Sunday, August 12, 2007

"Customer Service" -- NOT in AOL's Vocabulary

When the Internet boom started back in the 1990s, America Online was there with easy-to-use tools, round-the-clock service, community building and more. It felt like everyone was on AOL.

And maybe they were. I know I was, as was my dad. I decamped before the new millennium for a local company. Dad, however, stayed, as did Mom.

Now Dad is no longer with us, may he rest in peace — but his AOL account is. And that, my friends, is the trouble.

Mom, whose user name is on the account, decided this past May to cancel the AOL account. Dial-up was painfully slow, she planned to purchase a new computer and she wanted a fresh start. So she called AOL customer service, who asked for Dad's mother's middle name for customer identification. Mom knew it, but not how to spell it, and despite the assistance the customer service rep gave her to help her guess that (and another password) correctly, she was not able to give a satisfactory answer. After 90 minutes, she was in tears.

"All I want to do is cancel my late husband's account!" she exclaimed. "Can't I send you his death certificate?" The rep was sorry, but without the password, Mom was unable to conduct business on the account.

When I heard about that transaction, I was incensed. My next trip to Los Angeles began with a call to AOL. I bypassed the whole "mother's middle name" crap and went straight for the rep. When I explained the situation and Mom's first encounter, the second rep was very apologetic and promised to fax a form to Mom within 48 hours and would cancel the account within 48 hours after receiving the completed form. I hung up, thinking, "Wow, and all that without Nana's middle name. Waaaait, that was too easy. Let's see what happens Monday."

So, 48 hours later, when the form had failed to arrive, I called back and spoke to yet a third rep. It appears the 48 hours was only "work" hours, and despite AOL's 24-hour customer service, business faxing was not conducted on weekends. So Rep #3 promised to fax the form "or mail the form to the billing address on the account in three to five days."

Mail? That was news to me. I wasn't taking any chances. "Or? Why not and?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"Oh, you want both," he sighed.

"Well, considering the unreliability of AOL's fax service, um, yeah, I absolutely want it by mail," I responded, trying with little success to mask my frustration. "So, you will fax and mail it to my mother? The fax will be within 48 hours and the mailed form will be within five days?"

Rep #3 confirmed that schedule.

"And within 48 hours after that, the account will be closed?" I clarified.

"Yes, within 30 days," he added. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Wow, more new information. "Wait, 30 days?" I asked.

"Yes, once we receive the form, the account will be cancelled within 30 days," he explained. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

I couldn't stand another moment of this lousy conversation where nothing akin to "customer service" was being offered to my family, so I responded curtly, "No, thank you. Simply doing what you have said you would in the time frame you have noted will be sufficient. Thank you." I should have asked if that was 30 business days (which translates to six weeks, not counting holidays).

Well, that was five working days ago (or seven "AOL 24-hour telephone or e-mail customer service" days). Not only has the fax not arrived (and yes, we tested the fax machine to make sure it was working properly), the letter also has not arrived. Twice I attempted to cancel the account online, but with Dad gone, so went the super secret password required for online transactions (which is different than the super secret password for telephone service).

When Monday dawns, Mom or I will be on the phone with the credit card company, explaining how we do not wish to continue to pay AOL for a service we have been unable to cancel.

I am very angry at the first rep who took advantage of a grieving widow and refused to tell her how to cancel the account.

I am very angry at the second rep who didn't explain clearly what a "day" is for a 24-hour company and did not get the form faxed.

I am further angry with the third rep who again didn't manage to get the form sent on time.

I know AOL is a multi-billion-dollar mega-corporation with oodles of "customer service" reps who handle hundreds of calls a day. That is the reason I left them in 1996 and turned instead to a company up the road from me, where a tech who lived in my neighborhood stopped by my house on a snowy day to help me install the software needed to start my Internet service. "Service" means something else entirely to a company such as AOL or J.C. Penney, the latter of which didn't bother to post my payment in time and couldn't manage to clear the mistaken late fee that grew for months (until my last call was turned over to "collections" — which, strangely enough, could make a late fee disappear, as well as cancel the account, all in a single call received after normal business hours in my time zone).

Maybe it's the Little Mary Sunshine in me (that AOL is slowly strangling with this horrible treatment), but when someone calls my place of business, it's personal. I confirm a fax is sent, I put the letter in the mailbox, I follow up with a telephone call. Everyone else in my organization does the same. If there's a whiff of a customer's request falling through the cracks, we find out who and why — and trust me, it does not happen again. In Fairfax, customer service still means something.

What a shame that with AOL, it does not.

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