call centre atmosphere Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Pretoria - A telesales call I had in the past month gave me good reason to complain to the company concerned

I have registered with the Direct Marketing Association’s Do Not Contact list, so I don’t get much “spam” – but one bad call is one too many.

A chap claiming to be calling from my network’s “head office” – he was at pains to stress he wasn’t with some third-party company – persuaded me to upgrade my cellphone contract by making several appealing promises about the monthly cost and a few “freebies”.

I went along with the deal, partly as an investigative exercise.

When the delivery of the handset which came with my new contract was botched, I complained to the network’s regional office.

And that’s when the telesales guy’s big lies came to light. He wasn’t with head office after all; he was with a third-party telesales company and hadn’t been truthful about the specifics of the deal either.

And that’s when I played the ace card that everyone who agrees to a deal during an unsolicited marketing call has – the right to “cool off” and cancel the deal, in writing, within five business days. I got out of the deal, and I got a lot of grovelling apologies, too.

Then I signed a new contract in a shop, face to face with a consultant who wasn’t ambushing me with a slickly worded script. I got to read the contract carefully before signing. In my own time.

It’s always advisable to read a copy of the contract, with all its terms and conditions, before agreeing to a deal over the phone. But it seems some unscrupulous telesales agents use that request – to see documentation first – against consumers.

Divinia Fernandes Esch, South African trainer and director of Savant People Development – who was last year named best contact centre trainer at the Contact Centre World Awards in Las Vegas, among 1 500 entrants from 50 countries worldwide – told me that some contracts were sold “on the basis of documentation”.

That sounded fine, until she explained what she meant.

“If a person says to the sales consultant they would like to have more information sent to them, so they can look through the information before making a decision, the sales consultant says they will send through the documentation, but the client needs to confirm their details.”

What the unscrupulous agent is actually doing is using those details to confirm the sale.

“The client is under the impression they haven’t made a final decision and confirming their personal details simply allows them to receive more information before doing so.

“But the sales consultant has made a sale,” said Fernandes Esch, who counts several big players in the financial services industry among her clients.

So the agent gets their commission, but it is what the trainer calls a “risk or fraudulent” sale because the cancellation rate on those sales is high.

“When the consumer receives not information, but documents relating to their new policy, they tend to cancel,” she said.

But not in every case.

“There are those who do not understand the cancellation process and so do nothing about it,” Fernandes Esch said.

I shudder to think how many citizens become policyholders this way.

Asked to name other consumer-unfriendly practices she had witnessed, Fernandes Esch said: “Selling to someone who clearly does not understand the language being communicated in; being aggressive; evading a client’s question regarding the product; not disclosing the terms and conditions at the end of the sale to a client, which is mandatory and forms part of the policyholder protection rules; and reading the terms and conditions to a client at such a fast pace, making it difficult for them to understand.”

One or more of those practices have featured in most telesales cases I’ve investigated and I can only imagine what went on in the calls in cases where the recordings conveniently couldn’t be found by the company when I raised a query.

“We cover many unacceptable behaviours during our training, warning that they carry different levels of disciplinary action, including dismissal,” Fernandes Esch said. “Agents are then required to sign the document that lists all of these transgressions, acknowledging that they understand the document and are aware of the consequences that selling unethically carries.”

Good telesales agents display both “ego and empathy” in their calls, the trainer said: the former to confidently, enthusiastically present the offer and answer questions about it, and the latter to connect and build rapport with the consumer and really listen to what they’re saying.

I have much sympathy for telesales agents: they work long hours; they are forced to read often ridiculous scripts; they are under huge pressure to sell; and many people are incredibly rude when they receive an unsolicited marketing call.

But given the demographics of our country, my biggest concern is for the many people who end up with products or policies they didn’t want because they were called up, out of the blue, spoken to nicely, and then prompted to say yes in the appropriate places and offer their personal details.

Pretoria News