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Cellphone retailers fail mystery shopping test, researchers plan to tell CRTC inquiry

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When Sean Grassie​, Kristianne Anor and Tara Hristov headed to cellphone retailers in the Ottawa area recently, they weren’t your average customers looking for a cellphone plan — they were University of Ottawa law students, on assignment as mystery shoppers.

Their mission? To test the consumer experience at the cellphone counter.

The students and the team’s co-leader will present their “frustrating” findings today in Gatineau, Que., at a week-long CRTC public hearing into misleading and aggressive sales practices by Canada’s telecom service providers.

The hearing is part of an inquiry the federal government ordered, after months of reporting on the issue by Go Public, which heard from more than 800 frustrated telecom customers and more than 200 current and former employees of the companies.

“The marketplace doesn’t work well for consumers,” says Mary Cavanagh, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society, “and we think the government is abdicating their responsibility if they don’t deal with it.”

Mary Cavanagh co-led a mystery shopper study that found cellphone retailers gave ‘incomplete, unclear or misleading information’ when asked about service plans. (Submitted by Mary Cavanagh)

The mystery shoppers made 36 visits to six major cellphone retailers in Ottawa and Gatineau testing to see how much information they’d be provided about buying a cellphone and a service plan — such as price, data limits and cancellation fees — and whether they’d be given any written material to take away for review.

“People are not getting enough information to make an informed decision,” Cavanagh told Go Public.

‘No consistency’

The mystery shoppers began their research in the summer of 2016, visiting six major retailers to test what would happen when they inquired about purchasing a cellphone service plan. 

The shoppers visited two different locations for each retailer, armed with a checklist based on the Wireless Code — designed to empower and inform consumers.

They repeated that test in the summer of 2018, and added a second test — asking about buying a cellphone along with a service plan.

“We found virtually no consistency,” says Cavanagh, “in either the information topics covered, or in the quality of the information that was conveyed.”

Out of 36 visits, only once did an employee give clear, comprehensive and accurate information to the mystery shoppers.

The checklist

As soon as the mystery shoppers left each retailer — sometimes a store, sometimes a kiosk in a mall — they would fill out a 16-page checklist of over 100 questions.  

Here are some of the questions on the checklist:

  • Did the salesperson speak clearly?
  • Did the salesperson ask enough questions to identify your needs?
  • Did the salesperson explain overage charges?
  • Did the salesperson explain how a contract can be cancelled?
  • Did the salesperson discuss what would happen if the device was lost or stolen?

More than 50 per cent of the time, topics from the checklist were never mentioned, despite prompts by the shoppers themselves and employees from all six retailers repeatedly gave poor or incorrect information.

The burden should not be on the consumer to ask all the smart questions.– Mary  Cavanagh , university prof

“The information was completely lacking,” says Cavanagh. 

“You should be telling me about warranties. You should be telling me about extensions, about what happens after an offer terminates. The burden should not be on the consumer to ask all the smart questions.”

The group’s research findings also noted that there was “very little use of followup questions to put a customer’s needs into context,” that many of the interactions seemed “rushed even when they were the only customers in the kiosk” and that staff provided only “minimal responses” to questions.

Employees not helpful

Besides the checklist, the mystery shoppers made written observations about what happened, immediately after leaving a cellphone provider’s store or kiosk. 

In one instance, a mystery shopper noted, “When we asked for something in writing, she [the employee] said she did not have anything to give us and could not print from the computer, so she wrote out some basics on a sticky note and gave that to us.”

On another visit, an employee told a mystery shopper that they could “take a picture of a piece of paper on the wall,” that had some pertinent details.

One mystery shopper writes that another employee “just handed me the brochure and then stared at me after each question.”

‘Something in writing’ needed

Not one visit resulted in a mystery shopper leaving with detailed information in writing.

The research paper says the mystery shoppers “observed a consistent reluctance and/or explicit denial of requests for written information or documentation that a customer could take away with them.”

A team of researchers from the University of Ottawa discovered that retailers selling cellphone plans were reluctant to provide information in writing. (CBC)

“It’s completely unfair to consumers,” says Cavanagh. “We know that people are very poor at retaining complex information that’s only delivered verbally.”

At the CRTC hearing, Cavanagh and her students will be urging the regulator to introduce rules making it mandatory for cellphone retailers to provide details in writing to potential customers.

“What are they [telcos] afraid of?” says Cavanagh. “What’s at risk for them in providing a more robust package of information? It’s needed to make what is called an informed decision.”

‘Hide the pamphlets’

Anuj Taxali says he was deliberately instructed not to help customers make an informed decision when he worked in a retail cellphone store several years ago.  

In his written submission to the CRTC — and in an earlier Go Public story — Taxali said that in 2014 he briefly worked at a Toronto cellphone store that was frequented by senior citizens.

Although they were just looking for a low cost “pay as you go” plan, Taxali writes that his manager “told us to hide the pamphlets” about that option. 

“She told us to instead sell these customers more expensive … plans with a large number of minutes and internet data,” writes Taxali, “even though we genuinely believed these plans were not the most appropriate option for such customers.”

Seniors struggle in retail stores

Taxali’s allegations are disturbing to Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a national advocacy association for people over age 50.

“That is such an unethical practice,” says Morris. “After working so hard to get less costly [cellphone] options for people that suit their needs, it’s hard to hear about people being misled.”

CARP is part of the Fair Communications Sales Coalition, a group that includes the National Pensioner Federation and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (ACORN), which advocates for low income families.

Wanda Morris, of CARP, says older Canadians need written cellphone contract details that they are able to take home for review. (Submitted by Wanda Morris)

The coalition is also making a presentation to the CRTC today, arguing that Canadians are being misled and coerced into signing up for products and services that they knowingly would never have purchased.

“We’ve certainly heard from people that they don’t feel they’re getting the full story when they go into a store,” says Morris. “If they’re shown anything to read at all, they’re given print that’s too small to read.”

Mary Cavanagh is hoping the federal government is paying close attention to this week’s hearing.

“Is this the kind of marketplace that they really want to support?” asks Cavanagh. “Is this a competitive marketplace that also supports consumers? I would say so far, not very well.”

With files from Enza Uda

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We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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