CBC investigation into sales practices at major telcos prompts growing calls for public inquiry
Consumer protection organizations and telecom customers say sales tactics must be examined
The call to hold a public inquiry into sales practices at Canada's major telecommunications service providers is growing, on the heels of more allegations of wrongdoing inside the industry.
Two consumer groups — OpenMedia and the Consumer Council of Canada — say they support a call earlier this month by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), which urged the federal telecom regulator to investigate high-pressure sales tactics by telecom employees.
"Telecoms have a big budget," says Katy Anderson, a digital rights activist with OpenMedia.
"They've got a lot of lawyers who go and make their case every day to government officials, to the CRTC. An inquiry is a great chance to hear from Canadians who depend on these services."
More than 300 Canadians have contacted Go Public — many saying they don't receive what a sales agent promised, or are charged higher prices than what was negotiated over the phone, or their bills are so complicated they can't figure them out.
"We know when people call in to their providers they're caught [dealing] with people that are trying to reach a sales target, rather than trying to help them out," says Anderson.
Funding dwindles for consumer protection
The Consumers Council of Canada's executive director Ken Whitehurst says a public inquiry into telecom sales practices is necessary because Canadians need a platform to voice their concerns.
Part of the problem, Whitehurst says, is that consumer protection organizations are chronically underfunded, sharing annual funding of $1.69 million from the federal government.
"We're all very resource strapped," says Whitehurst. "Support from business has been declining and federal money for consumer research hasn't moved up a dollar in 20 years."
CRTC says inquiry not their mandate
When Go Public asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to respond to calls for a public inquiry, spokesperson Patricia Valladao said that examining sales practices at Canada's telecoms doesn't fall under the regulator's mandate, a claim disputed by PIAC.
"We don't regulate how they treat their employees," said Valladao, adding that it wasn't the regulator's place to hold hearings about alleged sales tactics that harm consumers.
Valladao acknowledged receiving a formal letter from PIAC calling for a public inquiry and said a response would be "forthcoming."
More employees speak out
Since Go Public first reported on sales pressures inside Bell Canada, we've heard from more than 200 past and present employees — mostly working for Bell and Rogers Communications — describing intense pressure to mislead, lie and trick consumers in order to hit unrealistic sales targets.
A current sales rep inside Rogers' Ottawa call centre writes, "A manager...literally told me he didn't care what I told a customer as long as he doesn't hear about it and gets paid."
CBC has confirmed his employment, but is not revealing his identity because he worries he will be fired. Recent company emails obtained by Go Public instruct Rogers employees not to speak to the media about our investigation.
A "technical support" employee working for Bell at a third party call centre in Orillia, Ont., that's owned by Nordia wrote to say he's frustrated that he's expected to push a service called "Bell Tech Xpert" even to customers who need help fixing something as simple as connecting to their home Wi-Fi.
"A lot of individuals misrepresent the cost of the service, as it requires a yearly commitment and has a $35 early termination fee if cancelled before that time," he writes. "We're just expected to shove BTE [Bell Tech Xpert] down their throats in order to meet sales goals."
Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson told Go Public in an email, "Our agents aren't required to offer the service but will do so if they think it's right for the customer. Tech Expert sales would account for well under one per cent of our total technical support calls."
Michael Menegaldo worked for a Rogers' third party call centre, S&P Data in Hamilton, until 18 months ago. He writes that his managers would sometimes ignore a report showing that a customer is in debt and approve the sale of a cellphone.
"There'd be times where [a customer's] bills could be in the thousands, but our manager would want the sale — so they'll do what is best for them."
Employees at retail stores also pressured
Employees from both Bell and Rogers retail stores have also contacted Go Public, describing managers' unscrupulous tactics they say are used to get them to push products that customers don't need and often can't afford.
They write about being encouraged to hide fees attached to products, tack on services that aren't requested, and to prey on people who seem vulnerable — including low-income and older people — to hit sales targets.
The store employees' sales numbers are often posted in the back room, some write, to shame those who aren't selling enough per shift.
Customers call for public inquiry, too
Richard Aviv of Thornhill, Ont., is one of the hundreds of consumers who contacted Go Public to say they feel they've been the victims of underhanded sales tactics.
He says last fall, a Bell sales agent convinced him to give up his grandfathered cable plan in exchange for a new plan with a better price.
I feel betrayed by an operator.- Bell customer Richard Aviv
When he received his bill, though, it was higher than what he'd been paying, so he wrote Bell's president and CEO George Cope.
"As a customer of over 12 years, I feel betrayed by an operator who effectively wanted to remove me from a grandfathered plan with a promise that did not materialize," wrote Aviv.
"I believe...rogue operators should be held to account," wrote Aviv.
Aviv says it took four phone calls and several emails before Bell issued a credit, but says he will be stuck paying much more when a promo ends.
A Bell spokesperson says Aviv now has superior services and that Bell credited the account, applied some "additional loyalty credits" and apologized.
- Been wronged? Contact Erica and the Go Public team at email@example.com
Bert Reket of Owen Sound, Ont., wrote to voice his complaints about Rogers.
"I recently renewed my internet/cable with Rogers," writes Reket. "And wound up spending over three hours on the phone — most of which was on hold — and came away with a higher cost, more TV channels and a faster internet connection, none of which I wanted."
He also says he was promised he wouldn't be locked in to a contract, but says when he received the confirmation email he learned he was in fact in another two-year deal with additional fees that were never mentioned on the phone.
In a statement, Rogers spokesperson Paula Lash wrote, "Whenever a customer's promotion period ends, we work with them to find the right plan to fit their needs that delivers the best value," adding that Rogers strives "to be clear and transparent with our customers, that's why we send a confirmation email outlining the changes made and encourage customers to reach out if they have any questions."
Susan Eckersley of Whitby, Ont., says she's been hoodwinked by slick sales agents too, and thinks a public inquiry is needed to expose the high pressure sales environment she believes is misleading customers.
"The CRTC should look into both Rogers and Bell's tactics," writes Eckersley. "Just wish they [CRTC] would send their own people undercover into these two — and do a more thorough investigation into both companies' training and employment practices! I am a senior and feel I was taken advantage of."
Bell declined to comment on a public inquiry. Instead, spokesperson Nathan Gibson sent a statement saying Bell has made significant investments in training and technology, and that the company continues "to see significant and ongoing improvements in customer satisfaction and retention."
With files from Enza Uda