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
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.
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• 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