The Role of Trust and Truth in the Marketplace

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"The role of trust and truth in the marketplace",
The [Montreal] Gazette, September 12, 2005, A25
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

A month ago, I received a call from a telemarketer selling the Primus residential telephone package. He persuaded me to change from Bell to Primus. I know, one should stick with the devil one knows, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" and so on.

In terms of Primus's service, it has been a horrible experience. I know I'm not alone, that many people have similar complaints about other phone companies, and that it's not a serious matter. But I got to thinking about the ethics involved and what impact the accumulation of a vast number of situations such as I found myself in, might have on our society.

So here's the story. Once I agreed to switch, the marketer told me the changeover would take a month. No problem. He asked me what "extras" I had and I said "voicemail." He said, "You're allowed one free extra." I chose caller ID.

It only occurred to me two days later that might mean I would not have voicemail. I phoned Primus and indeed that's what it did mean, so I said I wanted to change my free option to voicemail. "No problem," said Primus, "but your new account will not be open for a week and we can't make the change until it's open. Call us back then." I did that and all seemed well.

On Aug. 22, my voicemail disappeared. I have phoned Primus five times. Every time they were "experiencing a very heavy volume of calls" and the estimated wait time was 20 minutes.

On one occasion, my call dropped off the line after 20 minutes. On the two (or it might have been three) times I spoke to a person, that person assured me that the problem either would be remedied the next day, "was being worked on right now - but wouldn't be 'fixed' for a day or two" (how long does it take for a technician to activate voicemail?) and, finally, that my messages had been forwarded to the appropriate department.

I also sent a really nasty email. I called again and for the first time seem to have been told the truth. A polite employee said my request for voicemail was not recorded on Primus's records until Aug. 18 and that the record stated that when I called on Aug. 22 I was told the connection would take 15 to 20 business days because there had been a strike by the technicians which had caused delays - all of which was news to me. And, no, I still don't have voicemail.

So I phoned Bell. "I've made a bad mistake. I want to come home," I said. The Bell employee asked for details and then said there would be a $55 connection fee. I refused. I said "But I've just left Bell. I've been with you for 30 years. And you're always phoning to offer me new deals at no cost except for the service." I was whistling in the wind.

So what are the ethics here?

At the individual level, was the marketer deceptive? Should he have told me that I would lose voicemail unless I chose it? In the ethics field, we would ask: "Did I give my informed consent? Or is that not necessary in a commercial transaction?"

The old legal rule was "caveat emptor" - buyer beware; the buyer takes the risks of doing business. But that has changed with consumer protection and even more so with scandals such as Enron and WorldCom and, perhaps we will see, Hollinger. Some courts are using versions of the doctrine of informed consent to protect shareholders - the company directors, as the persons with the information and in a position of power vis a vis the shareholders, have a duty to explain clearly the benefits, risks and harms of decisions that the shareholders can take. Might that protection be extended to others?

And were the Primus customer-service agents telling lies? Should we just shrug our shoulders and say that's to be expected or does it matter beyond the annoyance of the immediate situation? Was the agents' behaviour a personal choice or implementation of company policy?

If personal choice, why did they select that option? We all need to exercise power (power gives a sense of being in control and that reduces anxiety and fear). Studies show that people who can't exercise positive power - make things happen for the good - engage in negative power tactics - hinder or stop others from achieving their goals, at least as easily as they could without the roadblocks. Companies have a responsibility not to place employees in a situation where their only power option is a negative one.

And having a company policy of dealing with people in a less than open and honest way is very different ethically from an occasional lapse in that regard. Intentionality makes a difference in the law. For example, it's the difference between negligently inflicted economic loss and fraud - not that I'm suggesting either on the part of Primus. And I have no idea what its policy is, but certainly what I was told would happen did not happen.

All of which leads me to the topic of "social capital" - an awful term that should be abandoned, but not the concept it represents. Social capital refers to the ethical tone of a society (or an institution) and it is made up of the myriad of big and small interactions that we have with each other in our day-to-day lives.

In my view, the most important aspect of social capital is embedded trust - the reality that on the whole we can trust each other and our institutions, including corporations. The basic presumption that we work from is that we can be trusted and we can trust others and it's the exception where that proves not to be true, rather than the converse.

Trust is both robust and fragile. It's strong when it is constantly validated, but it's easy to destroy and very difficult to restore when damaged. Minor as the matter is, I don't feel that I can trust Primus any longer and when lots of us feel that way about lots of our day-to-day interactions, we need to be concerned and do something about it.

Trying to answer the question, "What can we do to ensure a high level of trust in our society?" is a major challenge. But asking it in the billions of small interactions we have from day to day is a first step.

By the way, I sent Primus an email telling them that I would write a column for a newspaper on this incident, but I didn't hear back. The automatic reply was that they had received my email and it would be answered in the order in which it was received. I wonder whether they feel that they can trust me now?