Jane Bradley: Time for firms to clean up their act

When you buy something online, there is all too often an unexpected 'follow up' so make sure you read the small print and don't tick the wrong boxes.
When you buy something online, there is all too often an unexpected 'follow up' so make sure you read the small print and don't tick the wrong boxes.
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Ticking an online box should not automatically result in a hard-sell sales call, writes Jane Bradley

It is all excitement in the Bradley household this week – we are buying a new dishwasher.

After trying various ways of getting our rather aesthetically pleasing but practically useless automated pot scrubber to come back from the dead, we finally gave up and ordered a less attractive model recommended by sensible consumer bible Which? – which apparently, might actually clean the dishes.

Buying online always requires a lot of form filling. Address. E-mail. Phone number. Credit card details. Do you want to pay to have your old one taken away? Do you want to pay for the new one to be plumbed in? Do you want it to do a jig and sing God Save the Queen when it arrives or wait for an hour or so?

Yet, despite all of this rigorous online form filling, the company felt the need to contact us again the next day, just to “confirm” the details.

“I’ve got your e-mail address as XXX” said the friendly chap on the other end of the phone. Well, yes, I typed it – twice no less – only last night. “And your phone number is XXX?” Again, accurate. My address – just perfect. Seemed a shame for this poor, no doubt run-off-his-feet-busy young man to have to phone me, I thought. But obviously excellent customer service.

Then, the real reason for his call began to emerge.

“It’s a nightmare having to pay out for a new dishwasher,” he remarked, conversationally. We agreed that yes, it was, indeed a nightmare. An expensive nightmare.

“Has your old one broken then?” I related the sorry tale. He tutted, sympathetically.

“They don’t last as long as they used to,” he added, no doubt fondly recalling the good old days when Victorian or Stone Age dishwashers demonstrated far better endurance.

Then he played his best hand.

“Well, if you’re worried about that happening again, we’ve got a super-enhanced-super-duper-cover-all-extra-wizz-bang insurance policy which means we’ll come to your house at any time of the day or night and have a team of tiny elves silently replace your dishwasher if it breaks so that you won’t even notice it was broken in the first place!” he gushed. “Just three million pounds a month, which is a bargain when you think about it.”

Silence. He was trying to up-sell me.

He’d tricked me into thinking he was just an attentive perfectionist keen to ensure my purchase would be delivered on time to the correct address – but it had nothing to do with that. All he wanted was the chance – without, he thought, breaking any data protection laws – to convince me that I needed the additional super-enhanced-super-duper-cover-all-extra-wizz-bang policy.

It wasn’t good enough that I’d had to pay out half my monthly salary on a new dishwasher which already came with a year’s warranty, I needed 24 hour cover from the word go – and this chap had used charm, chit chat – and pretence – to try to convince me, unsuccessfully, to do so.

Of course, this is not an unusual scenario. Companies constantly try to push extra goods and services, whether we want them or not.

And in the digital and data-driven age, the problem is increasingly widespread. Browse an online shopping site and a few hours later, an e-mail might pop into your inbox.

“I see you were looking at Giant Jenga Sets. Are you sure you don’t want to buy a Giant Jenga Set?”

My dishwasher salesman may not technically having breaking data protection laws because I may have missed some “privacy” wording somewhere in the order process that told me that I should expect to be called in this way. I might even have inadvertently agreed to it. But under rules being introduced by new European legislation which will arrive in May 2018, this sort of behaviour will definitely become more dodgy.

As a customer, my expectation was that if I hadn’t signed a catch-all agreement saying that Greedy Kitchen Applicance Inc could phone me at any time and that I would be delighted to hear from them – something we had not done – then we would only hear from them if they needed to speak to us about our order or delivery – which he pretended to be doing. However, the sales part was just an added bonus...in his eyes, at least.

Data protection expert Grant Campbell, head of commercial services at law firm Brodies, in Edinburgh, says that Greedy Kitchen Applicance Inc are allowed to call me provided they made it clear when I gave them my personal information that they would use it in this way and I didn’t object, either specifically or, more generally, by using the telephone preference service. The new legislation will make it harder for Greedy, however, because it requires even greater transparency from organisations – both at the time of collecting my data but also in identifying calls as marketing calls when they are made.

But he says he would advise Greedy to conduct themselves differently.

“One of the things the Information Commissioner is keen on is trust in data. If your privacy expectations are eroded, you won’t go back. Companies that embrace consumer privacy and say ‘we’re going to send a strong message about being an organisation can be trusted with data’ will have an advantage.”

He adds: “What you’re talking about, a call that is on the premise of one thing but actually turns out to be something else, is not a good way of working.”

I could, he says, complain to the Information Commissioner but I wouldn’t have been likely to – the man didn’t push a hard sell and as a consumer, I am hardened to this kind of behaviour – yet this is why this kind of practice continues.

And we are all guilty of allowing it to – companies legally have to allow us to use their services without handing over unnecessary data – yet how often do we check boxes just to get through an online form faster?

We all need to start being more careful with your data – and the new laws are intended to force businesses into helping us to do so.