Misleading Sales Tactics

From the January/February 2004 edition of Tennessee Utility News (Tennessee Association of Utility Districts)

Article written by Roger Booher, TAUD Circuit Rider

Misleading Water Treatment Sales Tactics Target Your Customers

The New Year always brings challenges to the water industry. While some challenges are new, some of them return as more of a nuisance than anything else. One of the challenges that most water systems face from time to time is that of home water-treatment sales people who have been known to use scare tactics and dishonest data as a way to sell their products.

You’ve probably seen the bottles that hang from mailboxes and doorknobs at the homes of your water customers, and if not, then you probably will. There is usually an official looking note inside the container that tells your water customer to fill the bottle with tap water so that it can be tested. Most folks do as they are instructed because they think that the bottles were left by your utility. Besides, who wouldn’t want free testing done on their water at home?

However, some of these water treatment company sales people sell devices to your customers that are quite expensive and unnecessary, in most cases. Unfortunately, they usually get in the front door of most homes by using unethical tactics and/or by your water customer thinking that they represent the utility. Here are some common sales tactics employed by water-conditioner sales people once they get inside your home:

  • The sludge test: the sales person asks you to run some tap water into a bottle. He then adds a few drops of an unnamed chemical, probably a flocculating agent (which combines with dissolved minerals and causes them to precipitate). An unattractive sludge forms and settles to the bottom of the bottle. Of course, you are surprised and the salesman looks concerned, but fails to mention that the chemical visually exaggerates the presence of harmless minerals.
  • The washcloth test: The sales person asks for a clean washcloth. The salesman produces a container of “treated” water, stuffs your washcloth in, shakes it and, presto, residual detergent is released from your clean washcloth and forms a layer of suds on the surface of the water. The point of this hocus-pocus is to show you how your “raw, untreated water” keeps your washer from getting your clothes clean. In fact, it’s normal for garments to retain some detergent when washed in unsoftened water. Such a small quantity of detergent is harmless, so the test is meaningless. Further, “raw, untreated water” is a complete mischaracterization of the perfectly safe water 83% of Americans are served by competent municipal water companies.
  • The Electric Precipitator: Some unethical operators use a more dramatic demonstration with an “electric precipitator.” This machine resembles a coffee pot in which two metallic electrodes (metal rods) are placed. The demonstration produces a dark sludge, which is caused by electricity decomposing the rods. The electric precipitator device is a sham, but it is a convincing sales tool because of its visual shock effect. Impressive demonstrations like these often are directed to low-income and non-English speaking families, as well as to elderly people.
  • “EPA Approval”: The EPA does not “test,” “approve,” “disapprove,” or “recommend” water treatment devices. An EPA number is assigned if a manufacturer claims that the device inhibits or reduces bacteria in the water or on the filter. Some ratings of water purifier devices and manufacturers are done by the National Sanitation Foundation, a non-profit organization, and the Water Quality Association, which is a trade association.
  • The seller will claim that the water purifier can completely remove a variety of contaminants, such as bacteria, salmonella, chloroform, radon, arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides, solvents, and asbestos. You should know that no single home water purification system is capable of removing all of these contaminants and that most of these contaminants are expensive to analyze, as well as time consuming even in the best of laboratories. In other words, tests for most potentially harmful water contaminants cannot be done in the home.
  • Customers may be told that the filtering system is virtually maintenance free, or that a filter will last 12 to 15 months. Not only are claims about minimal maintenance false and misleading, they can create a potential health threat if they are taken seriously. Regular maintenance of any water treatment system is critical to its effectiveness. Inadequate cleaning and/or failure to replace the filtering parts of the treatment system may create serious health hazards because bacteria and other contaminants become concentrated in the filtering system.

Some callers also represent themselves as “water quality inspectors” or “researchers” performing a survey on water quality in your area. The calls allow sellers to gain information on households and to identify people who have concerns about water quality. Depending on their response, certain people will receive a follow-up contact about water treatment systems.
There’s not much that you can do to prevent a water treatment sales company from contacting your customers, as some are legitimate and honest. Of course, you can take legal action if you can prove that they have given false information to your water customers regarding the quality of your product.

There are some things that you can do to educate your customers and warn them of what to beware of if a water treatment company should become aggressive by using sales tactics listed earlier. A newsletter is always a good way to inform your customers on subjects such as this as well as letting them know other pertinent information regarding their utility.
If your utility does not send newsletters, but you do have a problem with these types of sales tactics being used on your water customers, or you just want to warn them of this, you can print the checklist below to provide to them to be used as an education tool:

When dealing with telephone sales, learn what city the company is calling from; get a specific address, and ask the caller his or her name.

  • Should you invite a sales person to come to your home, set a specific time and date, ask what type of vehicle he or she will be arriving in, and ask to see some company identification, upon their arrival.
  • If the sales person identifies a “water problem” in your home, do not panic. Find out what it is and contact your water utility as soon as possible for confirmation. Important! Always keep in mind that testing for most potentially harmful water contaminants cannot be done in the home.
  • If you decide to purchase, get information about the product in writing before you agree to buy, and “sleep on it” before purchasing anything. Beware of any sales person who says that the offer is only good if you sign right now.
  • Remember…a home water treatment system is NOT maintenance free. Water treatment systems MUST be maintained for water quality safety, and maintenance costs can be expensive. Inadequate cleaning and/or failure to replace the filtering parts of the treatment system may create serious health hazards because bacteria and other contaminants become concentrated in the filtering system.
  • Check the company’s record with the Better Business Bureau in the city where it is located.
  • Don’t buy something merely because you’ll get a “free gift.”
  • Don’t give your credit card number to anyone who calls on the phone.
  • Don’t send money by messenger or overnight mail. If you use money rather than a credit card, you will lose some power to dispute the charges.
  • Don’t purchase any product if you are being pressured to buy!
  • Most Important!! Your water utility will not leave an unidentified container at your home, instructing you to fill it up and leave it out for pickup. If your utility needs to collect a water sample from your home, utility personnel will identify themselves and the reason why a sample is needed.

By educating your customers and yourself on this subject, you may very well prevent someone from purchasing a product that they really don’t need and can’t really afford.