Shutting the door on doorstep salesmen

David Benady

f2120Doorstep selling is in the spotlight again after a group of MPs last week threatened to ban energy companies from door-to-door sales following repeated allegations of mis-selling (MW last week).

Direct selling is a booming industry in the UK, with a majority of the nation’s 24 million households receiving a knock on their door from the thousands of sellers that pound the streets. This most traditional of sales methods has played a key role in getting people to switch utility providers and has been indispensable in introducing competition in utility markets since the telecoms, gas and electricity privatisations of the Eighties and Nineties.

But the techniques employed by door knockers are under scrutiny as never before. Doorstep selling has attracted considerable controversy in the gas and electricity markets with accusations that sellers working for the big six energy companies – British Gas, E.on, EDF, npower, Scottish & Southern and Scottish Power – use high pressure techniques and fraud to win sales.

Last week, MPs on the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) energy Select Committee issued a report in which they threatened to ban the big six from doorstep selling if any significant new instances of mis-selling arose.

The warning comes after a newspaper investigation revealed instances where doorstep sellers employed by npower had misled customers to get them to switch contracts. The allegations have sparked an investigation by energy regulator Ofgem which could impose a heavy fine on npower. With this in mind, the Select Committee said the energy industry should “consider itself on notice” over doorstep selling. Any more revelations such as this, it said, would lead to calls for a complete ban.

The threat came in a report “Energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem” which is highly critical of competition in the energy market. The MPs claim switching between energy companies often does not benefit customers and that many people switch suppliers in the mistaken belief that they will be cheaper.

However, energy consumers’ watchdog Energywatch considers a ban on doorstep sales “extremely unlikely”. It accepts that it is highly effective in encouraging people to switch out of incumbent suppliers to cheaper contracts – an avowed aim of competition in this market.

Even so, an Energywatch spokesman says: “Fraud, mis-selling, bullying and aggression on the doorstep continue to the extent that one of the big six is under investigation. Steps taken by the industry to improve the situation have not been sufficient to rid the market of the problem.” It calls on energy suppliers to improve their processes and ensure that they carry out direct sales in a responsible fashion.

Npower says it has suspended the sales team accused of mis-selling. “When we conducted an investigation following the allegations we found this was very much a one-off. We are confident our sales teams operate professionally. It is true to say there are a lot of people who have switched energy supplier who wouldn’t have if somebody had not knocked on their door and set out the benefits of making a switch,” says a spokesman.

The Select Committee’s threat of a ban is a blow to the big six, which introduced a code of conduct in 2003 to stamp out doorstep mis-selling. Energy industry body the Energy Retail Association claims this has led to a 97% fall in the number of complaints about door knockers. But the allegations against npower have undermined their claims that they have put the situation right.

Surprisingly, energy supplier E.on says it is unhappy that doorstep sales play such a crucial role in getting people to switch supplier.

Chief executive Dr Paul Golby says he would prefer that the industry did not have to sell in this way, although a spokeswoman adds: “When we stopped field sales a number of years ago, we lost a considerable number of customers to our competitors.”

Golby says E.on’s sellers are above reproach in this area. “All of our sales staff carry a handheld device with tariff information on it. If customers won’t get a saving by switching to E.on, we tell them that,” says a spokeswoman.

EDF Energy insists that doorstep selling benefits many households. It welcomes the report’s findings that: “Doorstep selling is arguably one of the best means of reaching consumers that do not have access to the internet and price comparison sites.” EDF says: “All of our staff receive regular training and all sales are robustly audited to ensure customer satisfaction.”

Meanwhile, doorstep selling received a boost after BSkyB revealed last week that it had launched its own massive door to door drive to sign up customers for its satellite services.

Earlier this summer, the pay-TV giant sent out 500 “Skywalkers” to knock on doors across the UK in search of new customers. The company is under pressure to hit its target of 10 million subscribers and must add over 1 million to its existing numbers. Sky says doorstep selling has been particularly successful in signing up households resistant to the company’s £90m marketing and advertising campaigns.

Sky has hired field sales company Cobra Group to conduct its doorstep operations. Cobra has itself been in the firing line over mis-selling. It has worked with npower over a number of years and has helped it recruit some 3.5 million customers. But an investigation by BBC programme Inside Out in 2003 claimed to expose dodgy and misleading practices by an npower salesman who “conned” customers into switching to the company. The salesman was employed through Cobra.

Energywatch chair Ann Robinson demanded that npower audit all the sales made in the previous six months by the Cobra Agency. Npower says it is still working with the field sales company, and industry supporters say there is a tiny level of complaints about door to door mis-selling.

A ban on doorstep energy selling would be a severe blow to competition in energy supply. It is hard to see how else householders without internet access could be expected to find out which of the 3,000 or so different energy tariffs on the market best suits them.

With BSkyB joining the throng of sellers beating a path to the nation’s front doors, home services brands have recognised the power of face-to-face marketing. It seems that the latest advertising and direct marketing techniques are much less effective at winning new customers than traditional methods requiring sturdy shoes and a slick sales patter.

Readers' comments (26)

  • I have today, Monday 3rd August, had an unsolicited approach at my door by a Scottish Power representative.

    Despite a notice displayed in my door window [we do not buy or sell at this door] I got the predictable "I'm not selling anything but did I know I was eligible for a reduced tariff from my energy supplier and why hadn't I claimed it?"

    He requested to see one of my recent gas or electric bills "just to confirm that I did qualify" and then he could arrange for me to apply for the revised tariff.

    He was clutching a multi-page document which appeared to list multiple addresses in my road, and others, with large tick boxes alongside, etc.

    I refused on the grounds of being a customer of Scottish and Southern and asked him what the relevance was to Scottish Power. I did not understand the answer.

    He then produced a shabby grey and white A5 flyer from an energy company, suggesting it was mine, and quickly turned to some very small print on one of the pages claimimng this is where it explained that I could claim a reduced tariff. (I checked later and, whilst he was correct, it related to discounts for things such as quarterly / monthly direct debits which is something I am already enjoying the benefits from)

    At this point I reinforced my lack of interest in doing anything with him at the door - "everybody is entitled to their own choice" I believe was the gist of his response along with a statement that he "would get somebody to send me the appropriate documents".

    He actually turned up again several hours later claiming he couldnt remember whether he had already called.

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  • Just had an EDF guy at the door. I was conufsed, since I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Same thing here, had the sign on the door, but it was ignored. He wasn't selling, just offering advice.

    How dare he waste my time like that. How is this even legal?

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  • Whilst I also hate door to door salesmen (or women), and would never sign up for anything on my doorstep, I do have some sympathy for these canvassers. They are generally kids who are attracted by job adverts promising substantial earnings, when in fact it is probable they could only earn the projected amount, if they could sign up hundreds if not thousands of new customers each week. I have a Dutch girl staying with me and she has applied to a company I believe are recruiting for doorstep sellers (although they haven't told her that) and if she is "lucky" enough to get through the second interview she will be on £14K - attractive sum for a 19 year old, but it's only old fogies like me who would look for the catch. She, like other kids have no concept that face-to-face selling does not involve potential customers popping into a swanky office for her to do her stuff.

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  • I had a salesman from npower at my door on 13 Nov asking to "verify" my meter supply numbers. I rang npower, they could not provide any good reason why a salesman would need to ask this information said they would put their "agent investigations team" onto him.

    I have a sticker on my door saying we do not buy or sell at the door.

    This guy had a trainee in tow.

    All doorstep salespeople should require and pay for a pedlars and/or street traders licence.

    If salespeople call on doors with stickers, or do anything wrong, they loose their licence.

    I think there needs to be a principle here, if corporations want to access our markets, via TV, printed media or even on doorsteps, then they are intruding on our privacy and they must pay for that intrusion.

    Personally, I consider advertising to be some sort of brainwashing, and I don't want to subject myself to it. I would like to think we could go about our daily lives without any of it, failing that, we should be paid (at least indirectly in reduced council tax, free tv and so on).

    Advertising does affect us, it is PROVEN to work.

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  • I've just had a similar caller at my door from Scottish Power, telling me we hadn't claimed all the discounts available to us. I pointed out that we're not customers of Scottish Power but he told me "that doesn't matter, all supplies come from Scottish Power and we can still claim". Ha ha, pull the other one. I sent him packing, although he did promise to come back when my husband is at home!

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  • I have just had a rep from $ky TV at my door. I have not subscribed to $ky since their service was Non Digital (A very long time ago).

    I told the rep exactly what I thought of Mr Murdoch and his TV "Service".

    They do seem to be getting desperate for new customers though.

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  • I am a field rep and I work on behalf of Sky TV. My sole role is to speak to customers informally and...

    a) check they're not being overcharged or facing rising bills with other pay to view tv services (due to Sky TV owning Sky Sports etc so competitors overcharge and often take advantage of the elderly or vunerable)

    b)ensure they're aware of the benefits of combining their tv phone and broadband on a flat rate.

    I can build a tailored pack to help people make an informed decision about Sky TV. There is no pressure to buy and during training we are repeatedly told not to use pressure selling and if a customer is negative we simply say "thanks for your time" and walk away.

    In the event of a no cold calling sticker we do not knock...ever. If your sticker isn't clearly visable, especially in the dark, then please amend this as we are only human and can make mistakes.

    For those who dislike Mr Murdoch (after meeting him because how else would you know you don't like the guy?!) there is no need to hurl abuse at the Skywalker. If you shouted at the train driver you would get prosecuted, but it's OK to become aggressive towards a young woman? I think not.

    Please take the time to actually listen to what the seller may say, because if you are overpaying and could actually save money, you would be pretty dim to let that opportunity slip by in the current economic climate.

    I have met some brilliant people in my line of work and quite often I sit down for a cup of tea and a chat!

    Thanks to everyone who gives doorstep sellers the time of day as we really appreciate your hospitality.

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  • To "I am a field rep and I work on behalf of Sky TV."

    You are correct when you assume I dislike Mr Murdoch, However, I do not need to meet him to dislike him, I only need to look back to Wapping, How Murdoch is willing to change his nationality from Aus to USA just to suit his business dealings.

    How he uses the political party's to further his business, uses the courts as delaying tactics Etc Etc Etc.

    You also assume that I “hurl abuse at the Skywalker”, I did no such thing. You know, It is possible to tell the rep exactly what I thought of Mr Murdoch and his TV Service without becoming aggressive. I did so in a very polite and calm manner.

    Given who your employer is I do feel sorry for you and other Skywalkers though.

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  • i am a rep for EDF and pride myself in my ethical approach to the job. realistically how many people are really aware of the savings they can potentially make my switching suppliers..not many. i regulalry save people a substantial sum of money that otherwise they would have not knopwn about without me knocking on the door. We now have a quoteing system where we leave a copy of the savings with the customer hopefully this should combat the fraudulant practices that some more expensive companies in my area use.
    My advice would be if you do get a knock at the door,get your bills and compaire unit rates that is always a good indicator of any potential savings. If the sales advisors says he doesn't have his unit rates on him then dont sign.
    Please dont judge all of us by the standards of a minority of con artists that are in all areas of sales

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  • I cannot believe the arrogance and ignorance of the sales people on here. They actually think that we owe them the courtesy of listening to their pitch (despite the fact most of us are now computer literate enough to surf for the best deals) and the last contributor has the audacity to say we should always have our bills handy just so we can compare them. Unfortunately in most cases it should never even get to the stage where the salesman has the chance to pitch. But the vast majority who come to my door seem never to understand the words "no thank you". They propel their spiel despite repeated utterings of the aforementioned phrase until after the third time I've said it I have to become aggresisve and tell them to "F!*k off" very loudly. I cannot shut my door because on one previous occasion the "salesman" threw a stone at my window before running off. So now i watch until they have left the street completely. This type of "job" for morons should be banned forthwith.

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