Shady Marketing Practices – Part 1

A number of years ago, I was out of work and looking for a position. Nobody was hiring in my field. Some of the other top professionals in my field were also looking, but couldn’t find positions either. I eventually decided to take a part-time, temporary position at a sales call center. It was commission-only, but I thought I’d give it a try. I ended up working there about two or three days a week at about 10-20 hours per week.

This company was marketing a discount medical service program. It wasn’t insurance but, if you became a member of the program, you could get the same type of discounts you would get if you had regular medical insurance. You paid a monthly premium and then had a copay when you needed medical services. It sounded like a good program to me.

But I soon discovered some problems.

We were given a script to follow, but we had a lot of latitude to adjust it based upon the way the conversation went, as long as we provided the important information and followed certain guidelines.

There were two or three salespeople in each room. I overheard one of the people I shared a room with telling their potential customers that it was a great program. They said they were in the program themselves and were telling the prospect how great it was. Later, I asked this person for more information about their experience as a recipient of the services. They confessed that they didn’t use the program but that they had made up all their stories. They were lying to the people they were talking to. Anything to make a sale. I discovered that a number of the other salespeople were also “stretching the truth.”

When we arrived on the job for our shift, we signed into the computer system to make the calls. The numbers we called were supplied by a computerized system. Once the call was completed, or if it went to voicemail, we “coded” it. Some of the options we could choose from were:
Already have insurance
Call back at a scheduled date/time
Place on a callback list to call at a random date/time
Place on the “Do Not Call” list

The names and numbers of the people came from an advertising source. At that time, a particular company was running frequent ads on the television and other media for insurance quotes. You could find a good deal on insurance just by providing your contact information to them online (possibly also by phone, although I don’t recall). Even though the company I was working for didn’t sell insurance, they still purchased these leads for insurance quotes from the advertiser. Other companies also purchased the same leads.

Many of the people I called were tired of getting so many calls. In quite a number of cases, I was told that our company was calling them repeatedly. A number of these people said they had asked us not to call back and yet we continued to call. When they said that, or when they requested not to be called again, I coded the call “Do Not Call.”

We had a weekly sales meeting. On about the third meeting I attended, one of the owners of the company (or it might have been a high-level manager) attended the meeting. He told us that too many calls were being marked “Do Not Call” and that trend needed to be changed. We were instructed not to use the “do not call” option unless they threatened to sue us. If they simply asked us to stop calling them, we were supposed to schedule them for another call in the future. That was my last meeting. It was also my last day at work. I couldn’t continue working under those terms.

(I never made any sales in the three weeks or so that I was working there, even though I made hundreds upon hundreds of calls. Other sales reps did have a decent sales record.)

To recap:

* People wanting to find the best prices for insurance responded to an ad.

* Their information was given to multiple companies, including a company that didn’t sell insurance but instead sold a “medical discount” program (which might be a good product, but wasn’t insurance).

* Several of the salespeople lied to the people they called, telling them anything they thought might help to persuade their prospect to buy.

* The potential customers’ requests to be put on the “Do Not Call” list were blatantly ignored; instead they were put on the list to be called again.

* The customers were being harrassed by the volume of calls they received from our company and from others, in response to their inquiry for information.

I have received my share of calls from salespeople over the years. I have realized that the salesperson doesn’t always have the most accurate information; I take what they say as perhaps having some incorrect details.

However, this experience SHOCKED me by the number of salespeople that blatantly lie and fabricate stories, just to make a sale. And then there was the explicit direction and pressure from the company to violate the law by refusing to place callers on the “Do Not Call” list unless a lawsuit or similar action was threatened.

I am thankful I never responded to that advertisement to find the best deal on insurance. Unfortunately, many people weren’t so lucky.

So, how do you avoid this?

You may decide to go online and search for reviews about the company. Sounds like a good idea. But you may be misled.

(Company X is the company that I THINK is the well-known company I referred to above, which was running the ads for finding a good deal on insurance. The company that was running the ads collected contact information from consumers who responded, then sold their contact info to “insurance” companies. It has been many years since my short period of work for the sales call center and I was only there for a short time. I had been told who provided the leads at one point, but the name of that company was not a part of the script we used to make the calls. It is possible that I may be remembering the identity of Company X incorrectly. Note: Company X is the company that ran the ads and provided the leads; it is not the company that I worked for that actually made the calls.)


Researching Company X

I just ran an Internet search. I typed in: Company X Reviews

The first result showed numerous complaints about the company. The web site claims to be an independent source of reliable information for consumers to evaluate important purchases. Numerous recent complaints were listed about Company X in the complaint portion of the page. However, at the top of the web site were three buttons. They were titled:
Company X Reviews:
Company X Ratings:
Is Company X Good:

If you click on them, you don’t really get reviews, ratings, or information about whether or not the company is good. All three were actually ads that take you to the same page promoting really inexpensive insurance. To the left of these three buttons was a small icon that said “Ad Choices.” But I didn’t notice that at first. What I noticed were the three buttons that promised reviews and ratings, etc. It is only later that I discovered these were actually ads and not reliable sources of information.

The worst part is that this is taking place on a site that claims to provide reliable and unbiased information to help the consumer. Yet, they allow companies to place several prominent ads at the top of the page. There is a disclaimer at the very bottom of the page that says the ads are placed by a third party, but most people will never read that. My impression is that the ads border on being deceptive, because many people will not realize they are ads, at least until they have clicked on them, and because they are on a site that claims to be a non-biased source of information. Even though the content on the page below has reviews which question the reliability of Company X, these ads have no place on such a page.

I realize that the web site in question does not control what ads are allowed on the site. But it seems irresponsible to me for them to claim to uphold the interest of consumers while using an advertising system that undermines the integrity of their information.

The next result in my search showed reviews about Company X, with an overall satisfaction rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. The site? Company X’s site, featuring reviews about themselves by their customers. Do I trust that? Not likely.

The next result was from a company that supposedly offered information about the company as well as reviews. The overall rating was 82 (out of 100). However, the majority of customer reviews were generally unfavorable with a few stellar reviews thrown in. It was difficult to determine whether that site was reliable or not or who was actually in charge of the site.

The next site gave a 3.5 star rating. A couple results below that, the average rating was 1 star, and all the reviews were of poor fulfillment on claims or poor business practices.

Quite a difference between the sites on the reported satisfaction and performance of Company X.

It is interesting to note that Company X’s rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) was excellent. This is despite the fact that 100% of all customer reviews that the BBB reports were NEGATIVE. There were only 24 reviews reported, which is hardly a reliable sample of overall customer sentiment, but the fact that ALL were negative should at least cause one to question the performance of Company X. There were also close to 400 complaints. Although it is possible to view the actual reviews and complaints themselves for many companies on the BBB site, that information is not available for Company X.

While the BBB is generally a good source of information, there are some things one needs to keep in mind. They base their ratings on a number of factors and may not include all the information that is necessary to provide a valid rating of the company’s performance. In particular, if the company performs poorly, but nobody files a complaint with the BBB, the BBB may not have any information about the company’s poor performance. I am puzzled about the rating BBB provides for Company X in light of the information I see available on the BBB site and elsewhere, and wonder why the details of the reviews and complaints are not available for this company.


To summarize these findings:

Giving your contact info to some companies can be hazardous to your peace of mind.

It can be difficult to find reliable information about companies online.

In some cases, the companies are providing the information about themselves.

There can be considerable difference between different sites in their reports about a company.

On any specific site, the overall rating provided may be inconsistent with the detail (e.g., customer reviews) provided on the site.

Even reputable sites may not provide the full story. (As an example, unless they can prove their claim with solid evidence, they may hesitate to provide a negative rating of Company Y because Company Y might sue them. Or, they may have limited data about Company Y which doesn’t include enough reliable evidence for them to assert that Company Y has issues.)

Sometimes, it is difficult to find out who is really providing the information published on a given site. It might be the company themselves. It might be someone with a vested interest in whether or not you do business with the company in question. It might be someone with a grievance against the company in question. It might be a party with incomplete or inaccurate information. Or, it might be a good source of reliable information.

Another thing to keep in mind: the name of the web site is not a valid indicator of whether the information is valid. I could put up a website named ConsumerProtectionAndAdvocacyCouncil.com. That web site name was available for registration as of the time I was posting this article.

Once I registered that name, I could put whatever information I wanted to on that site. If I were a crook, I could put up information that tells of certain scams in order to gain your confidence. I could then provide resources and recommended sites for consumers. Those sites I recommend could be sites that steal your information or compromise your computer. Or, they could have phone numbers you could call. If you contact them, they could begin to rope you into some scam or fraud they are perpetrating. The name of the site would just be a “convincing” name to obtain your trust. It is not an indicator that the information, product, or service you receive is actually related to the name.

There are numerous reputable sites on the Internet, just as there are numerous reputable business in our communities.

There are also some that take advantage of people or that follow shady business practices.


What can you do?

When you are conducting a search, remember that the search results you get may not be trustworthy. You need to evaluate the material you find. Think of the results I found in my search above. The results were varied and inconclusive. I am unable to come to a reliable conclusion about Company X. After spending a good amount of time, I have reason to be quite cautious, but I don’t have a good answer regarding that company. If I were really looking for insurance, I would choose a different company, choosing to err on the side of caution. I would look at companies that were well-known, with good reputations. I would also use other sources beyond just a search engine to do my research.

Some things you should remember if you are doing a search:

The results that show up may be the result of someone who knows how to rank among the top spots on the search engine. They do not necessarily mean the information is accurate or reliable.

The name of the web site is not a valid indicator of whether the information is valid.

The information may be provided by a biased party.

You need to use critical thinking to evaluate, to the best of your ability, whether the information is likely to be trustworthy.

It may be helpful to determine who is responsible for providing the information provided on the site. Are they a trustworthy party? Are they knowledgeable about the subject? Do they have a hidden agenda? Is the information likely to be biased? Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to find out who is actually providing the information or whether the sources are reliable.

In the end, you need to do the best you can, even though you may never reach a level of complete confidence.

As the saying goes: caveat emptor…. “Let the buyer beware.” Or, in this case, “Let the Internet researcher beware.”