Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Conspiracy for Dummies, Lesson 1: don't write it down

A rare - minor - case in which the conspiratorial (dishonest, co-ordinated, unacknowledged) behaviour that's an integral part of big business as usual is actually blown wide open.

BBC News:

Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), has been found guilty of tricking people into switching from their existing energy firms.
Steve Playle, of Surrey County Council Trading Standards, which brought the prosecution, said he was delighted with the court's decision.

"When we first became aware of the sales script being used by Scottish and Southern Energy we were convinced that it overstepped the mark and was misleading to potential customers," he said.

"A doorstep seller had a print out which he claimed showed consumers were paying too much with their current energy supplier, but the print out did not show this.

"The seller didn't actually have a clue but the sales script was cleverly designed to put potential customers on the back foot and to open the door to a sale," he added.

'Wilful mis-selling'

It is thought to be the first time that one of the big six energy firms has been prosecuted for using dishonest sales techniques.

The problem of doorstep trickery has plagued gas and electricity consumers since the industry was privatised in the 1990s.

Audrey Gallacher, of Consumer Focus, said the firm's behaviour had involved "deliberate and wilful mis-selling."

"'Misleading doorstep energy sales have been a nightmare for consumers for years, leaving many switching to a worse energy deal," she said.

"This verdict has revealed a deliberate tactic by SSE, not the behaviour of a rogue salesperson."

Honestly, it's really not difficult to do it properly: you employ the right kind of people (this can be by trial and error - just sack those who don't reach their targets) and rely on them to use a bit of initiative in making up the gap between your required result and what they can get by being honest. Even if managers coach the slower sales staff to improve their dirty tricks skills, they don't actually build it into a written script. That way, you have ample deniability, because as intimated, without the script, if you get caught you can simply blame "the behaviour of a rogue salesperson". No controlling mind, no awareness at upper management level, one expendable drone sacked and replaced, business as usual.

Let that be a lesson to these firms. Consumer protection means you do have to put a modicum of effort into making it look good.

Still, it's no biggy. The appeals process will no doubt be pursued (by the richer side) until such time as it's exhausted or finds that this was a case of a rogue manager and not the company's fault. And if past form is anything to go by, the fine will be manageable enough: for all I know it will be outweighed by the financial benefits of running a fraud without needing to pay for staff who have enough initiative to take a hint.

UPDATE, originally 12 May (Blogger has had a meltdown and quietly rolled back a few days' changes to this and other blogs, it seems):

Audrey Gallacher, Head of Energy at something called Consumer Focus agrees that This verdict is a wake-up call for the energy industry, but seems to take a more sanguine view than I do about what lessons might actually be learned:

Firms should be reviewing and incentives systems for salespeople...

Since this must be intended as a remedy for 'don't ask don't tell' sharp practice on the doorstep, it amounts to the suggestion that sales as we know it be abolished.


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