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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.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories you want to make public.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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