Further Confessions of Former AOL Retainers

In light of today’s news that America Online’s content and services are going free, let’s glance at a polaroid of those halcyon days and Monte Carlo nights of yesteryear.

Jan Brandt, AOL’s original marketing director, had a framed AOL subscription disc on her wall, captioned with, “Resistance is Futile.” Supplanting mastodon and tyrannosaur, retention consultants ruled the earth.

In a confession about the month before he quit, one former retainer writes:

I began hanging up on customers that sounded like problems. Actually, I would hang up if I were just tired of listening. To my surprise, my coach notified me I had won Most Valuable Consultant of the month for having the lowest call time.

Ahhh… memories…


“The last month at AOL, I knew I was leaving and had reached such a point of indifference and intolerance for my job, I began hanging up on customers that sounded like problems. Actually, I would hang up if I were just tired of listening. The totally unintended consequence of this negative customer service was an incredible call time. To my unspeakable surprise, my coach (Yes, they are called coaches) notified me I had won Most Valuable Consultant of the month for having the lowest call time. That was difficult to accept with a straight face. Just recently I came across the MVC pin I had received for this undeserved honor.

No, I was not the model employee. I freely admit to that. However, I was observant. Looking back I should have taken the clues on orientation day, that this was not the healthiest place to work. I recall stopping at a vending machine at break time, there between the Snickers and the Fritos was a two pack of Tylenol. I had never seen analgesics mixed with snack food. I should have run then. If not then, certainly when the HR person is hurriedly giving us a tour of the call center and stops just short a pod (what they call our workstations) that is chock full of framed pictures of family and children’s drawings, and says, There is “NO personalization of pods.” Somehow that statement had a larger meaning to me. I marveled the entire time I worked there, when I would see people begin their shift and carefully pull out their mobile personalizations . To some it was a Winnie the Pooh mouse pad, to others photos of children, the normal sorts of things people tend to put in their work space. Then at the end of eight long hours I would watch as they paiently packed them all up. Maybe they are the healthy ones. Who can say? I always thought the statement no pod personalization spoke so much to the alienation and discomfort that call center fostered.

The other thing I remember is the fuzzy math they used to calculate our bonus. One time, I and another employee decided we were reasonably intelligent and should be able to understand this formula, which determined the money we would take home. After an extended and concerted effort on both of our parts we accepted defeat. It reminded me of buying a car and the salesman wears you down with numbers and you say just give me the damn car. To this day I swear the formula, besides changing regularly, was created to shock and awe. It was a shell game of numbers. If you could not work it-then how could you know what you received is correct. One time I received a check and it had a miscellaneous deduction of 250 dollars. When I inquired what was the miscellaneous subtraction, I was told that the previous month they had made a mistake in some of the consultant’s commission. How do I argue with a mistake when I am unable to figure out it originally? That incident was significant to me, and not just for the obvious upset with receiving less that I anticipated. It felt dishonest and impossible to refute and I sensed that was by design. I was learning that corporations were also capable of questionable money shuffling even at the lowest level in their corporate food chain. I still find it shocking.

AOLs negative way of doing business definitely has a history. For reasons I cannot fathom why they determined it a better path to train a corp of retention specialists than focus on making AOL a product people would not wish to cancel. The fact AOL still continues to practice what I consider backwards thinking has not ceased to baffle me.

So, here is to you and Vincent Ferrari for bringing this to the light of day. How ironic that the same medium that made AOL, appears to also be its downfall.”

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  1. Demingite says:

    A huge thank you to the former retention consultant for these stories. This statement could not possibly have been more dead-on:

    “…They determined it a better path to train a corps of retention specialists than focus on making AOL a product people would not wish to cancel.”

    AOL’s choice to follow that path is a for-the-ages, textbook example of what “quality” is not. That path was a mindless grab at (short term only) dough. That dough-grab, as of today (August 2, 2006), has more or less brought down AOL as we know it, and that should surprise no one.

    The no personalized pods rule (note that, in the United States, even prisoners can personalize their cells) is a natural fit with the short-term dough-grab mentality. Human values were not important. Anything long-term — such as goodwill with customers, and a good reputation for the company — was not important.

    The path AOL took was a brutal one. One of soulless pods, handy analgesic drugs, horrific quotas, treating employees like machines, fuzzy math (and attendant trickery and dishonesty), preposterous awards (read “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn), extraordinarily disrespectful treatment of customers, hoodwinking, fast-talking, selective deafness, partial deception, full-on deception, and out-and-out robbery.

    And again in fitting with this path, when the path was finally illuminated brightly enough (thank you Vincent Ferrari), AOL fires one random sacrificial lamb and claims, falsely, that AOL promptly responds to customer requests.

    It’s a tragedy that didn’t have to be. Because, to partially repeat that beautiful statement, they could have, instead, focused “on making AOL a product people would not wish to cancel.”

    The best (and perhaps only) thing to come out of this tragedy is for businesses, and the world, to learn something. I suggest these lessons:
    – Quality counts.
    – Company culture counts.
    – Customers should be treated with respect.
    – Employees should be treated with respect. Their hearts, souls, and brains should be respected.
    – No product is necessarily entitled to last forever (e.g., carburetors).
    – Quarterly profits are not the end-all and be-all. What about the long term? (And what about basic humanity?)
    – Quotas promote perversity.
    – And once again: Quality really matters. AOL could have been creative, inventive, innovative, could have diversified, could have listened to customers. At least, like a carbuteror company, they could have scaled back their business with no shame in doing so. These would have been much smarter choices.

    “Backwards thinking” indeed.

  2. At least the “no personalization of pods” bit makes sense to me: AOL operates these around the clock, no? It’s not like a regular office where you have a cubicle and, hellish though it may be, it is yours and yours alone. With several people sharing pods over different shifts, permanent personalization is logistically impossible. How much pod real estate does each person get? What’s to stop someone from vandalizing or stealing your stuff? What if your stuff is downright offensive to the people that share your pod? Makes sense to me.

  3. Call centers are seething chasms of employment hell.

  4. Clare says:

    Regarding the mysterious pay calculations:

    I shamefully admit that for one hellish summer, I was a telemarketer. I sold Verizon DSL service. I also am ashamed to admit that I was quite good at selling it. However, no matter how many sales I made in a week–10? 15? 25? 30?–my check always seemed to come out to roughly the same amount. The closest I could figure was that each branch got the same amount of money each week, and they divided the pot of money by the number of sales that week. It was incredibly unfair, and no one could have possibly earned a living wage on it.