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Aggressive Sales Goals Pressure T-Mobile Workers To Sell Unwanted Services, Labor Group Alleges

THE WASHINGTON POST
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/12/16/aggressive-sales-goals-pressure-t-mobile-workers-to-sell-unwanted-services-labor-group-alleges/?utm_term=.bf0fb39bff46

T-Mobile employees under pressure to meet sales goals are sometimes driven to mislead customers or to enroll them in services they didn’t ask for, alleges a report from a labor coalition.

In a complaint that Change to Win said they filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Friday, the labor group claimed that T-Mobile sets “unrealistic sales targets” that encourage workers to act in ways that may not benefit consumers.

The group found that some workers said they felt pressure to add insurance, phone lines and other services that customers didn’t explicitly ask for to meet sales targets and earn commission payments. The findings were based on a review of consumer complaints collected by the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, interviews with workers and online surveys of people who identified themselves as T-Mobile employees and customers.

“We want T-Mobile to behave ethically and truly align customer service goals with consumers’ best interests,” said Matthew Painter, a spokesman for Change to Win.

T-Mobile declined to comment on the report.

Workers face daily pressure to produce sales, according to some employees interviewed by The Post. Progress may be tracked on a large board in a back room, where workers are ranked based on the number of activations, or new lines, they’ve sold, the employees said. People at the top of the list may have their numbers written in green and are rewarded with perks, such as being able to leave early or having first choice of days off, employees said.

Employees with lagging sales numbers have their figures marked in red. Workers who don’t meet daily goals for some categories, such as accessories, may need to email their managers explaining why they were not able to sell enough accessories, said Jerrica Croxson, a retail sales associate for T-Mobile in San Antonio.

Some T-Mobile employees told The Post that they are encouraged to present services and products as part of a “bundle,” by focusing on the total price and then listing the various items included.

“When I tell you what the total is going to be, I’m supposed to include insurance,” Croxson said about the charge, which  can cost about $10 a month. “It’s technically optional but I’m not supposed to present it as such.”

One employee based in the Northeast who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job said it took two weeks to figure out why her co-workers were meeting their sales targets while she was not: She alleged that many were knowingly presenting products vaguely to customers in hopes of getting them to agree to more expensive packages. When the customers complained about being charged for unwanted services, the employees would simply apologize, remove the offending product from the customer’s bill and issue a credit to the user’s account.

Roughly one in three of the 2,200 self-identified T-Mobile customers surveyed by Change to Win claimed that the company enrolled them in services without their explicit consent. The unscientific poll questioned customers in five states — Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Consumer complaints collected by the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, also reflect these experiences, though the agency did not verify them.

Still, many customers who were interviewed for this story said they had not experienced the problems identified by Change to Win.

“They’ve always been super clear when I’ve called and asked about anything,” said Emil Caillaux, who has had his T-Mobile plan since 2008. “I’ve actually been very happy with how transparent they’ve been.”

The report comes weeks after the CFPB warned financial companies in the wake of the Wells Fargo scandal to avoid sales incentives that can lead to unauthorized accounts or to overcharging consumers. The warning is what prompted Change to Win to file to the agency.

Before that, T-Mobile and AT&T agreed to settlements of $90 million and $105 million respectively in 2014 for “cramming” millions of customers with unwanted charges on their accounts. Federal and state regulators said the companies charged customers $9.99 a month for ringtones, wallpaper, horoscopes and other services they never requested.

“Phone bills are an easy place to extract phony charges [from customers] because they are generally very difficult to read, and many of these charges are masked,” said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor and former head of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau.

The FTC declined to comment on whether it was investigating T-Mobile for the sales practices highlighted by the labor group.

John Simpson, an advocate for Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization that educates consumers, has some advice for shoppers.

“The best defense for a consumer when they’re dealing with anybody, be it T-Mobile or anybody else, is to be aware of the potential problem and ask lots of questions,” he said.

Alice Crites and Andrea Peterson contributed to this report.

onnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal. Follow @jonnelle

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

Follow @b_fung