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AOL Desperation Fiasco Version 2.0

In September of 2005 New York State Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, announced a $1.25 million settlement with AOL. Why? The deal resolved a probe into complaints that AOL�s customer service reps (CSR) failed to honor customer's cancellation requests.

At that time, AOL also agreed to significantly change its business practices. Fast forward to today, NYTimes reports that when Vincent Ferrari, 30, of the Bronx, called AOL to cancel his membership last month, it took him a total of 21 minutes, including the time spent on an automated sequence at the beginning and some initial waiting in a queue. He recorded the five minutes of interaction with the AOL customer service representative and, a week later, posted the audio file on his blog, Insignificant Thoughts.

Shortly thereafter, those five minutes became the online equivalent of a top-of-the-charts single. To listen as Mr. Ferrari tries to cancel his membership is to join him in a wild, horrifying descent into customer-service hell. The AOL representative, self-identified as John, sounds like a native English speaker; he refuses to comply when Mr. Ferrari asks, demands and finally pleads � over and over again � to close his account.

As a marketing and customer care consultant to broadband service providers, I see this recent AOL fiasco as more than a mere public relations crisis -- it's a call to action for all providers to change their thinking about 'win-back' strategies. Some in our industry believe that providing incentives to CSRs who retain customers is a good idea in theory (I don't, I might add), but in practice the implementation process is often flawed.

In contrast I firmly believe that you can't 'motivate' people to provide good customer care -- either people are truly predisposed to serve customers, or they are not. Moreover, in a case where a customer has made a determination that they no longer have a need your service, then this interaction must result in a prompt acknowledgement and quick fulfillment of the request. No dialogue, period.

The core problem isn't, IMHO, CSR and customer care supervisor training -- which are often blamed as the cause. The problem is most likely poor leadership at the top of the organization, and a fundamental lack of understanding (or a disregard) for professional CSR candidate screening and hiring practices.

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