April 2003
Volume 45 Number 4
 

Viewpoint: Ooo, that Smell! Dealers Cringe at Broadcast’s Odor of Impropriety
by Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor   Pages: 

If a rose smelled as sweet as some water treatment dealers came off in a Dateline NBC broadcast,”Testing the Waters: Are Water Filtration Salespeople Cashing in on Terrorism Fears?” on Feb. 25, we’d have bought daisies for our Valentine’s Day sweethearts a couple weeks earlier.

The 10-minute segment focused on in-home sales and improper tactics in the residential water treatment market. Opening with a complaint by a West Virginia couple who’d spent $4,000 for a reverse osmosis system because of health claims by a salesman, the segment focused on another elderly woman whose water was tested by Dateline and, afterward, three dealers were called in for “free testing.” As journalistic reporting goes, this one left little room for criticism. It was evenhanded in its presentation, laid bare the facts of improper sales tactics recorded via hidden camera in the woman’s home and followed up with manufacturers represented. This post-mortem is too often what’s missing from such reports.

None would appear on camera but, from the companies’ written responses, viewers learn Kinetico cut its affiliation with a dealer in the broadcast months before because of consumer complaints, is exonerated by the West Virginia Attorney General’s office and has offered to buy back any unsatisfactory systems sold by the dealer. We also learn a hard-selling Rainsoft dealer had his ties to Rainsoft severed as a result of the broadcast and the attorney general is “close to a refund agreement” with Rainsoft. A Culligan dealer who rightfully told the elderly woman she didn’t necessarily need a water treatment system is tainted only by his mention with the others. Otherwise, he handled the customer fairly and professionally.

Culligan marketing director Dermid Eagen said, “We all watched the show and we were anxious but certainly encouraged, relieved, call it what you want… you know, to just realize our guy did a good job.” He credited that to Culligan’s internal licensing, ethics and training program, better known as “boot camp,” which all Culligan salespeople have to go through to be eligible for sales incentives.

Kinetico, in a news release, underscored it had informed Dateline earlier that the dealer, identified in the program initially as one of its dealers, was an independent dealer no longer authorized to sell its equipment and against whom the company was granted a judgment in October 2002 for “breach of contract, misrepresentation and damage to our reputation.”

Rainsoft did not respond to WC&P’s offer to comment on the broadcast.

In a response to NBC, the WQA’s Pete Censky calls tactics caught on film “isolated incidents” and points out the majority of dealerships adhere to the association’s strict code of ethics, a document mentioned in the program. He also stresses WQA-certified individuals are required to take a separate “Business Ethics” course as well. Then, he strays to chide Dateline for saying industry products only treat aesthetic water quality problems when, in fact, there are a number of health-related claims allowed under NSF standards such as for arsenic reduction. He points out some POU/POE equipment can meet the new federal arsenic standard that utilities won’t be required to meet until 2006, and some equipment even gets closer to lower maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) for it and other regulated contaminants (our emphasis on “regulated,” as potential bioterrorism agents such as anthrax, etc., aren't included in drinking water standards and should be avoided by salespeople in their customer pitches). Still, Censky says, “The legions of honest and ethical salespersons in the water treatment industry… and we firmly believe there is no room in our industry for the behavior you reported.”

We at WC&P agree. There are other industries where such hard-sell tactics can lead to inflated product claims, but the repercussions may not have the health implications they do in water treatment. The broadcast, however, also emphasizes the importance for good training and monitoring of sales practices by the companies represented. Yes, it hurts to be singled out, but we can’t complain when a balanced news report shows the difference between the good and bad apples—rather than simply accentuating the bad ones.

Sadly, a bigger bombshell fell Feb. 25—the banning of self-regenerating softeners by the L.A. County Sanitation District and Santa Clarita City Council because the district is in violation of chloride wastewater standards. The ordinance, introduced Feb. 11, went into effect March 25 (see PipeLines this issue). You may have heard more on this at the WQA convention last month, otherwise you’re certain to read more in our review of the event next month. Meanwhile, for more info, see:

www.wqa.org/sitelogic.cfm?ID=1105
www.lacsd.org/chloride/
www.santa-clarita.com/cityhall/field/environment/chlorides.asp


Click here to view a followup article:
  Dateline: ‘Even-handed’? Ha!