I’m writing about telesales deals again – it’s a subject I feel strongly about, and my inbox appears to be home to more than the usual number of complaints from readers who claim they were misled into agreeing to contracts they don’t want.
Before the telesales industry starts sending me hate mail – I realise that many call centres are run with the greatest amount of professionalism and integrity, with checks in place to ensure that commission-chasing sales agents don’t fail to disclose the full implications of the deal they’re punting.
But over the years I’ve read enough telesales scripts, listened to enough call recordings and visited enough call centres to know that too many consumers are either deliberately misled by rogue telesales agents, or lured into agreement by scripts which go big on the benefits and gloss over the financial and contractual realities.
Many people who have cellphones are fairly naive about contracts, and don’t realise that by saying “yes” during a telesales call, they become as legally bound to a contract as they do when putting their signature to a piece of paper.
They are also likely to innocently oblige when asked for their bank details by a nice lady who calls them “my darling”.
No doubt about it, we consumers are on the back foot when it comes to telesales deals.
The caller, armed with a carefully crafted script, catches us off guard with an unsolicited call, then rattles off an offer which almost always involves something “free”.
If we agree, the call ends, and we are left with no record of what we’ve agreed to. The company keeps the recording, and, as I revealed in this column recently, the Consumer Protection Act does not compel the company to make that recording available to us.
Although, in fairness, most companies do make recordings available to their customers in the event of a dispute.
And so to today’s stories…
CASE 1: Truths in half measures…
Last year Shelly Nel of Durban, a customer of iBurst, got a call from that company’s outsourced call centre, Velociti, regarding her contract.
At the time she was on a month-to-month contract, which means she could cancel it with a month’s notice.
During that call, from a “Ravesh”, she was offered a “free” portable modem and five times more data every month, for the same subscription as she was paying.
What a deal! After some initial reluctance to proceed without first seeing the deal in writing, Nel agreed.
A few months later, when she tried to terminate the contract, she was told that she couldn’t because she’d committed to a 24-month contract.
Certain that Ravesh had made no mention of that major fact, Nel was outraged, and demanded to be sent a copy of the recording of the phone call in question.
She got it, transcribed it, and then pointed out to Ravesh that he hadn’t once mentioned the real purpose of the call – to convert her month-to-month contract to a 24-month one.
The modem came with that 24-month data contract in the same way a phone comes with a 24-month cellphone contract. It is not free – its cost is built into the monthly subscription.
Naturally, Nel asked for the contract to be cancelled, on the grounds that she’d been misled, but that didn’t happen.
For several months she e-mailed Ravesh and the company’s “help desk”, to no avail.
And she was being billed in respect of that contract, which meant she had the schlep of going to her bank every month to get the charges reversed.
At one point Nel was told the contract would be cancelled if she gave back the modem. At first she couldn’t find it, having moved house, and even when she did, the problem persisted.
I took up the case with John Hawthorne, chief executive of Velociti, who immediately acknowledged Ravesh had misled Nel during that telesales call and failed to have the contract cancelled, both initially and after she found the modem.
“The overall manner in which the query was handled – especially the e-mail correspondence after the sale – is unacceptable and the exact opposite of the high standard of customer experience we set in our business,” Hawthorne said.
He cancelled Nel’s contract, and will pay the monies owing on it to iBurst.
Ravesh now faces disciplinary action.
Hawthorne said that in March last year, Velociti added a compulsory disclosure section to the end of its sales scripts, stating exactly what the consumer is committing to in terms of that 24-month contract, and what it will cost.
Every call is now checked by a quality assurance person, as opposed to the previous policy of checking just three random calls made by each telesales agent.
But these consumer protections were introduced only after Shelly had been signed up.
Hawthorne advised consumers who dispute what was disclosed or agreed to in their telesales deals to raise a dispute with the company they are contracted to, rather than the third-party telesales company.
The problem in this case was that Shelly didn’t realise Ravesh worked for a third-party telesales company, because that’s something else he didn’t disclose.
CASE 2: Agreeing to two contracts made no sense
Sipho Mbatha of Soweto was a Vodacom contract subscriber when he received a call late last year from its outsourced call centre, Afrizon.
“Sanele told me Vodacom was giving away cellphones to their customers. I asked him if it was a contract phone, but he insisted it was free,” Mbatha told Consumer Alert.
Of course, it wasn’t. Mbatha discovered this when the service on his existing contract was suspended.
“When I called Vodacom, they referred me to Afrizon,” Mbatha said.
“Afrizon said the deal was done between me and the consultant, and the terms and conditions were read to me and I accepted the deal.
“I need them to prove that I agreed to the deal. Why would I agree to take two contracts? I don’t have money for two contracts.
“Those consultants must be trained to explain everything to their customers. Please help.”
I took up Mbatha’s case with Vodacom, asking for that call recording to be retrieved, and suggesting that if the contract terms were not clearly explained, the deal ought to be cancelled and any debt related to it written off.
A few days later, Mbatha got back to me. He told me that he’d had a call from Vodacom to say his contract was cancelled and the debt written off.
“They said they would send me a new SIM card for my phone and my phone would be connected immediately. Thank you.”
There was a delay of a few days in getting that right, but all is now well.
Vodacom spokesman, Nomsa Thusi, said: “We’ve listened to the call recording and decided to cancel the contract because this is clearly outside Vodacom’s business practice.
“We’ve also apologised to Mr Mbatha. The matter is under investigation.”
What to do
* Before you agree to a deal being marketed to you over the phone, insist on seeing details of the offer, as well as the terms and conditions, in writing. Ask for this information to be e-mailed to you. If they fob you off – very likely – end the call, even if the offer sounds amazing and the agent tells you it’s about to expire.
* In terms of the Consumer Protection Act’s section on direct marketing, you have five business days in which to cancel a telesales deal, for no reason. So check out all the terms of the deal, and if you have any doubts, get your cancellation in during that cooling-off period. It must be in writing.
* If you find you’re committed to a contract that was not fully explained to you in that telesales call, contact the company you are contracted to and demand that the call recording be retrieved. If they say they have listened to the call, and they insist there was no misrepresentation, ask them to make a copy available for you to listen to. If they refuse, e-mail me.
Want to stop these calls?
If you hate getting unsolicited calls, you can stop them – well, most of them – by registering your name on the Direct Marketing Association or DMA’s opt-out registry, as many thousands of South Africans have already done. To sign up, visit www.nationaloptout.co.za/
It won’t stop all direct marketing, only that from DMA members, but it will reduce it drastically.
A national registry commissioned by the National Consumer Commission in terms of the Consumer Protection Act will apply to all direct marketers – that’s when, or if, it’s set up.