July 5, 2006

Global shaming.

Internet style.
Online disgrace creates so much buzz on blogs and in the media that companies are beginning to realize the devastating public relations effects brought on by these grass-roots exposés, said Gemma Puglisi, assistant professor of communications at American University.

"This has been a wake-up call for these companies," she said. "The day where you send a little letter to the CEO is over. In the age of technology, you have to be even more careful of how you treat your customers because you don't know where they're going to go. Now everything's out in the open."
I'm seeing a lot of MSM articles like this lately, probably triggered by the excellent (and popular) video of a guy -- Vincent Ferrari -- trying to cancel his AOL account. These articles often portray consumers as "angry," but what's especially impressive about Ferrari's video is how polite and reasonable he is. He's very competently creating a video to demonstrate a problem he's heard people had been talking about.

The great moment of recognition for me comes when the AOL rep says "Alright, some day when you calmed down you're gonna realize that all I was trying to do was help you... and it was actually in your best interest to listen to me." Ferrari's been unusually calm precisely because he's making the video in order to show how hard it is to cancel, yet the rep tries to make him feel guilty about getting overexcited. That must work on a lot of people, because it's such a common move. I know some customers really are pretty ridiculous and irrational, and the phone reps are just using the tricks they've been taught, but it's so bad when they use that trick on someone who is being civil.

27 comments:

Mark the Pundit said...

When I have to call customer service at a large company, I usually get the "this conversation may be recorded for training purposes" message prior to being connected to the service rep.

I think they should train their service people to assume all of their conversations are being recorded by the customers as well - so be nice!

Simon said...

The story notes that AOL apologized and claimed the rep had been fired. That, to me, is the worst part: the customer service rep did precisely what AOL seems to train its reps to do. Anyone who's tried to leave AOL has had this telephone conversation, and three minutes is a short one. I therefore find it hard to believe that this was some maverick rep who was excessively devoted to keeping a customer; AOL is widely reputed for being impossible to escape from, and I can't help but suspect that the rep did precisely what AOL trains and demands its reps do. But here, because they had BS called on them, they scapegoated the customer service guy whose only real fault appears to be that he made the mistake of working for AOL.

Dave said...

Another example is the song Barbie Girl, which Mattel tried to quash when it came out back in the late '90s. Kozinski, as I recall, excoriated Mattel, with the end result that (1) the song garnered more attention than its insubstantial nature warranted, and (2) Mattel ended up with egg on its face.

And now this is coming to back to bite them in the ass with the advent of Youtube and Lynne & Tessa.

Mattel likely would have fared better if it said "Hey, Aqua's parodying us, and that's cool. Whatever." Instead its clueless management decided that such a sexualized parody of its Barbie line (as if Barbie is not hypersexualized already) was somehow dangerous.

Lawyers (and the company management whose interests they supposedly advocate for) will have to learn that, concomitant with the power of instant, global communications, companies are pretty much powerless to control their image through the courts or high-priced (clueless) lawyers.

XWL said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann Althouse said...

XWL's first comment refers to a post that I've deleted entirely. Please note that is a commenter that I'm am deleting without reading -- every post, regardless of what it says.

XWL said...

Comment Repost, with the bad bits deleted

(and thanks for not deleting the original post outright Prof. Althouse, I fully agree with your current stance on that commenter)

When dealing with customer service, I find the strategy of taking the stance where I tell them what they are going to do for me from the very start, and explain to them that if they are not the person who can do that for me, then transfer this call to a supervisor immediately to save us both time.

It has been an effective strategy, I remain unfailingly polite, yet insistent, and it sets the tone early that I am going to get what I want if it is possible to do so.

It helps to know exactly what you want to happen before the call starts though, and it helps to ask and answer their basic questions that you know they are going to ask before they get a chance to ask them.

It's a matter of using their rather predictable script against them, and determining whether or not you are speaking to a decision maker or a person employed to shield the decision makers from customers.

Patrick Martin said...

I'm with Simon. In one sense, I hope the AOL rep did not actually get fired, because it would be horribly unjust for AOL to make him the scapegoat just for doing exactly what AOL trained him to do.

I signed up for a free month of AOL when I lost my regular high speed connection during Hurricane Katrina. About 2 weeks into the free trial period, my regular access returned and I called AOL to cancel. My experience was essentially identical to Vincent Ferrari's, except that they did at the end of the call actually cancel my account. Why did I want to cancel? While I am waiting for the computer to process this request (yeah, right), let me tell you why AOL is so wonderful and you are an idiot for wanting to quit.

Every time, I repeated that I just wanted to cancel, period, not discuss why. In the end, I got a cancellation number, and they did in fact (miracle of miracles) never charge my bank account. The only thing my guy didn't do was the explicitly patronizing "you'll thank me later" bit.

I think the best way to cancel AOL is to cancel the card to which it is charged. A little inconvenient, but it will definitely work. I keep a small-limit credit card just for automatic billing internet charges precisely to make it easier to cancel whether the company is cooperative or not.

Jim H said...

Cancelling my AOL account was like trying to walk away from the Mob. At least I didn't hang myself like Eugene Pontecorvo did.

Dave said...

One would hope Time Warner's management is reading your blog, Ann.

James said...

At one point, MSN offered as a feature that when you signed up with them, they'd pay a third party to cancel your AOL account.

So, yes, Simon is right, "AOL is widely reputed for being impossible to escape from."

Simon said...

"Another example is the song Barbie Girl, which Mattel tried to quash when it came out back in the late '90s. Kozinski, as I recall, excoriated Mattel"

Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc., for those counting; that opinion also contained Kozinski's immortal coup de grâce: "the parties are advised to chill."

chuck b. said...

It's the example set by Christina Crawford, for the digital age.

Pogo said...

I was unaware, never having used AOL. Question is, how does this kind of negative image ever get discovered before you purchase an online provider? I know Instapundit's documentation of "Dell Hell" steered me into HP's arms.

AOL as the modern tar baby.
We need a section just for Althouse Just So stories!

Thorley Winston said...

The great moment of recognition for me comes when the AOL rep says "Alright, some day when you calmed down you're gonna realize that all I was trying to do was help you... and it was actually in your best interest to listen to me." Ferrari's been unusually calm precisely because he's making the video in order to show how hard it is to cancel, yet the rep tries to make him feel guilty about getting overexcited. That must work on a lot of people, because it's such a common move. I know some customers really are pretty ridiculous and irrational, and the phone reps are just using the tricks they've been taught, but it's so bad when they use that trick on someone who is being civil.

I’m not sure what you consider to be “unusually calm” but having read the transcript and listened to the audio Ferrari sounded pretty angry and had just raised his voice right before the Rep said that. Before that he was rather condescending to the Rep (e.g. addressing him as “Dude”) and seemed on the verge of yelling.

Also having worked in customer service on the phone, one other thing struck me. Part of my job was to document reasons for cancellations and if something didn’t match up, we were expected to ask further questions to make sure that this is the correct customer for the account (e.g. we’ve had girl/boyfriends, roommates, siblings, parents, and children calling up pretending to be spouses or the account holders in order to get information or even cancel accounts). In this case, Ferrari had claimed that he wasn’t using the AOL service any more but the Rep showed that he had 545 hours of usage in the last month of service. It would have been one thing to refuse to provide a reason for cancellation (which would have certainly been within his rights) but I cannot fault the Rep for inquiring further if only to make sure that this is legitimate and four minutes hardly seems unreasonable.

Thorley Winston said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bearbee said...

I find the stylish Dear Cretins a classic letter of complaint.....

Patrick Martin said...

If they were just concerned with proper identity, then they could provide an on-line mechanism, for which you would have to enter your password. Or they could (and if I recall did) ask the usual set of identity-confirming questions, address on account, phone number, etc.

I appreciate Thorley's attempt at a defense of the poor call center guy (and I agree one should not really blame the individual for the corporate policy of making cancellation as difficult as possible), but I am quite certain that none of the efforts by my rep had anything to do with verifying my identity.

That said, it is legitimate to ask some basic questions, to make sure the customer wasn't just frustrated by problems which are easily resolvable with a call to the help desk. But once the caller says "no, I just want to cancel", the service rep should just shut up and process it.

James said...

I think the customer service recording is a good example of something that you figure everyone already knows--so why is it such a big deal when it comes out publicly?

E.g., from a Microsoft Financial Analyst Meeting--from 2002--we have:

"IRVING KWONG: ...[W]e are going to lower the barriers of switching. A lot of I[S]Ps make it very difficult to switch between services. ... If I am from AOL, I actually have a check box specifically for an AOL user... And last but not least, if you would like us to, we will go ahead and cancel your account for you. (Laughter.) So, again, this is all about customer service.

"YUSUF MEHDI: It is about customer service. (Laughter.) You should clap, because it's hard to cancel an AOL account. (Laughter.) It is. Trust me. We tried. We tried."

(http://cc.msnscache.com/cache.aspx?q=3415817286907&lang=en-US&mkt=en-US&FORM=CVRE)

Kathy said...

I cancelled my AOL account 5 or 6 years ago and had essentially the same experience. A guy who sounded like a Teamster hassled me about how I was ever going to use the internet without AOL, giving me all sorts of examples of features on AOL that I couldn't get elsewhere (when in actuality they were internet features, not AOL features). Eventually he did give in and cancel my service.

Like Patrick Martin, I think it's easiest to cancel the card. For me that's especially easy since my credit card provider allows me to create new credit card numbers even for recurring purchases, with individualized expiration dates and limits. So I can set up a card just for a particular vendor and be sure it won't allow charges beyond a certain point, or cancel it, without affecting my actual credit card.

By the way, I like Dell and just bought another Dell. I read the links that Instapundit posted, but came away with the impression that this level of service was pretty much standard for all the manufacturers now. I don't buy computers often enough to know at a given time how each manufacturer is doing service-wise, but HP (and Compaq) did not impress us with our past purchases. I have several family members with Dells, and some have had problems, and Dell has been very good about addressing them.

Kev said...

There was a really funny thread on this subject last month over at Dave Barry's Blog; the experiences of those commenters seem to parallel the ones here. (Surely I can't be the only common reader of both blogs...)

Word verification: wacca--a mixture of comedy and witchcraft.

1bodyand2faces said...

actually, I cancelled a couple of months ago without any problem; the guy on the phone was pleasant, spoke english well, and only gave me one brief "are you sure?" spiel.

I'm in NY state; I assume they are afraid of Eliot Spitzer, Pit Bull Attorney General.

Noumenon said...

I also think that Ferrari is leaning more toward aggressive than calm and reasonable. Imagine cutting someone off like that face to face and repeating yourself over and over (with added punctuation marks between the words). It would be to browbeat, not to request.

Ann Althouse said...

I agree that at some point, Ferrari switches to a simple incantation about cancelling, but he is doing it rationally, trying to clearly demonstrate that he's not falling into a conversation with the AOL guy. He's being absolutely clear to make the point he's set out to make.

David said...

Far too many business-to-consumer companies do a poor job at customer service and specifically at running call centers. A couple of common problems:

1)They are simultaneously overmanaged and undermanaged. The rep is often told exactly what words and phrases to use, yet the overall flow of the problem-solving process is not well thought out at all. It's analogous to an auto assembly line in which time-and-motion studies are conducted to determine the best way of fastening a specific bolt, but nobody notices it would be easier to put the bolt in before the seat is installed on top of the place where it goes.

2)Too often, customer service operations are looked at as pure cost centers and don't get credit for their importance in customer retention. CS managers should be standing up on their hind legs and demanding a broader view of their role.

Slopoke said...

I realize I am coming late to the game, but is this video an example of what some have called "astroturf" lobbying? That is, you stir up public sentiment for an issue that really hasn't bothered the public, but they (the public) agree with what an interest group is saying; even thought they have not previously thought about it?

Bruce Hayden said...

I actually felt a bit sorry for AOL and, in particular, Time Warner. AOL waltzed in with a questionable business plan and a vastly overpriced stock and walked away with Time Warner.

The problem with that business plan is that they sell to Internet newbies. After awhile, most of the newbies figure out that they can get most of what AOL is supplying directly from the Internet, which is cheaper and faster. So, ultimately, when the newbies aren't so new anymore, they want to leave. And, as the market matures, the number of newbies starts to decline. The result is that instead of the expanding subscriber base that AOL used to buy Time Warner, they are faced with finding it harder and harder to get new customers, and are thus, ever more desperate to hold on to those they have. BTW, you know that they are getting desperate, when they have their stacks of intro disks at Burger King.

I think that it has been documented that AOL has, or at least had, a corporate policy of making it as difficult to cancel as possible. Their customer reps were apparently rewarded for talking customers out of cancelling, and they gave away free months of service as a matter of course, in order to prevent cancellation (after all, most of AOL's costs are in its sales, so giving someone a couple of free months on the chance that they will ultimately pay for a couple of months later is good business for them).

Jackjoshua said...
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