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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