By offering deceitful information, unethical business practices try to mislead consumers into business deals that they would otherwise have not entered. Lacking language skills, ethnic community members are more likely to fall prey to such practices.
Nancy Jin’s story reveals a corporate scandal at an energy company that involves a salesperson’s action of misleading a Chinese Canadian and a subsequent cover-up scheme orchestrated by the company’s upper management.
*Company and other names have been disguised
2014年7月，当32岁的林女士正在餐馆上班时，一位不速之客，即来自能源公司Great Energy Company的推销员（Smith先生）敲开了她的家门。欲竭力推销暖炉和空调租恁合同的Smith告诉林的母亲李女士，家中现有的设备已经陈旧并且亟需更换，而该能源公司可以免费升级这些设备。
In July 2014, when Ms. Lam, a 32 year old restaurant worker was at work, her home had an unexpected visitor – a salesman (Mr. Smith) working for Great Energy Company. Trying to sell a rental contract for a new furnace and AC unit, Smith told Li, Lam’s mother, that their current equipment was old and needed to be replaced, and that the company would upgrade the equipment for free.
According to Lam, the current equipment was working fine -- they’d never been damaged or broken. But Smith, desperate to make the sales, told Li that the new equipment and services were highly efficient and would result in reduced energy costs. Besides, the home would get an equipment upgrade at no costs. Who would refuse?
Li agreed. Unable to read English, she signed the contract on behalf of Lam. And when the company’s call centre tried to verify the information in the contract in English– a routine process to prevent fraudulent activities – Li gave a go ahead over the phone.
Lam says that only based on her understanding that it was a free upgrade, her mother allowed the equipment to be replaced. But when she received her monthly utility bill, she was shocked. Lam found that she was charged an extra $150 per month for the equipment rental fee. Lam estimates that it would be equivalent to a buyout price of $5500.
“My family of five lives on a very limited income,” says Lam. “This new equipment was completely unnecessary for us. Had we known that it would cost us so much, we certainly would have refused. It is a huge financial burden for the family now.”
Lam, in desperation, sought help from Chinese News.
Corporate cover up
Ms. White, the company’s operation manager was the first one who addressed the issues raised by Chinese News on Lam’s behalf. When conveyed about Lam’s allegation that her mother was misled into signing the contract, she quickly came to the defence: “We did a verification phone (of the contract) call, where the person verified all the information before we came to install them… and she gave the go ahead.”
White confirmed the existence of the verification call record and promised to email a copy to Chinese News.
However, a few days later, Ms. Jackson, the company’s Compliance & Regulatory Affairs manager denied that such a phone record ever existed.
“We don’t have this phone record… I am not sure what White had told you, but we cannot find it.”
Chinese News has previously covered stories where salespeople used deceptive tactics to manipulate non-English speaking consumers into giving a verbal go-ahead of a contract. Such schemes include convincing consumers that the company wanted to conduct a consumer satisfaction survey and that he (she) would appreciate if consumers gave all the “YES” answers to English questions.
It is impossible to tell, without the phone record, how Lam’s mother was persuaded to give a verbal go-ahead of the contract. But when Chinese News told Jackson that Lam would be disputing the rental contract, and was seeking a deep discount to the buyout price of $5500, Jackson sent an email to Chinese News saying the company agreed to reduce the price to $4000, as “a customer service gesture.”
However, Jackson has accidentally forwarded internal emails to Chinese News that has not only exposed salesperson’s misleading action, but also a scandal of corporate cover up.
According to the internal emails, right after answering Chinese News initial inquiry, the operation manager White sent this email to her colleague: “Jackson, can you review this file – listen to the call,”
Less than an hour later, a person named Johnson responded:” I am of the opinion that we do not divulge any information or call recordings to the news paper, they can and will use everything to put us in a bad light.
“I would send this canned statement. "The company prides itself on strict compliance with all applicable legislation in the Province of Ontario while providing high quality equipment. Currently we are in communication with the family of (Lam)”
The conversation continued the next day, when Ms. Jackson responded with:
“This affirmation is not good at all....The agent can be heard coaching the customer. A strong language barrier has been identified. Call center had also flagged this call from the beginning.
I agree with Johnson that we do not send any recording and we make a statement to that effect.”
Apparently, the phone call that Jackson denied the existence of was flagged by the company’s call centre as the salesperson was heard “coaching the consumer”, who showed a “strong language barrier”. Apparently, realizing the wrongdoings of the salesperson, Jackson refused to release the phone record to Chinese News, in an attempt to sweep the scandal under the carpet.
After Chinese News contacted Jackson for comment regarding the internal cover up, the company’s legal counsel responded to Chinese News in an email, stating that the email conversations received by Chinese News are “internal business communications” and are “protected by privacy laws”. It again stated that the company is “fully compliant with” the government regulations and that it holds itself to the highest standards.
But meanwhile, the email offers to reduce Lam’s buyout price further.
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