Cancel Me, Cancel You

Ah, the power of the single voice, amplified by the reach of the World Wide Web. Today’s New York Times story, “AOL Said, ‘If You Leave Me I’ll Do Something Crazy’“, once again highlights the power of the Web, particularly Weblogs or content-sharing sites like YouTube. Randall Stross’ story is also a tell-tale account of how difficult can be account cancellation.

The story starts with a Bronx man’s 21-minute phone call seeking to cancel his AOL account: “Vincent Ferrari, 30, of the Bronx…recorded the five minutes of interaction with the AOL customer service representative and, a week later, posted the audio file on his blog, Insignificant Thoughts. Shortly thereafter, those five minutes became the online equivalent of a top-of-the-charts single”. 

Oh my. “To listen as Mr. Ferrari tries to cancel his membership is to join him in a wild, horrifying descent into customer-service hell”, Randall writes.

This one person’s Weblog recording shook AOL foundations. An internal e-mail to AOL employees warned, “‘On any interaction, you should assume that it could be posted on the Web.’” Oh, yeah.

I’m a huge fan of the Web as a conduit for the little people, the real people, being heard among the fray. And I’m convinced these single voices banded together are a cacophonous roar companies cannot ignore.

Thomas Hawk got cheated and bullied by a New York-nased photo equipment dealer, and he took his situation to the blogsphere rather than the state attorney’s general office. The massive response, from other folks equally wronged by the online photo store, brought the retailer down.

Last week I saw a Comcast video on YouTube, which Randall mentions in his Times story, showing a technician sleeping on a customer’s couch. Supposedly, the technician doses off after waiting an hour on hold with Comcast. Geez, and we think the customers have it bad!

But I’ve got to ask: Isn’t there some question of privacy here, though? I mean, in Maryland you have to notify people when you record a call. That law is what tripped up Linda Tripp. What is the Comcast technician’s right to privacy in a customer’s home? I’m no lawyer, but seems to me the technician has some reasonable expectation he won’t be videotaped without notice. Or, maybe he doesn’t, seeing as how we’re all frequently taped without notice, at intersections, ATMs, and nearly any building we enter.

I’m no fan of lawsuits, but there is occasion where some of them can set important case law. Privacy with respect to recordings—given the Bush administration’s spying shenanigans or the ability of anyone to record or tape nearly anyone else using a cell phone—would be a pretty good case for defining constitutional boundaries with respect to privacy.

Circling back to account cancellation, no question that many online operations make separation a decidedly difficult offline affair—or turbulently distant online chore. I easily signed up my daughter for Disney’s ToonTown and for NeoPets Premium. I had to call ToonTown to cancel, which was only modestly difficult. But, heck, I signed up online. Why shouldn’t I be easily able to cancel online? The Times story has an answer there. In the case of AOL, “Fifty percent of calls that begin with the intention to cancel end up with the member deciding to stay”.

I’m not surprised, for a year, RealNetworks would reel Real me back with two-month free offers whenever I called to cancel. But I’m busy and would forget and end up paying for a couple more months of service. Last month, I called and definitively cancelled, but it wasn’t easy.

More difficult: Canceling a JFax account. There was no phone number or online cancellation mechanism. Instead, I had to enter a chat session with an account representative, who offered me two months for free. I had to stridently stand my ground to cancel and that was after showing less resolve and taking the offer, a few months earlier. I mean, c`mon, it’s so easy to say yes to another two free months. But if you’re not using it now, what’s going to change in 60 days?

By the way, NeoPets required a phone call, too, not that I could ever find a phone number. In the end, I got out by expiring the credit card. No joke.

Randall pipes in with an excellent counter example to all these online companies doing offline cancellations:

IF I were asked to think of an online company that provides exemplary customer service to its subscribers, Netflix, the DVD rental company, would come to mind well before AOL. When I took a look to see whether Netflix offered a way for a customer to cancel membership swiftly while online, I discovered that it provides a procedure—a click on a link, a click on a checkmark box, and one more click to complete—that would take no more than two seconds. No exit interviews, no last-ditch offers while I’m held captive on the phone.

Seeing how Netflix would be so protective of my time were I to leave makes me all the more unlikely to do so.

In February, I wrote about my plans to dump Netflix for Blockbuster, in part because of throttling. But, in the end, I stuck with Netflix, for two reasons: 1) We rarely found movies at the local store, which negated the value of the weekly free in-store rentals offered with the online Blockbuster account. 2) I couldn’t bring myself to cancel, even with Netflix making it easy. I’ve subscribed to Netflix since February 1999. The ease of cancellation is part of the great Netflix customer experience that keeps me a subscriber.

As for AOL, JFax, Real, and ToonTown: Their offline customer cancellation is one reason why I truly turned them offline.

Photo Credit: glassghost

Editor’s Note: On July 28, 2017, this post was recovered, using Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of during 2006, when months of content was lost while changing blogging systems and webhosts. Date and timestamps are authentic.