AOL has agreed to reform its customer service operation following complaints that led to legal action by Elliot 'the Blitzer' Spitzer, New York's attorney general. In a settlement announced Wednesday, AOL will be obliged to remove obstacles US consumers faced when seeking to switch or cancel their internet service.
Spitzer’s office began an inquiry of AOL's customer service policies in response to around 300 consumer complaints from 2000 onwards. The investigation revealed that the net giant had an elaborate system for rewarding employees who succeeded in keeping subscribers who had called to cancel their internet service.
In many instances, such retention was done against subscribers' wishes, or without their consent, it was alleged. Service reps could earn bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars if they could successfully dissuade or "save" half of the people who called to cancel service. Consumer reps were expected to meet minimum retain or save percentages.
This led to instances where workers failed to honour cancellations or otherwise made cancellation unduly difficult for consumers. Many consumers complained that AOL personnel ignored their demands to cancel service and stop billing, reports the Register.
According to Newsday, to earn bonuses that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars, employees were required to "save," or retain, a certain percentage of subscribers who called to cancel service.
By August 2004, that minimum requirement had grown to 49 percent.
Employees who did not meet the targets might be given "additional training" or be deemed ineligible for promotions, Spitzer said. As a result, some employees did not honor cancellation requests or handled them improperly, Spitzer said.
Under the settlement, AOL will no longer require employees to retain a certain percentage of subscribers to get a bonus. An independent monitor will review calls.
"This agreement helps ensure that AOL will strive to keep its customers through quality service, not stealth retention programs," Spitzer said in announcing the settlement.
Nicholas Graham, a spokesman at AOL headquarters in Dulles, Va., said, "We are pleased to reach this resolution because it will add even more positive steps to the customer care practices we already have here at AOL."
America Online, which has 21 million subscribers in the United States, including 1.9 million in New York, has been struggling to stem the loss of millions of customers.