October 18, 2018 12 months 3 days ago

ANALYSIS: Why our shaky memory is what's really at the heart of the telecom sales practices hearing

YOU HAVE TO SYMPATHIZE with the folks who took the time to register their frustration with Canadian telcos and cellcos by filing an intervention to the CRTC’s latest hearing which begins Monday.

They feel lied to. They believe they were told one thing and sold another. That they were never informed how the price they agreed to was just a promotion which ends in six months. That they told sales reps the products and services they wanted and then had other things added onto their bills. That they ended up on a contract they didn’t want.

Having read through quite a few of the real individual submissions (not the useless astroturfed ones) to the CRTC’s government-forced inquiry into the retail sales practices of Canada’s large telecommunications carriers, you see stories we’ve all heard before, some experienced directly, others groused about by relatives over Thanksgiving dinner.

This has led to a growing belief by many that the nation’s telcos, cellcos and cablecos are out to “get” us – that their salespeople are unscrupulous predators only trying to make a buck selling we poor defenseless rubes things we didn’t understand or agree to buy (Ed note: a couple of puzzling tweets by the CRTC yesterday could be understood as showing the Commission might believe this, too).

This public hearing starting Monday has been fueled by a series of stories from the CBC which detail some rough accounts from people who were potentially taken advantage of by telecom sales reps, who were perhaps pushed to do it by their bosses. Some of these practices sound unscrupulous and the companies have all said these instances are just a few bad apples doing things which are contrary to company policies.

But we’ve all heard horror stories and there were over 1,000 submissions to the CRTC for this hearing. While it may be overstated, it’s not like there’s nothing there. Here’s the rub though. The complaints are fueled in large part by what people remember about conversations they had when purchasing telecommunications products and services – and research into the way human memory works shows it can be terribly unreliable.

From what I’ve read in the interventions and submissions, no one has examined how the vagaries of our memory make what it is we can recall a poor barometer for what actually happened – and it surely seems to be an flimsy reason upon which to create policy. I’m surprised we haven’t found anyone pursuing this.

Perhaps it’s because we’re all so confident in our own memory, all the things we know we remember.

Research has shown that even so-called “flashbulb” memories, such as where you remember you were when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded or your memoires of 9/11 can be wrong. Police officers know eye witness accounts of car crashes and even murders can vary from person to person even when they all saw the exact same thing.

With all of this academic study, the subjects examined who are recalling these events for researchers are extremely confident that events unfolded exactly as they remembered. They trust their own memory implicitly. We all do – but we shouldn’t.

How can we be sure people who are remembering conversations they had on the phone or in person with a sales rep, often weeks or months later, some reflected in the CBC stories which caused this hearing and in submissions from Canadians, are correct? How can we be certain the recollections of the sales reps who recall the conversations differently, are right?

We can’t. Not with certainty.

“Basically, that means we do not have direct access to events that we've experienced in the past. It seems a little scary to think that way.” – Dr. Bruce Milliken, McMaster University

“Memory is hugely constructive,” said Dr. Bruce Milliken, chair of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton in an interview with Cartt.ca. “Basically, that means we do not have direct access to events that we've experienced in the past. It seems a little scary to think that way, right? We like to think we're wandering around the world and when we want to haul up a prior experience, we just rummage around in our memory and haul it up. It should be there in pristine shape, right?”

But memories, said Milliken, who teaches a course on human memory, are constructed in the present from what we believe happened in the past. “If I’m being asked about what a Bell employee said to me six months ago on the phone, there are certain things I would have remembered and then the rest, what will produced will be a construction. It's not a literal replay of the phone call that actually happened. There’s vast amounts of literature over the past 20 or 30 years on false memory – the idea that people can, with high confidence, state that they've had an experience that they haven't had,” he explained.

“Memories are construction. We're doing it now. I'm remembering now and I construct my memories now. I don't haul them out of a cabinet called memory.” Essentially, we aren’t computers with perfect files stored away awaiting recovery.

This is not meant to impugn anyone. We aren’t calling anyone a liar here. When consumers come to a disagreement over what was said in a sales negotiation with a telecom sales rep and the two disagree over what was said, each with 100% certainty – neither is lying to the other, even though it might sometimes feel that way.

We all believe our memories to be solid, but research has shown they are prone to distortion – and then the language we tend to use has a lot to do with how we will perceive others who have a different memory of the same event.

It makes us angry.

“When I reflect on my experience, if I am on the phone with a Bell employee and I am saying ‘hey wait a second, I just got my bill and all of a sudden you're charging me this! That's not what a I signed up for’,” explains Milliken. “It's quite possible what I am really saying is, ‘I don't remember having signed up for that. When I reconstruct my experience of our initial phone call six months ago, I don't remember you saying that.’ But people won't say it that way, they'll say, ‘There's no way I signed up for that!’”

Unfortunately, this type of unequivocal language can be found in the public opinion research survey released Tuesday by the CRTC on the sales tactics used by Canadian telecom companies. For example, question 21 asked if survey respondents experienced, among other negative options, “salespeople providing details of telecommunications products or services which end up being false.”

The word “false” is unequivocal and is used many times elsewhere in the report, leading the reader to believe salespeople are purposely giving false information to consumers.

(Ed note: We have other problems with this survey which we’ll get into another day).

Now, all of that said doesn’t mean everyone can just walk away, point to the quirks of human memories, chalk everything up to misunderstandings and think all is well. Far from it. Our telecommunications companies (some consumers, too, likely) know the limits of memory and that it often works to their advantage. Just like people often don’t read the fine print on contracts, they often won’t hear or retain the fine print told to them over the phone, in a store, or at their door.

“The vagaries of memories make in particular, deals that get made over telephone calls, just a nightmare as far as I'm concerned.” – Milliken

Companies “can actually take advantage of the fact that people don't have really good memory for what they said,” explained Milliken. “They might be willing to put up with the shouting match that occurs six months later, because they know that the likelihood the person will actually be able to produce proof that they didn't say it, is very low.

“The vagaries of memories make in particular, deals that get made over telephone calls, just a nightmare as far as I'm concerned,” he added.

In their submissions, the companies themselves have told the Commission how many interactions with customers they have and how many negative ones (well, except Telus, which redacted its overall number of customer contacts). The CCTS (Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services) deals with complaints and releases public figures regularly, too.

However, not everything the companies know is on the public record. We’ve all made the call where we hear: “your call may be recorded for sales and training purposes” and since these companies are all quite concerned with providing excellent customer service they are using that data to make themselves better. A percentage (we don’t know how large) of the tens of millions of calls they collectively receive are transcribed by the big companies into text and then software analyzes those transcripts looking for problem words and recurring issues which can be fixed.

This level of detailed analysis doesn’t appear in the submissions we’ve seen (and it doesn’t address in-person sales), but it exists within each of the companies so they can know very quickly when a marketing plan has gone awry because it’s been poorly trained, explained to customers or advertised.

“If there are many customers who all remember certain details of a particular marketing pitch but never remember some of the other details… what that means is either the telecom company isn't including the fine print or they're including it in a way that can't be remembered,” says Milliken.

“As far as I am concerned, if you're doing this kind of business on the telephone, you should be doing it in a way that people fully understand the implications of the deals that they're making. If six months later, many customers all have the same concerns, to me it's almost irrelevant that the company says, ‘Oh no, no, but we had a clause there that we told you about on the phone’.”

The hearing starts at 9 a.m. Monday. Cartt.ca will be there and if you want to be, you can listen into the webcast on the CRTC website, watch on CPAC.ca – and even take part on Twitter. You’ll be an official part of the public record if you hashtag your comment #CRTCforum.