Business·GO PUBLIC

85-year-old with Alzheimer's sold Bell products and services he can't use after visit to The Source

Ross Miller, 85, went to The Source — owned by Bell — for a new TV. He left with two-year contracts for Bell Fibe TV and a new cell phone, a cordless phone, landline, tablet and a two-year contract for high-speed home internet. An insider says Source employees are pressured to make unethical sales.

Company launches internal investigation, says it does not support high-pressure sales tactics

Ross Miller, who has Alzheimer’s, went to The Source in Toronto to buy a TV. Instead a salesperson sold him a Bell Fibe TV package, a landline, a tablet and two-year contracts for high-speed internet and a cell phone. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Ross Miller, 85, thought he needed a new TV last October, so he went to The Source — a consumer electronics store owned by Bell Canada. But he got much more than he intended. 

A sales rep signed Miller to two-year contracts for Bell Fibe TV and a new cell phone with data and a warranty plan; sold him a cordless phone, landline and tablet; and signed him to another two-year contract for high-speed home internet. 

Miller, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, isn't clear what happened. He already had a cell phone, which he doesn't use, didn't know what a tablet was and doesn't understand the internet.

The new products and services "seemed to have been sold to me without my knowledge, I guess," he told Go Public, shrugging. "That's the only explanation I can have. I'm still not sure how that happened."

Miller's son has a pretty good idea what happened — he says a sales rep at the store in Toronto's Dufferin Mall acted unethically. 

"He went in to get a TV … and came out with everything except a TV," said James Ogden. "There's no justification for what they did, just taking advantage of somebody. It was exploitative."

An insider who works at another location of The Source tells Go Public that constant pressure to hit unrealistic sales targets — even when people are staying home because of the pandemic — is forcing employees to make unethical sales.

He says he and his colleagues are encouraged not to ask too many questions when a customer doesn't appear to have good cognitive function. 

"The goal … is to get them pen to paper, signing a contract. So if the person does not have their faculties, then we're basically just told to go through the [sales] script," he said. 

"We are told to just push through." 

CBC News is not identifying him, because he says he fears he would lose his job.

He describes intense pressure from his store manager, sharing texts in which they tell the team there are no excuses for not selling and say employees can't blame a lack of customers for not making sales.

Miller, 85, isn't clear what happened. He already had a cell phone, which he doesn't use, didn't know what a tablet was and doesn't understand the internet. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

"There's a constant, every day, 'We need to hit this [sales target], why isn't there anything on the board?'" he said.

An expert in business ethics says encouraging high-pressure sales is detrimental to a company's brand.

"During this challenging time, it's so easy for [companies] to be pushed over this ethical line and  … push their employees to engage in sales misconduct," said Ruodan Shao, an associate professor specializing in corporate responsibility and business ethics at York University's Schulich School of Business. 

"Companies should … offer protection and support for their employees rather than shifting all this financial difficulty and pressure towards their employees." 

Bell declined an interview request, but eventually refunded Miller and waived the contracts. In a statement to Go Public, spokesperson Nathan Gibson said the company "is focused on championing customer experience" and takes concerns about sales and service practices "very seriously."

He also said the company has launched an internal investigation into Miller's experience, that staff involved will face disciplinary action and that what happened "does not align in any way with our policies and we have apologized to him and his family." 

A location of The Source in Toronto is seen in March 2009. Employees of the Bell-owned chain say they face pressure to reach unrealistic sales targets. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"We do not encourage or support high-pressure sales tactics," Gibson said. 

The upselling came to light when Ogden visited his dad last November and noticed the Bell Fibe TV receiver — which struck him as odd, because his dad's condo fees included Rogers Cable. He soon discovered the other items. 

His dad couldn't remember much, so Ogden says he called Bell — over and over. He says the customer service reps simply refused to cancel the TV, internet and cell phone plans, or take back any of the untouched devices.

Several said his dad was stuck with the cell phone and tablet because he had passed the two-week "buyer's remorse" window.

Out of frustration, Ogden started recording the calls. On one — shared with Go Public — an agent insisted Ogden's father was responsible for what happened, despite having Alzheimer's, because he signed a contract. 

"Your father was of sound body and mind in order to be able to process and provide the information required to complete the signing of the contract," said the rep. "End of story."

Ruodan Shao, a business professor and expert in corporate social responsibility, says encouraging ethical conduct pays off for companies in the long run. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

The insider says it's upsetting but not surprising to hear what happened to Miller. 

"The more that is bundled, the higher the payback is for the sales associate. So we are encouraged to bundle," he said. 

Go Public heard from a handful of other current and former employees at The Source, who also say the pressure to meet sales targets is unreasonable. One said there is a culture of management "looking the other way" if an employee is hitting targets. 

Older people 'a specific target'

The CRTC held a public inquiry in 2018, partly prompted by Go Public reports, into aggressive sales tactics by the telecoms, at which the seniors advocacy group CARP called on the regulator to protect older people — warning they "are a specific target for over-selling."

No such protections have been introduced, but they are long overdue, according to Ogden.

"There should be something to protect vulnerable people from exploitation," he said.

Miller, seen here with his son James Ogden, never opened the new tablet or cell phone but The Source wouldn’t take them back because the two-week window for returns had passed. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

The Source insider says Bell talks a good game about not encouraging a stressful work environment and is known for its "Let's Talk" campaign about mental health, but says the company needs to significantly decrease sales targets if it cares about its employees' state of mind.

"Bell needs to take a good, hard, long look at how they are approaching sales at this time," he said. 

The spokesperson says Bell is talking with its leaders and sales teams about its code of conduct and sales ethics.

"We do not … condone any behaviour that is contrary to the strict policies and extensive training programs we've noted," Gibson said in the statement.

WATCH | 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's sold Bell products he can't use:

85-year-old sold Bell products while TV shopping | Go Public

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
An 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's who went shopping at The Source for a TV ended up with multiple Bell contracts as well as a new phone and tablet he didn’t need. A Source insider says staff are pressured to upsell, even during the pandemic.

After Go Public contacted Bell, the company agreed to take back the cell phone and tablet, waived the contracts and erased Miller's outstanding charges.

Gibson acknowledged the company's "policies and training were not followed in multiple instances."

He said that Bell reps are bound by the company's "stringent Business Code of Conduct" and their training includes mandatory courses on ethical sales behaviour and accessibility.

Shao, the ethics professor, says employees who feel pushed to engage in unethical behaviour often start looking elsewhere for work, harming the company in the long run. 

"I think Bell should be paying closer attention to their employees' mental health and psychological well-being," she said.  "They need to walk the talk."

She says she's pleased Bell took steps to address Miller's case, but says it should have happened months ago.

"It clearly shows the company knows they are engaged in wrong behaviour," she said. "They should be more proactive."

As for Miller, he has sworn off making any trips to the store without his son and has gone back to Rogers for TV and home phone services. But his son worries about Bell trying to get his dad back as a customer.

"Literally, two days later, Bell was calling [him] to see if he would like to reactivate his Bell account," Ogden said. "There's nothing on his file that explains the ordeal we've gone through."

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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.

With files from Enza Uda