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.”