The Watchdog: Company blames office janitor for Do Not Call lawsuit

Do you know what a Perry Mason moment is? In court proceedings, it’s when one side in a legal drama produces a piece of evidence or a confession that changes everything.

In modern talk, it’s a slam-dunk straight to the hoop, in your face, that leaves an audience gasping.

The Watchdog doesn’t witness many Perry Mason moments. Companies rarely litigate their customer lawsuits in a newspaper column. When a lawsuit is involved, a company spokesman usually says, “Because this is a pending legal matter, we cannot comment.”

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Yet Universal AdCom, an Arlington printing company, is so eager to fight back in public against what it considers phony customer complaints that it violated the do-not-comment practice.

Universal AdCom is accused in a new federal lawsuit filed by an Arkansas business owner of violating the Do Not Call list.

Company officials deny any violation. They say the complainant was a former customer and they had a right to call him.

“If he doesn’t want us to call him again, we’re certainly not going to,” James Gildenblatt, Universal AdCom president, told me. “We thought he was a happy camper.”

I’m no prosecutor, jury member or judge, but I do know how to ask questions. Both sides agreed to talk to The Watchdog and argue their case. That’s what led to the Perry Mason moment.

Do Not Call violators are hard to catch. They hide behind false phone numbers shown on Caller ID machines and often route their calls through foreign countries where U.S. rules don’t apply. When nabbed, which is rare, violators get fined thousands of dollars.

Universal AdCom isn’t known as a Do Not Call violator. The company’s problems in years past stemmed from aggressive sales practices and allegations of false billing — which the company denied. Hundreds of complaints forced an F grade from the Better Business Bureau. Three states took legal action against the company.

Universal AdCom sells ad space to businesses and prints the ads on maps, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts, cups and other items. The company was the subject of complaints and government actions because its sales staffers were accused of claiming direct affiliation with governments, chambers of commerce and schools when they had no connection.

Former staffers told me two years ago that they claimed a closeness to the activities they were selling to. They dropped names of insiders and alluded to nonexistent partnerships.

Scores of chambers, governments and schools warned their community members about Universal AdCom and the other names it did business under (Premier Map, Premier Impressions, Totes 2 Go, Hometown Productions, Fanfare Sports, Scoreboard Marketing).

One sales staffer told me the company philosophy was “you have to do what you have to do” to make a sale. Another former employee told me, “We’re instructed to tell them we have an agreement with someone in the athletic department.”

The company’s reputation on the Internet was terrible. Comments from disgruntled customers and others who received aggressive sales pitches stacked up in message boards.

Two years ago, president Jim Gildenblatt ordered a turn-around. He fired a top saleswoman, which showed he was serious about cleansing the company’s reputation.

He purchased a recording system that captured customers’ verbal consents to make purchases. If a customer complained later that they were billed for something they hadn’t ordered, the company could play back a tape proving they had made the order.

The company defended itself. “It really has changed the culture,” Gildenblatt says. The BBB rating improved. “We got it up to a C,” he says.

The lawsuit from Arkansas is a new hurdle for the company’s march back to respectability. Tim Bunting, owner of Bug Pro, an Arkansas pest control business, bought map ads from Universal AdCom two years ago. Then he decided to stop doing business with them.

Sales staffers pursued Bunting, sending him bills and calling him at least a hundred times, according to his lawsuit, filed by attorney Matthew Vandiver of Little Rock.

In my interview, Gildenblatt said that Bug Pro’s owner never told his company to stop calling him.

“I don’t have a record of anything coming in,” the AdCom president said. “It’s news to me. … I do not have a record of him asking us to take him off the call list.”

Cue the Perry Mason moment.

The lawyer for the exterminator produced a letter written last year asking Universal AdCom to leave his client alone. No more sales. No more calls. No more bills.

Lawyer Vandiver also produced a green postal return-receipt card that shows someone at Universal AdCom accepted delivery of that letter. Slam-dunk. Gasp.

When Exhibit A is presented to the company president, he looks at the green slip and explains it was signed by Larry, the company “maintenance guy.”

“He got the mail for us,” the president says. “It’s not the first one I didn’t get from him. Obviously, it never got to me. It never got into our system. … If I had gotten it, I would have handled it immediately.”

But he didn’t, and the company making a comeback to respectability blames a janitor for not delivering a crucial piece of mail.

There’s an expression: Don’t make a federal lawsuit out of it. But someone did.

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Universal Adcom president vows to improve company practices

The leader of an Arlington advertising company that has come under fire for its sales practices says he is working diligently to improve his company’s operations.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Jim Gildenblatt, president of Universal AdCom, said a new system installed now records phone calls in which staffers verify all sales. That will help ensure they were properly done, he said.

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“If we find anybody saying anything unethical, then we terminate them,” said Jeff Wolpa, director of operations.

Gildenblatt said that recently he has fired at least two employees, including the second-ranked saleswoman, for unethical behavior.

“She couldn’t believe we were firing her, but she was just not being respectful toward customers,” he said. “She just expected everyone to buy from her. We received two complaints through customer service, and we started monitoring her without her knowing it.”

Marc Alcorn, the executive vice president, said, “We want to protect ourselves and our customers.”

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One example of the company's products

Universal AdCom sells ad space to businesses and prints the ads on maps, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts, cups and other items. Company officials say they give these items free of charge to schools, chambers of commerce, police departments, city halls, public libraries, recreation centers, fire departments and businesses across the United States for distribution.

But the company has been the subject of hundreds of complaints in recent years from officials with some of those entities. They say company sales personnel claim affiliation with them when none actually exists.

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Other complaints come from customers who say they have paid for ads but never saw the items on which they were supposed to be printed.

Gildenblatt said the complaints are caused by misunderstandings: “When we say we’re working with the band director at a school, some people hear that we are with the school. We’re not [employed] with the school. We’re working with them.”

He also said he handles complaints and works hard to ensure that customers are satisfied.

Wolpa acknowledged to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation that, in the past, some overly aggressive sellers working for the company of 375 employees may have exaggerated their affiliations with respected entities in a community to gain credibility when selling to prospects.

“We call it misrepping,” he said, which stands for misrepresentation. “We don’t condone lying to customers.”

After I requested an interview, senior staffers met with The Watchdog for several hours in a company conference room with company lawyer Mark D. Hatten of Fort Worth. I requested the interview because, two days before, I had interviewed two former sales employees who described a pattern of unethical business practices. The Watchdog wrote about the company in October 2011, the same month both employees left their jobs.

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Interior shot of company headquarters in Arlington, TX. (Courtesy of company website.)

Nancy Royal worked for the company for four years before she said she was fired in October because she refused to sign a noncompete agreement. Gildenblatt told me that she wasn’t fired, that she had angrily resigned. The second former employee, Adrian Tella, worked for the company for seven years. She resigned, she said, because “of business practices that I didn’t feel were in the best interests of the customers.”

Both women said salespeople engaged in aggressive, even bullying business tactics to get customers to renew ad contracts. They said customers were often confused about what they had agreed to buy and what they owed.

Gildenblatt said every sale is supported with a signed contract. He insisted that the taping of sales verification calls will end such problems.

Taping procedures will soon spread to the company’s five other offices in Fort Worth; Molina, Ill.; St. Louis; Davenport, Iowa; and Peoria, Ill., the president said.

Tella said, “I feel bad for the customers being abused and not getting a resolution. As a small business, they can’t afford an attorney and just let things go.”

She said the company philosophy was “you have to do what you have to do” to make a sale.

Royal said that when customers complained to her about problems with their accounts, managers told her to let it go because “buyers are liars.”

Alcorn, the vice president, said that sometimes “buyers are liars, but that’s not our company philosophy. Will they try to get out of paying for an ad? Absolutely. They change their mind and say, ‘I don’t like the way it looks.’ It happens in businesses all the time.”

To satisfy angry customers, he said, the company reprints items, refunds money, sends out free products or writes off accounts.

The company president said his No. 1 priority is to use the new taping system as factual evidence to improve the company’s Better Business Bureau rating. The BBB gives Universal AdCom and its subsidiaries an F.

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Read a previous post about this company – Company’s Defense of Sales Tactics Doesn’t Square with Complaints.

If you have a problem with Universal Adcom or any of its affiliated companies, send an email to Watchdog Nation here.

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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