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Former Bell and Rogers employees reveal sales secrets submitted to public inquiry

Former telco employees from some of Canada's largest providers have contacted Go Public to share stories about misleading customers that they are submitting to a public inquiry into sales practices in the telecom industry.

Deadline looms to submit experiences about aggressive and misleading sales practices

Former Bell customer service rep Idris Ali says he 'was unknowingly lying' to customers by telling them a 30-day free trial for a service was free, until he learned from a manager that customers who cancelled within the first month would get charged. (Submitted by Idris Ali)

Former telco employees from some of Canada's largest providers have contacted Go Public to share submissions they are making to a public inquiry into sales practices in the telecom industry — amid concerns by an advocacy watchdog that not enough has been done to protect people who testify from legal harm.

The federal government ordered the CRTC to hold a public inquiry after more than 200 current and former telecom workers — most from Canada's two largest telcos, Bell and Rogers — contacted Go Public to share stories of the pressure to upsell. Some 800 customers from various telcos also emailed about feeling frustrated, misled or misinformed. 

Among those participating in the inquiry is Idris Ali, 22, who recently worked as a customer service rep at a Bell Canada call centre in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

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"We were unknowingly lying to customers," says Ali, who outlines in his submission to the CRTC that managers didn't explain that what he believed was a free 30-day trial for something called "Fibe Alt TV" was only free if the customer ended up keeping the service. If they cancelled within the free period, they would be charged.

"Most of us would not have sold that if we knew that people were being charged for it," says Ali. "But that was never mentioned until we asked [a manager]."

His CRTC submission mentions getting in trouble for cancelling a customer's account so they could sign up again for a deal exclusively for new customers. "I was threatened I'd lose my job if I ever mention again that it's OK for customers to cancel," says Ali. A document provided to Go Public  and the CRTC confirms he was reprimanded.

He writes that agents could waive activation and installation fees, but if he got customers to pay the $60 fee, he'd make a $5 bonus.

"I just gave free activation to every single person I sold to," he says, "because I felt like I was being used by a company ... to get 60 bucks from people, so they'd pay me five dollars."

Ali says the work environment became so "toxic," he came in late or didn't show up for work at all several times, which led to him getting fired this week after six months of employment.

Ali worked in this Bell Canada call centre in Scarborough, Ont., for six months. (CBC)

Bell denies misleading customers

A senior manager of media relations for Bell Canada, Vanessa Damha, told Go Public in a statement that there are no free trials for Alt TV, writing, "Our representatives are trained to make clear ... that a credit of $14.95 would be applied to a customer's next monthly bill if they sign up for Alt TV." 

Damha says Ali received coaching, after a customer complained about the fee.

As for getting reprimanded for cancelling a customer's account to then give them a promotional deal, Damha writes, "We do not believe most service providers would simply offer a promotional price to an existing customer. Promotions are obviously an effort to attract new business."

She does not address why employees get a $5 bonus if they charge customers a $60 activation fee, but says discounts "would be applied on a case-by-case basis" based on a customer's services, history and other factors.

'Sell the most expensive plan'

A former retail store employee for Rogers also emailed Go Public about experiences he has submitted to the CRTC public inquiry.  

Anuj Taxali writes that his manager told workers to lie to seniors who came into the store looking for an inexpensive phone plan they could use to make an occasional call to family, or to have handy in case of an emergency.

"I was told to sell the most expensive plan," says Taxali, who worked in a store just north of Toronto in 2014.

Sell something more expensive, so we can make some money.- Alleged comment by Rogers store manager

"Our store manager said 'Pay As You Go' wasn't very profitable and didn't contribute to our sales targets."

His CRTC submission describes how his store manager took Pay As You Go pamphlets off the counter and hid them out of view.

"She said, 'If seniors come in, tell them we don't offer Pay As You Go,'" Taxali said. "She said, 'Start them off on a $50 or $60 plan that includes data, because we get a lot of revenue from that.'

"We wanted to sell clients what they really needed, and we were told 'Don't do that. Sell something more expensive so we can make some money.'

"Sales doesn't have to be this way." 

Taxali says he was let go after two months "for not getting the results they wanted."

Taxali supports a public inquiry into telco sales practices, so that employees and customers have "a place to speak out and so the government will take an interest."

Rogers says claims 'do not represent' values

In a statement to Go Public, the senior director of public affairs for Rogers, Paula Lash, wrote, "The claims about an experience in 2014 do not represent our values or sales practices, and if an instance arises where we can do better, we will work with our team to make it right."

She did not specifically address any of Taxali's allegations. The manager who allegedly hid the store pamphlets is no longer employed at the dealer-owned store.

Bulk of submissions from customers

So far, over 550 people have responded to an invitation for Canadians to go online to share experiences involving questionable sales tactics at 12 telecommunications companies.  

Most of those who've submitted complaints are telco customers, like John Buhler of Edmonton.

He told Go Public that a Telus sales rep called him in January 2015 and guaranteed he would not pay more than $112 a month for three years of TV, internet and home phone service. But by January of this year, his monthly bill had climbed to just over $153.

Telus customer John Buhler submitted a complaint to the CRTC public inquiry about a supposed fixed price for TV, home phone and internet that kept increasing. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Out of frustration, he filed a complaint with the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS), a mediator between telcos and their customers.

Telus reimbursed Buhler $163.80, the amount he estimated he overpaid over his three-year term.

"I think they know they did something wrong, but they're not going to admit it, other than giving me a refund cheque," says Buhler.

In a statement to Go Public, Telus vice-president Zainul Mawji wrote that the company has "taken the opportunity to learn from his [Buhler's] concerns" and that his case was an "unusual situation that is not representative of our customer service promise."

She pointed out that proportionally, Telus has received fewer complaints to the CCTS than its national competitors.

Deadline nears to take part in inquiry

The last day telco workers and customers can say they'd like to participate in the public inquiry is Aug. 30.  

People can submit a written complaint, or say they'd like to physically participate in a public hearing in Gatineau, Que., starting on Oct. 22.

Bell, Rogers, Telus and other telcos are preparing submissions as well, and may be asked to respond to submissions from others. The inquiry has to be completed by February 2019.

Idris Ali said it wasn't easy to make an online submission.

"It's very confusing to be honest. I don't have much problem with submitting forms and usually it would be easy to figure out."

He worries the complexity will deter others from participating.

"For every bit of difficulty that it adds, that's just another person that would want to say, 'Well it's just not worth it."

Legal concerns

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre also has concerns about the process for participating.

PIAC executive director John Lawford wanted the CRTC to clearly state whether or not former and current telco employees can participate without any legal consequences from telecom companies down the road.

He says it's crucial to enable telco employees to make submissions and testify in person without repercussions, because "it's the employees who know the difference between what the sales documents say and what actually happens when a salesperson sells a product or service. There's a huge gap."

CRTC says 'existing procedures' sufficient

In a statement to Go Public, CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao said the regulator "especially wants to hear from current and former telecom companies' employees." She wrote that the regulator has long-standing rules and procedures to address concerns regarding confidential information.

Lawford says those rules are open to interpretation, and that companies can apply to have confidential submissions "unmasked."

In a decision released yesterday, the CRTC denied PIAC'S request, writing "existing procedures" balance the concerns of current and former telco employees "with the public interest in an open and transparent process."

Lawford disagrees, and fears it will affect participation — pointing out that the deadline to participate is just a week away.

"It concerns me that a lot of current and former employees won't give any testimony, or will only give part," says Lawford. "And that's not the way to change the culture of sales in companies and lead to public trust in the industry again."

With files from Enza Uda

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  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that former Rogers employee Anuj Taxali was let go after six months. He was actually let go after two months. The headline has also been changed to highlight that the employees quoted in the story were former employees.
    Aug 23, 2018 2:36 PM ET


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.