Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Thank you, come again!

A few days ago I saw this post by Michael Blowhard, in which Michael briefly describes his efforts to cancel an AOL account he no longer wants. (He even provides a key phone number, 1-800-827-6364, which is apparently the key number to call for such business (as well as a very hard number to find, in any case).

And then today, via BuffaloGeek, I see this post on a different blog on the same subject, that goes Michael Blowhard one better: this guy actually recorded his call to the AOL operator. It's pretty breathtaking; go give it a listen, and note how at the point when Our Hero becomes exasperated enough to simply interrupt the operator repeatedly ("Cancel. The. Account. Cancel! The! Account!"), the call is only little more than halfway over.

Now, this particular operator most certainly does go way over the line in dealing with a customer -- we can all agree on that -- but what interests me isn't so much that this call shows how far customer service has fallen in today's business world, but rather what today's business world thinks customer service is.

For companies, it boils down to one simple rule: Service equals sales. Seriously, that's how companies view service today. Customer service is indistinguishable from sales, and every interaction with the customer is to be approached as an opportunity to sell.

I saw this both when I was in the restaurant business and in the telesales industry. Training materials always focused on sales, and they always couched sales as part of service. That's why you can't make a call to a customer service hotline, to any company, without hearing a sales pitch: the business people now equate sales with service.

When I worked at Pizza Hut, it was as simple as the "second pizza pricing" thing we always had. At the time, a second medium pizza on an order always cost $5.00, and a second large pizza cost $7.00. And when we were trained to make those offers, it was always presented as performing customer service, and not as sales: "If a customer orders a medium pepperoni, maybe they'd really like another one for just five bucks more! And if they don't know we offer that, by informing them -- i.e., by making a sales pitch -- we are providing them a service!" A fundamental aspect of the sales culture in American business is the idea that customers never really know what they want.

Funny thing was, at Pizza Hut, sometimes I'd put a spin on it. The regular price for a one-topping medium pizza at the time was $8.99, so if someone would call us up and ask, "What specials do you have tonight?", I might say, "Right now we're offering two medium one-topping pizzas for $13.99." See, it gets that second pizza for five bucks in there without suggestive-selling it, and it very often worked. But occasionally our phone calls were monitored by corporate for "quality assurance purposes", and invariably they'd be miffed that I didn't directly offer the second pizza for five bucks. Of course, I did offer it, in a different way -- and in fact, I did it in a better way, because my way was a perfect example of what salesfolk call "assuming the sale".

The AOL-cancellation thing is a special case. If you look in just about any book on basic sales skills (and in all sincerity, this book is pretty good, if you're looking for that sort of thing), you'll find a chapter or two devoted to "overcoming objections". This is where the "pushiness" of sales people comes from. The tactics salespeople use to overcome objections are intended to push people from the "I'm not buying" or the "I'd like to think it over" positions to signing the dotted line. So you see what the approach is that AOL takes to people wanting to cancel: they are viewing these calls not as instances in which they need to do what the customer is telling them they need, but as sales calls with the objections already predetermined. But the fundamental assumption is still there: that this customer service call can be transmogrified into a sales call.

Of course, this isn't a defense in any way of the behavior of this particular operator. He starts off OK, but when he looks up the customer's account usage history, he immediately takes a combative tone, from which he never recovers. How should he have gone about this, from the company's POV? Something like this:

REP: Hmmm...I'm showing 70 hours last month used on this account. Are you the only one using it?

OUR HERO: Yes, and I don't use it. Maybe that's AIM usage.

REP: That's probably it. Have you had any problems with the AOL software?

OUR HERO: No. I just don't want to have the account anymore.

REP: OK. I'd just hate to lose your business if it's a tech issue we could solve on our end, you know? If you prefer, sir, we do have several pricing plans that are cheaper than your current one, with fewer features available, if you wish. Would you like to step down to a cheaper, basic plan?

OUR HERO: No. I just want to cancel AOL entirely.

REP: OK. I'm sorry to hear that, but I'll process your cancellation right now. I'd just like you to know that as a courtesy to our long-term customers, your AOL e-mail address will remain available to you, through AOL.com, at no expense to you at all, although you will no longer have unlimited storage space for e-mail purposes. You should receive a message at that address within twenty-four hours. Thank you for your business, and I hope AOL can serve you again in the future.

OUR HERO: Thanks.

Given the company's assumption that service equals sales, that's how it should have been done. Attempts are made to overcome objections, a pitch is made to keep the customer active, and then at the customer's insistence otherwise the rep closes out the call in a way that at least won't leave the customer angry.

However, even that isn't what we, the customers, think of when we consider the idea of "customer service", is it? That call would have gone something like this:

OUR HERO: I want to cancel my AOL account.

REP: OK, sir. Name?

OUR HERO: Bob Falfa.

REP: OK. Last four digits of the credit card you pay this account with?

OUR HERO: 0000.

REP: [clicks mouse] OK. You're done. Thanks for using AOL, Mr. Falfa.[click]

That sounds great, but it won't really happen anytime soon. Today, service equals sales, and "service" is the quoted reason behind every annoying business habit today, from AOL's cancellation maze to Toys-r-Us asking for my home phone number when I go in to buy The Daughter a box of Legos.


Call me Paul said...

I can't seem to get to that recording. I suspect it has been taken down. Did you save it locally by any chance?

Anonymous said...

A few years back, my mother tried to quit AOL.
The first person she got on the phone tried to talk her out of it. After 15 exasperating minutes, she was told that she had to be transferred to another operator.
...who also spent 15 minutes trying to talk her out of it. And then she was told that she'd be transferred to another operator. After 4 people and an hour, she was told that her account was cancelled.
AOL billed her again the next month.

She called again. Four people, an hour on the phone, and a promise that her account would be canceled.
AOL billed her again the next month.

She called AGAIN. Four people, an hour, a promise.
I suppose you can guess what happened the next time she got her credit card bill.

This is when I heard her story. I told her that the only thing that would work would be to dispute the charge on her credit card. And, lo! AOL cut her service immediately.

My local free paper had a cover article on trying to quit AOL last week. What happened to my mother also happened to the author's wife, so it's not an isolated incident. It's policy.