, that would be an exercise that would be required as part of a suitability analysis."

The minister responsible for telecommunications, Navdeep Bains, ordered the hearings in June after a series of investigative reports by the CBC, complaints by consumers and calls for an inquiry by consumer advocacy groups.

In the run-up to the hearings, the CRTC collected more than 1,000 comments from individual Canadians through a variety of methods and received scores of documents from companies that defended their policies and overall record.

with files from CBC News