The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs reports that in 2019, more than 50% of its complaints about solar energy companies involve deceptive sales practices. And this month, a local TV station appears to have uncovered at least one smoking gun.
At a sales training session for Arres, a Cottageville, SC solar installation company, “One of the participants was so disturbed [about the training session], they just started recording.” The audio was turned over to state regulators, WCBD News 2 reported.
According to a June 11, 2019 article, Deceptive Sales Tactics Secretly Recorded, “One minute into the training, the instructor tells the class to dodge questions, particularly about cost. ‘Anything they say that I don’t want to answer, [tell them] ‘that’s a great question, and we’re going to get to that.’ He encourages reps to talk quickly: ‘And I talk fast, but you know . . . you have to keep your excitement up.’”
A different instructor tutors the class in the art of the upsell, solar style: “The first step to a sale is you gotta have a problem. So I’m gonna walk in, and I’m gonna go, ‘Oh my gosh, we didn’t sell them enough panels . . . Boom! Now I’m gonna sell them another $20,000 deal. I’ll upsell ‘em. I’ve been in the sales industry forever. If I don’t have a problem, I don’t have a deal.”
When the story broke, a spokesperson for Arres responded with contrition, “We appreciate Channel 2 for bringing this serious matter to our attention. We take unethical sales practices seriously at Arres. These practices aren’t representative of Arres in any capacity. We have disassociated ourselves from the individual in question and our continued focus will be on ethical representation of the consumer experience. We will also continue to improve our training and policies to prevent future challenges.”
(Note: Channel 2 obtained the recordings through the South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.)
Exposing undeniably abusive sales tactics to regulators won’t eliminate consumer complaints, but it portends to reduce them. Why did the employee choose to disclose the training session recording to regulators, rather than to the company? I don’t know. In fact, he might have tried to raise the issue internally, but possibly he either could not find anyone willing to listen, or he didn’t feel safe doing so. Regardless, the company was clearly caught off guard.
A trainer or manager exhorting his sales team to exert heavy-handed pressure on buyers would make many reps uncomfortable. Yet, the best way to resist or “push back” isn’t always clear, let alone knowing whether to do so at all. “If employees don’t like what they’re asked to do, they should quit!” I often hear this, and I bristle every time. The 2019 version of “Let them eat cake!” For many reasons, some people are stuck and can’t quit. Or, they can’t quit easily. They might be the sole income earner in their household. They might have family obligations that hinder their ability to relocate. Their current job might allow them a flexible schedule, without which, they would experience duress.
While quitting might be advisable in some circumstances, it’s also draconian. Before quitting, alternatives should be considered. A potent choice is advocating to get the right thing done. If I were sitting in the training session at Arres, and had the benefit of being calm, and not aghast, I might ask whether the company could meet its revenue goals while ensuring customer interests are never compromised or sacrificed. I might also question how customers would perceive the approach the trainer was recommending, and what this might mean for generating repeat sales and word-of-mouth marketing.
The reason I use might, and not the firmer, more resolute would is that while my values include fairness and compassion, I can’t say with certainty what I would have said or done, other than I probably would have been sickened by the vibe going on in the room. I also can’t say with certainty because I don’t know the power balance. Is Arres the major employer in Cottageville, SC, or do they compete tooth-and-nail with other companies to get “top producers”? Would the trainer have paused to listen to my objections? Would he have offered a circumspect reply that demonstrated that he and Arres cared about the issues I raised? Or, would he have immediately shown me to the exit door, and briskly walked me to HR to collect my final paycheck before shaking my hand and wishing me prosperity in my next endeavor? I don’t know for sure, but my gut tells me I’d be in my car following the white arrows in the parking lot to the main road shortly after raising my hand.
When advocating values within an organization, Mary Gentile, a business professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School describes a “natural social contracting” in which employees learn how to raise issues appropriately, and executives learn how to hear them appropriately.
Employees who raise issues should:
• Choose or ask for an appropriate time to initiate the conversation
• Exercise care in expressing themselves, and be deliberate
• Explain why the matter is important not only to them, but to the company
• Understand or acknowledge the point of view of the other party
• If possible, conduct a practice conversation with a colleague or friend before bringing to a manager
Managers entrusted with listening should:
• Sincerely thank the employee for voicing the concern
• Describe which steps the manager plans to take in response
• Describe legal requirements (for example, with incidents of sexual harassment)
• Let the employee know what they should expect (for example, whether actions will be taken, and if so, when and what they will be)
• Confirm with the employee that they can check in for updates on the matter.
In the time that it took you to read this article, countless salespeople around the world just got training or selling advice that spiked a bad feeling in the pits of their stomachs, perhaps accompanied by nervous sweat.
• “We’ve got plenty of [product X], but if you don’t tell the customer we’re running out, they’ll never buy.”
• “Let them know that with our program they’ll lose 30 pounds in the first month, and have six-pack abs by month two.”
• “Always show them the ‘full price’ first, even though we never charge it.”
• “Whatever you do, don’t tell prospects that our applications are not truly integrated.”
There are no guarantees that exposing manipulative sales practices to regulators and the news media will improve customer experiences or reduce the likelihood of fraud and deceit. But it’s an essential first step toward mitigation. Kudos to the employee who shined the light on shady selling. Safe, positive outcomes are more likely when corporate culture encourages employees to express their values. Together, employees who are adept at voicing concerns when their values are confronted, and managers who encourage such dialog offer the most cost-effective risk mitigation money can buy.