03 July 2006

Calls May Be Monitored and Recorded for Quality Training Purposes

Somewhere at a table looking over want ads (elctronically or by the garden variety newspaper) or standing in an unemployment line waiting to fill out paperwork, is a man named John. Or a man formerly known as 'John'. And John worked in a call center, handling customers who wished to cancel their memberships to a big name internet service provider (ISP), namely AOL (endearingily referred to AOHell). But John doesn't work in the call center for AOL since last month, and that's a good thing, folks. Let's hope dear John has to change professions, in fact, because 'listening' is not one of his better job skills. 'Not taking no for an answer' is, though, so perhaps used car sales is his future nirvana.

For those of you not familiar, this is a story involving AOL, former AOL customer Vincent Ferrari, and the aforementioned ex-AOL employee John. Mr Ferrari's story started initially with a simple request...to cancel his membership with AOL. It seemed a simple enough task to him, as it does me on reflection and would to most I suppose. Most but apparently not AOL, or rather, not John at AOL. Nearly half an hour and several pleas later from Mr Ferrari to just end the relationship already, John was still doing the hard sell. To his credit, Mr Ferrari documented the whole conversation on his phone and then to his blog. In a call that should have been done in a matter of minutes (if that) even with a sales pitch to try and retain the customer, our good friend Mr Ferrari repeatedly told dear John he wanted to leave AOL over 20 times (and close to 30 if you count the other ways of saying 'cancel'), and still was put through the ringer. Customer service is their motto, apparently

As one who worked in a reservations call center for years fighting the good battle for my customers (and in 5 years of 50+/hrs week average, I only received 2 complaint calls total in all that time balanced with dozens of complimentary ones), I had heard about the Vincent Ferrari affair with AOL and, sadly, just wrote it off as some sort of exaggerated myth. I had been a 'John', too, although I had a perkier phone name. But I regarded this rumour as just that because I also know we call center folk can get blamed for a lot of crap that we didn't cause. (If I had a dime I couldn't move people on flights in and out of Chicago on a whim...I'd own the internet. Additionally, to be perfectly forward before going further, I am an AOL subscriber for many years now and have been faced with very few problems with them at all.) I frankly could not initially fathom anyone just flat refusing to cancel a membership...I mean, this whole story had to be fabricated, right? Wrong. (Although, when I think about some of the calls I overheard and/or had to fix when working for a Major Airline, I guess I should not have been terribly surprised. Somehow, though, I just thought all of the bad seeds were in reservations.) Now that I see that Mr Ferrari's story is actually true, I can't help but shudder and cringe about how little customer service we actually have now.

I read this now and wonder how I stayed in the profession as long as I did. Dear WR and I met doing that job, and I think we were both good to excellent at what we did (he was the excellent one, I just handled all the 'weird' or 'Australian' calls that came through as best as I could, and sometimes that was bumpy). One of the things that did me in there was the numbers game...and that's what it is at a call center, a numbers game. After 9/11 and the transportation industry went to hell in a hand basket, essentially all of the training about good customer service went right out the window. After a couple of years, if you couldn't 'handle and complete' a call witin 5 minutes say...regardless if the flight was to Borneo or to Boise...you were encouraged to 'get the caller off the line'. No worries, you were assured, just make the sale and the customers will call back if need be to complete the transaction. Oh, yeah, they called back all right: to try and cancel their booking as they were so rudely rushed and/or hung up on the call previously. By the time I left my personal Call Center of Hell, I still had my customers happy (because I just stayed on the line and took care of them, what a concept), but not the bosses...unable to cut my time down more but still wanting to give good customer service, I chose to help the people flying more (and the ones ultimately paying my wage). It was an easy decision for me to make (and many others who have also left for the same reason), but for others not so much: some veteran reps can make very good wages, so good enough that even though they hate their job and their customers, they feel they can't survive financially elsewhere.

Which makes what John did inexcusable. From a customer standpoint, at some point 'no' does mean 'no'. That doesn't mean keep rewording it, that doesn't mean try insulting the customer, that doesn't mean trying intimidation methods, either. It just means accept you're not getting/keeping this person and do your job already. From a call rep standpoint, one has to wonder where the hell this guy's supervisor is/was and why he/she is not being kicked to the curb, too. If one listens to that phone call, three things come out from it: (1) John is not a novice, (2) John has been rewarded somehow for these tactics in the past, so that's why they are as developed as they are, and (3) that he's been given orders somewhere from within AOL to not let customers 'get away'. That latter one is golden to me: like my former employer, they're all for cutting corners customer service-wise in any attempt to boost or maintain sales, but they're also apparently willing to accept all tactics in getting that result...as repellant and as harmful as they may be to their customers. No wonder people hate modern day big business.

As bothersome as this whole thing is to all of who have experienced this or fear the trial, take away this little warning: Customers beware! John is not uncommon, and he's maybe coming back to a call center near you. If not him, they'll have someone else like him, trust me. Agents such as myself and WR (no matter the industry) are a dying breed to customer service. Be your own rep, folks. And learn how to 'do a Ferrari'...learn how to do your own 'customer service quality training' calls, too.

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