Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
October 24 2011 at 11:56

I’m quite sure there are many professional, honest telesales agents at work in outbound call centres across the land.

However, I get to hear only about the profoundly ethically challenged ones.

Those who work in so-called outbound call centres are the ones who call you up out of the blue, wanting to sell you something, as opposed to their inbound call centre counterparts, who answer those “customer care” lines set up to deal with consumer queries.

So naturally it’s the outbound ones who generate the most traffic in my inbox, for a variety of reasons.

The odds are stacked against the consumer from the start: they’re “ambushed” by a call on their cellphones, subjected to a cleverly worded sales pitch, usually delivered at a rapid pace, especially the less-appealing financial implication bits, by an agent who earns a commission from each sale.

There is, thankfully, a safety net – in terms of the Consumer Protection Act, a consumer can cancel any transaction arising from direct marketing, such as a telesales call, in writing, within five business days.

But that’s presuming the person knows they’ve been “signed up” in the first place.

Many people have no idea that they are contracted to a company, either because they didn’t realise that saying “yes” to a deal on the phone is the same as putting your signature to a contract, or because they said “no”, but the commission-chasing telesales agent put the “sale” through anyway.

Mervyn Naiker’s experience with direct marketing financial services company The Unlimited falls into the second category.

In early August he got a call from one of their agents, trying to sell him the company’s Auto Care product.

“I explained to him that I was not interested because I’m all budgeted out,” he told Consumer Watch. “He went on trying to convince me, and as I was at work I told him to post me a brochure so I could have a look and decide whether or not to sign up. The only information I gave him was my residential address.”

Two weeks later Naiker received brochures from the company, and at the end of September he noticed two R200 “Unlimited” debits on his bank statement.

“I was shocked because when that agent phoned me I didn’t agree to the product, let alone give him my ID number or my bank account details – so how did he get those details?”

It was downhill from there. When he called the company and demanded cancellation and a refund, he was told that the matter would be investigated and someone would get back to him.

But no one called back, leaving Naiker to make repeated, fruitless calls to the company.

Finally, when he called on October 10 – note, he made the call – he was told that a recording of the phone conversation had revealed that despite the fact that Naiker had not agreed to take out a policy, two “Scratch and Dent” policies had been taken out.

So you’d think at that point he’d have got a grovelling apology and an immediate refund of the rogue debit order deductions. Oh no – there was no apology and he was told that, according to company policy, refunds take up to 14 days.

That’s when he turned to Consumer Watch for help.

Responding, The Unlimited’s spokesman, Terez Taylor, began by saying the agent in question had displayed a lack of integrity and had been suspended as a result. A criminal case had also been opened.

Why had Naiker not received an apology?

The company had tried to contact him for this purpose, but had not managed to reach him on the phone before my intervention, she said.

The manager he spoke to at one point was not aware of the full facts of the case, she said, which is why she did not apologise to him. I daresay even armed with half the facts of the case, the words “terribly sorry” should have escaped that manager’s lips.

As for telling Naiker he’d have to wait two weeks to be refunded the money that was illegally taken from his bank account, this was to avoid a situation where they issue the refund, and then discover that the consumer’s bank has reversed the debit order.

“But in this case I have to agree with you,” she said, “this rule should not be applied to Mr Naiker. Therefore, we have made arrangements to ensure the refund immediately.”

Naiker finally got his apology – from the customer care department manager and the product brand manager – and was refunded R610, comprising the two debits, plus bank charges and any other penalties or interest he was charged as a result of the rogue debits.

He has also been offered a free “Scratch and Dent” service. So all in all, a good patch-up job after a series of unpalatable events. Clearly there’s something wrong with a work environment that makes it possible for a rogue agent to operate.

Given that telesales agents would be less likely to risk committing fraud if they thought there was a good chance of them being caught, I asked Taylor whether Unlimited supervisors routinely checked with newly “signed up” clients whether they had agreed to the product and were happy with the financial implications, before the deal was confirmed.

She said the company’s “quality assurance” department checked a random 30 percent of all sales calls.

If this company, and others in the industry, introduced a policy of calling every new client to confirm that they wanted the product and knew what it was going to cost them, the rogue agents would have no place to hide.

And so to the all-important question of how that agent got his hands on Naiker’s bank account details and ID number.

According to Taylor, he had a previous policy with The Unlimited, which he cancelled in March. “We are currently investigating how the agent managed to access those details from the client’s policy details, as we do not give our sales agents access to any kind of sensitive policy details.

“This should never have happened. We will examine the sales processes and fix them to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t.

You can tell them to stop

The Consumer Protection Act provides for the setting up of a national opt-out registry on which consumers can register their details and their desire never to be contacted for direct marketing again.

That registry is still a work in progress. But you can stop Direct Marketing Association (DMA) members – most of the industry’s big players – from contacting you by registering with the association’s own opt-out reg istry.

You’ll be joining 44 000 South Africans who have.

The DMA’s chief executive, Brian Mdluli, told Consumer Watch that in the interests of protecting consumers, the association had invited non-member direct marketing companies to use the list as well.

To register on the DMA’s list, which will stop most direct marketing approaches coming your way, go to www.nationaloptout.co.za

You may be saying ‘yes’, but mean ‘no’

Another telesales complaint I dealt with recently concerns the language of sales scripts.

Typically most of the script is devoted to describing all the fabulous benefits of the deal, with the financial realities dispensed with as quickly as possible.

It all leads to the crunch section – asking the consumer if they want the product, and getting their agreement.The classic salesman’s tactic is not to ask: “Do you want to buy this product?” but rather “So how will you be paying?”

But in the case of telesales, the phone conversation takes the place of the contract, so implied acceptance doesn’t cut it. The consumer has to explicitly agree to what’s being offered, and agree to all associated costs.

Which brings me to the case of Nashua Mobile subscriber Linda Berthelson and the add-on service she was offered over the phone last month. She was told about their WhereRU and MTN 2MyAid products, she says, and then asked to answer three questions:

“First, did I understand the services/product being offered; second, did I understand that it was a value-added service which I would need to pay for over and above my account; and third, would I be interested in a service like this.”

Berthelson argued that the third, crucial question was ambiguous.

“I’m sure every South African would be interested in a service like this, but before I replied ‘yes’, I asked her whether saying ‘yes’ would mean that I had agreed to this service. After a pause, she said it would.

“So instead of saying: ‘Would you like to sign up for this service?’, they ask you for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer only.

“Don’t you think that this is a dodgy marketing ploy?”

Well, yes, I do think it’s questionable. As I said in my resultant media query: “I am very interested in a lot of things, but I may not wish to buy them due to lack of affordability. There’s a very big difference.”

Responding, Nashua Mobile’s executive head of marketing, Tim Walter, confirmed that the service provider offered the two services in question to its subscribers in conjunction with Cellfind.

They were marketed by an external call centre of a very high standard, he said, and with 10 000 customers being contacted every month, “this is the first complaint that has come across my desk in the last year”.

While stressing that the scripts in question were “clearly laid out”, he conceded that “the question regarding the uptake of the services is not as explicit as it could be”.

“We have taken corrective measures and a revised script that specifically asks the client if they would be interested in the service and taking up the subscription has been implemented,” he said.

Excellent! Now there’s something that should have everyone’s buy-in.

Moral of the story: when it comes to telesales calls, be wary of answering any question with a stand-alone “yes”.

Make very sure of what you are being asked to agree to, and then answer with a full sentence. As in: “Yes, I understand what you’re offering, but I’m not interested in it right now…”

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