Spare a Thought for “Customer Service John”*

By now you probably know all about Vinny at Insignficant Thoughts, the former AOL customer who performed a vital public service by recording an intensely maddening and offensive experience with "John" at AOL Customer Service when he tried to cancel his account.

There's also been some attention to the story of Brenda, who tried to cancel her mother's account after her mother died in a car wreck:

After explaining that my mother was killed in the accident, the rep told me that he was sorry that my mom was unhappy with the service. He then suggested lowering the number of hours per month to reduce the bill. I said "she was killed." The rep then said, "I understand what you are saying, I'm just trying to come up with a solution." He actually got snippy with me. AOL finally told me that my mom would have to call and cancel the service herself (even after I provided the coroner's ID number for the incident, etc.). I told them that if they could reach her that they should let me know how they did it.

This is a story almost every ex-AOL subscriber (and many current subscribers who gave up trying to quit) can relate to. I was a customer beginning in 1995, but once I started using a broadband connection in 2003 or so, I didn't need AOL anymore. Every month, my wife would look at our credit card bill and ask, "Why are we still paying them?" "Okay, okay, I'll cancel it." One day, at least a full year after I had stopped using AOL at any time for any reason, I finally did the deed, and it was every bit as miserable of an experience as you can hear for yourself on the tape.

Back in the 90's, AOL was called "the training wheels of the Internet," and that is true. It must be tough to be in the training wheels business after everyone figures out how to ride without them. Quite apparently, it is the policy of AOL to fight any customers who want to leave, and to not take "cancel" for an answer.

This is a PR nightmare. Vinny at Insignificant Thoughts brought his tape to Consumerist and Digg, where NBC found it. They played it on the Today show and constantly on CNBC. Understandably, "AOL is braced for backlash," according to PR Week. AOL's VP of Corporate Communications Nicholas Graham called Vinny, and also printed out some 300 comments on Vinny's website for senior AOL executives to read. But before any of that, AOL made the classic corporate maneuver:

Customer service John no longer works at AOL, but Graham said the company is continuing to address the lingering questions about customer service.

The firing sends an implied message that "Customer service John" was an anomaly, a renegade, a rogue employee. But the 300+ comments Graham reviewed on "insignificant thoughts" should have told him the opposite was true. "Customer service John" was doing what the firm evidently trains all its customer service employees to do — make it so hard to cancel an AOL account that some fraction of customers will give up trying. According to AOL, the policy works, although, of course, AOL wants us to see it differently:

While Graham said the company had a number of factors on its side, including an internal report that found that one in two people who called in to cancel an account ended up staying with the service (because they only really needed troubleshooting help), a service so large as AOL is bound to have some hiccoughs…

One in two?? Half the people who call to cancel only needed help "troubleshooting?" Does that seem credible to you? Do AOL executives believe the "internal report?" My guess is that many of those who "ended up staying with the service" did so because they buckled under the relentless combination of sales pitches, nosy questions and stalling tactics that AOL puts its customers through.

Listen here for another tape that closely resembles my experience. The customer finally says: "Is this how I'm going to be rewarded for giving you ten years of my money is that you're going to bust my balls now?" My sentiments exactly.

"Customer service John" took a bullet for AOL — a sacrifice I doubt he volunteered for. By making him appear to be unique, AOL's standard operation procedures get a pass. Nowhere in the PR Week article or anywhere else does Graham say "We've got a problem. We agree it's inappropriate to make our customers go through such hoops to cancel. We're changing our practices." If they were, he would have said so.

Clearly, the AOL PR plan is to "brace for backlash" — and continue as before, hoping the bad publicity will just blow over.

I take it as a sign that AOL doesn't plan to be around much longer, and just wants to collect as much customer cash as it can before the big adios. Because a company that was interested in long-term relationships, or that believed some of its ex-customers might return, wouldn't behave this way.

(*Edited 6/24/06 to reflect correction from Vinny.)


7 thoughts on “Spare a Thought for “Customer Service John”*

  1. I used to work for a membership organization, and we had one person assigned to the sole task of playing defense. That was defined as determining why they wanted to cancel their membership and trying to persuade them otherwise. It was a soul-crushing experience for the people who were doing the job; they got negative vibes about the company they worked for all day long.

    This was a business (still is: it celebrated its 25th anniversary last year) which offered a useful product if the customer was motivated to use it (an upscale health club), but many of them lost the urge after a while, and it was undeniably a costly luxury if one didn’t show up to use the equipment.

  2. I’ve canceled AOL accounts three or four times. There was a period of a couple years where I freeloaded my internet access on trial accounts, switching when each ran out. Never had any trouble cancelling with AOL. The spiel I got never lasted more than two minutes, and when I refused to account for my desire to cancel, the opperator always let it go. It sounds like they only really stick it to the people who were loyal customers; the ones who actually paid them. Which is pretty great. AOL: freeloader friendly, revenue-base hostile.

  3. I’ve seen this problem happen many times and more often thn not, my friends call me up and say “Kyle, can you help me Cancel my AOL account?”. Normally, I just listen in and help them avoid being afffected by the saves queue.

  4. I feel your pain, Vinny. I, too, had the unfortunate experience of going through the excruciating ordeal of cancelling my AOL service after about 6 years (I think Andrew is right, they only harass long-term customers!). It was maddening. I sent at least 10 faxes (at their request) of their “cancellation form” and made 5 separate half hour or longer phone calls when I continued to get the bill on my credit card (after having been “assured” that the account was cancelled, and having been forced to listen to them try to delve into my personal life with none of their business questions, and then try to back me into a corner to try a different version). Trust me, I tried the “what don’t you understand about the word “cancel” approach, too. Those people are RELENTLESS. I wish I had had the sense to record the calls, too (but I was too F(*&*&^G Pissed Off). Good for you Vinny! Kudos.

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