AOL Retention Manual Revealed

In August of 2005, America Online settled with the office of NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer over complaints about how arduous AOL made it to cancel service. In addition to a $1.25 million fine, AOL agreed to streamline the cancellation process and submit all calls for third-party review. On June 13, 2006, Vincent Ferrari posted a recording he made of his attempt to leave America Online. It shot to national TV and revealed AOL hadn’t learned the error of its ways. For “John,” the call center employee heard on the tape, to deploy the kind of mental warfare heard on the tape, he had to be well-trained…

A plain manila envelope arrived on our desk this week. Inside was the eighty-one paged “Enhanced Sales Training for AOL Retention Consultants” manual. Upon opening, the flowchart, “Guide to a World-Class Retention Call,” fell out.

It’s amazing that the story has come this far, that Vincent could record his attempt to cancel AOL, that recording would shoot to national TV, and now, a mole has sent us incriminating company documents.

One thing quickly becomes evident after reading the pages of tips and tactics. Callers are viewed not as customers, but prospects. Under the heading, “Think of Cancellation Calls as Sales Leads,” the manual reads…

If you stop and think about it, every Member that calls in to cancel their account is a hot lead. Most other sales jobs require you to create your own leads, but in the Retention Queue the leads come to you! Be eager to take more calls, get more leads and close more sales. More leads means more selling opportunities for you and cost savings for AOL.

In a public statement, AOL’s Nicholas Graham claimed that John, “violated our customer service guidelines and practices, and everything that AOL believes to be important in customer care – chief among them being respect for the member, and swiftly honoring their requests.” If this is true, then why is there such a complex system designed to thwart those very requests? Brevity thrives on simplicity.

To reel you back in, AOL has a six stage system:

1. Greet and Verify
2. Discovery
3. Tailored Value
4. Right Offer
5. Resolve Concerns
6. Motivate to Activate

In Vincent’s call, John never got past step 2. He got stuck in “Discovery” where he used “digging” to try to get more information about Vincent. John’s goal was to use this intel to build an argument for staying with AOL, and deliver what the manual calls the “tailored value.” A bit of an ill-fitting suit, if there ever was one, since in his inquest, John never found out that Vincent was an IT professional.

Digging involves asking the lead questions that build a portrait of the prospect’s wants, interests and needs. AOL cheerfully terms these, “WINS.” From page 4-20 of the “Best Practices” section:


With respect to Vincent’s computer expertise, John’s attempts at digging play like a study in comedy.

VINCENT: I don’t need it, I don’t want it, I don’t use it.
JOHN: So when you use this, is that for business or school?
VINCENT: I don’t want the AOL account, can we please just cancel it?
JOHN: On June 2nd, I see 72 hours of usage…


Some sales cannot be made. There is a certain point after which you’re just wasting your time. Past that, you risk enraging the customer. Then there’s the point where the customer tapes the conversation and humiliates you in the national media.

“This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes,” goes both ways.

John had access to a program, “Merlin,” apparently so-called for its ability to turn piss into champagne. If Vincent was more pliable, John could have used it. By clicking various responses a lead makes, the behavior matrix suggests phrases for the salesperson to utter and guide customers back to AOL’s fetid bosom.

The soul of Merlin is the Member Profile Guide. It boasts four tabs, “Know,” “Listen,” “Feel,” and “How you want them to feel.” Apparently, “Manipulate” was too blunt. Each tab provides different stratagems tailored to the specific customer on the line. For instance, the “Know” tab, “identifies the Member attribute and the ‘role’ we should play for the member.” For example, if a new member has a low amount of usage, Merlin suggests taking on the guise of a “helpful guide.”

Alternatively, selecting the Feel tab gives users, “an idea of the emotions the member might be feeling and how we might appropriately respond to those feelings…in bullet point form.”

The manual is full of more creepy delights, including:

• On “overcoming objections” i.e. customer’s desire to not connect to watered-down version of the internet, the manual advises to, “allow your callers to talk comfortably about their concerns.” By doing this you can literally, “watch their concerns and resistance drop.”

• As we all know and love, the best way to “keep it real” is corporate policy mandating naturalness. That’s why AOL developed, “Keep It Real”…a set of principles that will drive a world-class Member experience…”

• Then there’s also this doozy from black-is-white land: “The reason that many Members are going to high speed is, because the actual internet connection is much more stable….we now have the perfect solution…a free modem.” Ah yes, the hot-rodding superpower of 24kbps.

• Jason Watkins, an AOL Customer Care Consultant quoted in the manual says it best, “Consumers believe everything is a commodity, i.e. where can I buy the service for the least cost. My objective as a salesperson is to prove otherwise.”

An AOL retention consultant’s job is to trick consumers into being stupid.


It’s hard to keep track of the array of tools at their AOL call center employee’s disposal. There’s “Member Connect,” “The Discovery Wheel,” “eSource,” “ASQ,” “CSS,” “FBB’s,” “WINs,” and “Drill Down Questions.” Operators get advice and coaching from their team leaders and fellow employees. With over 160,000 calls a day, the sales force continually hones its craft.

To AOL’s credit, John seems to have missed the section that advised to, “Never get angry with the Member…Don’t criticize the Member by saying things like “you don’t have to be so difficult with me” or “you’re impossible to deal with.” Maybe that’s because most of the manual is devoted to overcoming customer’s objections and selling them on AOL’s awesomeness.

“Traditionally, when companies have profitable but shrinking businesses, like AOL’s access service, they try to milk as much money as they can from them without investing new cash.,” reported the New York Times on July 10th. The article hinged around CEO John Miller’s proposal in two weeks time before his Time Warner overlords for a bold revamp of AOL’s services. Included in the proposition are said to be plans to eliminate retention consultants entirely.

Instead of investing in a system that people actually wanted to use, AOL created a system for duping customers into not exercising their right to leave for cheaper, higher-quality services. Behind the rhetoric of “Member Services” and “World Class Value” are suits that see their members as spreadsheet numbers. The suits sleep soundly as long as one column is kept high and the other low.

UPDATE: Full copy of the AOL manual here.

Readers, please Digg this story.


AOL Employees Slander Vincent Ferrari On Company Time
BREAKING: Spitzer To Talk To AOL, Again
AOL Updates Retention “Offer Matrix”
AOL Internal Memos, After Vinny’s Call
We Interview Vincent Ferrari, AOL Canceller
Dead Defeat AOL
AOL Canceler on Today Show
AOL Wants to Sell “Internet” to the Dead
Consumerist on CNBC
AOL Apologizes For Infamous Cancel Call
The Best Thing We Have Ever Posted: Reader Tries To Cancel AOL
AOL Officially Sucks More Than Anything Else


Edit Your Comment

  1. bambino says:

    Excellent summary so far.

  2. Vinny says:




  3. Fascinating revelations all around. I’m sure it was hard to pick out the pieces you wanted to share — that book must be packed with juicy stuff.

    I wish I could say that this material surprises me. It makes perfect sense, though, when you take into account the degree to which AOL sucks.

  4. Hooray4Zoidberg says:

    These types of manuals are fun to read for their general campiness, but this one has the added bonus of exposing some dirty secrets too. Good stuff. I know you probably can’t post the whole manually due to legal issues, but I’d love to thumb through that thing.

    Reading corporate manuals fires me up, if I were a boxer I would read them before every fight. I’d then proceed to pummel to poor sap I was fighting, spouting corporate buzzwords and acronyms with every punch I throw.

  5. Paul D says:

    Instead of investing in a system that people actually wanted to use,
    AOL created a system for duping customers into not exercising their
    right to leave for cheaper, higher-quality services.

    If you break this statement down to general terms, almost every industry is guilty of this.

    Think: the RIAA, the auto industry, opponents of Net Neutrality, etc.

  6. ACurmudgeon says:

    Quite a story. Glad to see it handled it right. Of course a retention handbook is going to be filled with crap, it feels like you did your best to show where the differences lie. So now no one can come along and say “Duh, all retention programs are like that!”. Oh, and MERLIN, thats some creepy stuff. I wonder how prevalent that sort of thing is…

  7. Every industry with a person-to-person sales component has these kinds of manuals. More moles please!

    When I worked in textbook publishing, I had the chance to go through a sales training crash course. Somewhat to my relief, I found that my company had internalized the mistakes of AOL-type practices. Our sales training included things like “Don’t ever try to sell an instructor a book if it’s not right for her…she’ll have a bad experience and never use our books again.”

    But, unfortunately, that kind of advice is quickly discarded when your pay is sales-goal based. Customer service companies should have a ten-second post-call recording that invites you to rate your experience with that CSR from 1 to 5. If a CSR averages above 4.5, he gets a bonus. Maybe?

  8. something_amazing says:

    On a side, unrelated note, I’m fairly certain that Merlin does more than just retention. CSR’s have access to the merlin system as well. (based on my limited understanding)

    Remember how AOL became widely reviled as a place where member passwords were often given up? Much of that truly did come from phishing but many also came from social engineering. A famous way people used to try to get access to another person’s account would be to call a CSR and pretend that they were part AOL’s internal IS dept. and were running a test of the Merlin system. From there the CSR would be instructed to look up a particular member’s ID and divulge information.

    I don’t have much personal information but I was always lead to believe that Merlin was the core of the AOL Customer Service software, not just for retention.

  9. thwarted says:

    That “six-stage system” makes me want to stab my eyes out with a fork. “Motivate to Activate”?

  10. BenP says:

    Love it. Thanks. Go Bens.

  11. Omen says:

    AOL is that hard to cancel. I’ve worked in the financial industry for a number of years. If someone has some strange charges on their accounts it can usually be traced back to AOL. So much so, that when an issue comes up with someones account I usually ask if they have AOL or have cancelled it recently.

  12. AOHell is what we used to call it. I was at Time/Warner when AOL bought it. Over the next few months, they tried to make us all “migrate” to using AOL for corporate business e-mails, but they couldn’t and eventually had to drop it. Why? Because AOL loses over 30% of all e-mails sent (an unacceptable ratio in the business world) and it was difficult to send large graphics files using AOL. Instead of having a decent product, it is corporate culture to have an internally unuseable product. Market it as ‘internet for dummies’, and then do anything to retain customers once they wise up to the fact that you can stick a “keyword” in any search engine and get more relevant results. Welcome to AOHell. Please enjoy your stay.

    No wonder our stock options went from $88 a share to $8.

  13. Nick Douglas says:

    So do we get to see the whole document scanned in, Smoking Gun style?

  14. Ben Popken says:

    Soon, the damn thing is 80 pages!

  15. Please, PLEASE give us a scanned PDF, so I can keep it handy next to my Necronimicon, Mein Kemf, The Road Ahead, and the Enron Ethics Handbook.

  16. mashuren says:

    This is awesome. I work in combined tech support/customer support for a local dial-up ISP, so I can use all the ammunition I can get for directing customers away from the evil.

    It amazes me how many people are willing to put up with horrible customer service, ridiculous prices, invasive software and shady cancellation procedures just because the software is what they’re used to, and they’re not intelligent enough to realize that for every thing AOL includes as a “feature” in its bloatware, there’s a free utility out there that does the same thing.

    There’s absolutely no reason to give any of your money to these corporate monsters.

  17. Derek, IN says:

    It’s a delightful mix of motivational speaker bullshit, slimy corporate agendas, typical passive agressive customer service insults and assholery.

  18. mcnasby says:

    I would just like to say, thanks to this member retention manual, I retained my AOL account for 3 years — 2001-2004 — for FREE. In 2001, when I first called to cancel my account (due to signing up for Comcast) they said that they would need to speak with my mom to process the cancellation, due to the fact that I was a 15 year old boy. My mom told me she didn’t want to be bothered with them so she told me to try to call again. I called the next day using a fake female voice. The CS rep must’ve hit on me three or four times during the call. I said that my “husband” was out of work and we couldn’t afford AOL anymore. They gave me one year free.

    The next year I called back one day before my free period came due. I called as my mom once again, telling them my husband was out of work. 9 more free months. This process continued until 2004 when I went away to college and didn’t need my AOL e-mail address anymore.

    Lessons learned. . .

    -Customer Service Reps obviously don’t read the previous account notation.
    -If you’re having a bad day, and you’re still and AOL member, feel free to give the CS reps a call, they’re always waiting to have someone to talk to.
    -If you’re still an AOL member, shame on you. If you’re still an AOL member PAYING for the service, you shouldn’t even be looking at this website.

  19. benko29 says:

    thank GOD aol never caught on in canada.

    i can’t imagine having to live with such a lousy service.

    this whole thing is very indicadive of how peoples’ minds can be so easily controlled by companies. think of how many poor souls actually buy into the whole customer retention bullshit and continue living with aol not even realizing what they’re missing out on.

  20. Altima says:

    Hmm, this is of no surprise really. I mean they have been making it hard to unsubscribe. And now we know why.

  21. Ben Popken says:

    Steve writes:

    “I read your page dissing the AOL retention techniques.

    I seem to be missing your point. It seems to be a good idea to try to keep existing customers. It’s a goal of every business in the world.”

  22. mashuren says:


    Yes, but it’s not ethical for businesses to attempt to retain customers with the use of subterfuge and intimidation.

    Try to convince me to stay all you want, make me any offer you want, but when I give you the final word that I definitely do want to cancel my account, by God, you had better quit badgering me and immediately terminate my subscription.

  23. Jimbo says:

    AOL agreed to cancel my account but I continued to get billed for five more months. Turned out I had a second account that was readily available to the retention douchebag, but he didn’t bother to tell me it was still active.

    I kept calling asking why I was still being billed. I finally got someone who told me I had a second active account and that the other CSRs would have seen that on their screens when I was canceling the first one. I did get three of the five months refunded, but there is no way in hell I’d ever do business with this company again. A Harvard Business Review case study in unethical behavior.

  24. Quine says:

    I don’t know if I’m one of the only ones, but when I tried to cancel my AOL “high-speed” account about 4 years ago, I ended up getting a year and a half of completely free AOL. The first call, they tried to reel me back in with 3 free months, so I agreed. I called back in 3 months and made a few new points, and when they tried to convince me that AOL was great, I simply responded “I’ll stay if you give me 3 months free” and the person IMMEDIATELY caved. For the next 3 calls, the exact same thing happened. Then, on my last call, I demanded 3 more free months, and the person rudely [but logically] exclaimed “you’ve recieved free AOL for more than a year, stop demanding more free service!” So I reported him to his supervisor, who apologized and gave me my 3 free months. After those ran out, I called them up and demanded my account canceled, and after a few irrefutable points (such as “you don’t support xbox live. Xbox live is more important than every single service you offer to me. Yes, even that one.”) they quickly conceded the debate.

    When my friend called AOL to cancel, he simply said “The internet is a tool of satan” to almost every thing the rep said, and that got him through quite fast :D

  25. Senator Boomdog says:

    I worked at AOL from 1999 to 2001. Fortunately, not in retention/customer service. Actually, come to think of it…fortunately I don’t work there at all anymore.

  26. Senator Boomdog says:

    dirty snowflake is full of shit about AOL losing e-mails. He is, however, dead on about how much it sucks in general.

  27. Tiger says:

    Dirty Snowflakes was write about the size of the attachments. That is the reason they stopped forcing TW to use AOL email. They had to save huge graphics and commercials to disk and mail it over night because aol mail was limited to 16 meg files. It sucked having big time TW exec calling the internal help desk and complain.

  28. NDP says:

    Everything written here is completly true. Probably something you guy already know is the fact AOL (like other major corporations) outsource some of their departments. And most of them can be found in East Europe and India. I work for such a company. I’m in East Europe, talking to people in USA about their accounts. I have full access of “Merlin”. I have to say that I have a hard time working here after realizing what AOL does to members.
    There is, i’m sorry to say, a large number of people who never even try to read the TOS regarding the AOL accounts. Of course the damn thng is written just to confuse people.

  29. ceokhan says:

    Wow. That is insane. Good job Bens!
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