AOL face customer service mishap with help of comms team

DULLES, VA: AOL is braced for backlash stemming from a taped eight-minute conversation in which a customer service rep refused to let a customer cancel his service. The record of the transaction, first blogged by the consumer got wider play on the Today show.

DULLES, VA: AOL is braced for backlash stemming from a taped eight-minute conversation in which a customer service rep refused to let a customer cancel his service. The record of the transaction, first blogged by the consumer got wider play on the Today show.

Vincent Ferrari recorded his frustrating interaction with an AOL customer service rep named John, who first questioned Ferrari’s motives for wanting to quit the service, then brought up his usage numbers when Ferrari said he just doesn’t use it anymore, and finally asked to speak with the 30-year-old Ferrari’s parents.

Ferrari posted the mp3 to his blog on June 13 and sent it to Consumerist, a Gawker Media weblog that routinely posts consumer gripes. The conversation spread on the internet, and, eventually led to Ferrari discussing the matter on the Today show. It also popped up on some other cable shows and some internet trades online.

Nicholas Graham, AOL’s VP of corporate communications, said he tried contacting Ferrari on the 16th before most the media had started pursuing the story.

“Personally and professionally, I thought it was wrong that nobody had spoken to him,” Graham said, although it appears that someone from member services followed up. “I decided that I knew enough about the story to be able to speak to him in the right manner. He deserved to get a formal apology from corporate headquarters.”

Customer service John no longer works at AOL, but Graham said the company is continuing to address the lingering questions about customer service.

Graham said he read all “three hundred and change” comments left on Ferrari’s blog, as well as printed them up for senior executives, placing on the paper the title: “summer reading.”

“Part of the job of being a communications professional is you have to look at the story behind the story,” Graham said, of the comments. But he added that was a difficult endeavor: since reaching out to Ferrari, many of the comments have been directed at him.

“Some were tough to read; when you read your name and are called a liar,” Graham said. “But you do have a job to do.”

Additionally, the senior executives and PR team send out two e-mails and a talking points memo to management and its 6,000 employees in the member services organization reinforcing its dedication for them to comport themselves with the highest ethical standards and respect for customer’s wishes. He also reminded them of the long-standing “Keep It Real” campaign, which states that the customer, besides being always right, should never doubt that an AOL representative is listening and taking his or her requests or complaints seriously.

While Graham said the company had a number of factors on its side, including an internal report that found that one in two people who called in to cancel an account ended up staying with the service (because they only really needed troubleshooting help), a service so large as AOL is bound to have some hiccoughs, and that the company has been working with the FTC and attorney generals in several states on remedying customer service issues, this wasn’t the time to put out those points in the media.

“The brand had to pay the price for it,” Graham said. “The most important thing to do is own up to it and take your medicine.”


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