YEARN TO BE FREE
(Updates: See below at end of the post).
After almost a dozen years as a paying subscriber of AOL, I'm now a free user of AOL's core services.
Following yesterday's official Time Warner announcement of the long-awaited move to go from paid to a free, advertising based online service, I wanted to see how long it would take me to switch my account to free.
First I went online, to see if AOL had implemented an easy way for paying subscribers with their own broadband access (cable or DSL), to transition to a free account.
No immediate joy to be had.
This was going to be a series of steps. I started hesitantly on my journey to save $14.95 a month.
2. Then you see a link at the end of that page that addresses existing AOL users (all 18 million of them).
That page then leads to a page explaining the big announcement, but no immediate link or number to transition from paid to free.
3. Instead the user then has to click on a "Frequently Asked Questions about new AOL" link.
This link then gets you to a page with a dozen questions.
4. One then clicks on question number 7: "When can I get AOL for free?" Here's the answer to this burning question:
"If you already have an alternative way to connect to the Internet, either by dial-up or broadband, you can move to the free AOL plan and continue to access your AOL e-mail, software, and security features. To change your current AOL plan, simply call Member Services at 1-800-984-6207."
After following this long chain of links, AOL wants the subscriber to call an 800 number.
An online company that doesn't allow you to do the switch online!
I guess I wasn't surprised, given the company's long, controversial history of not allowing subscribers to cancel online as well.
But this toll-free call was likely to be different, I thought, as I started to dial the number.
Will I be talking to someone in the same AOL customer service department that was likely to see large, wholesale layoffs a short while after the company transitions from subscription to a free, ad based model?
If so, the employee morale and willingness to help a customer who wants to transition to a free account should be great.
This wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.
My mind immediately went to the recent incident when a user that wanted to cancel had to face an aggressive telephone rep from the "customer retention" department who was trained to "save" the account.
5. "It's going to be that kind of a process", I thought, as I finally dialed the number. After a few rings, the phone was answered by an automated, perky female voice that cheerfully that most of us are all too familiar with from dealing with BIG media/cable/telco company "Customer Support" lines.
I sighed...so that's how it was going to start...
What a great opportunity missed to instill good feelings amongst existing members and "welcome" back new members interested in the new, FREE AOL.
Instead the recording goes on to tell me, and I'm paraphrasing a bit here, that due to the response to the company's recent announcement, they may take a little while to get to little old me.
6. The VOICE then asks you to "SPEAK" your home phone number and screen name, which I dutifully gave her.
7. The system then offers you TWO choices: press #1 to sign up as a new subscriber, or press #2 to sign up for AOL Broadband.
No #3 for "existing subscribers who'd like to transition their account from free to paid"
8. At this point, I was stuck in a loop. Just two choices to choose from, neither of which I wanted.
I then had to do what one does with these infernal voice recognition "HELP" systems that are designed really NOT to help.
I had to figure out the keyword that would get me transfer me to a human being.
So I cycled through the usual choice of words that went through my head, starting with "HELP", "OPERATOR", "CUSTOMER SERVICE" etc.
The system paused and then asked if I wanted to speak to a "Consultant".
Of course, that's exactly the person I wanted to speak with...now, why didn't I figure that out?
9. The system than put me on music hold while I waited for a human picked me up. It promised me a wait of no more than two and a half minutes. How optimistically precise, I thought.
10. A tad over 7 minutes later, a human being picks up the phone.
A distinctly Indian accent, which I was able to understand (but then, I was born there). At least I wasn't going to have to deal with the regular AOL customer service people who were facing an uncertain employment future.
The gentleman politely asked how he could help me.
I said in as firm a voice I could muster that I was a long-time paying subscriber, who wanted to take advantage of the offer for a "FREE" AOL.
He calmly assured me that he could help, but first would I be interested in an offer to pay $4.95 a month to get "Customer Service" AND 10 hours of dial-up when needed?
"No, thank you", I replied, telling him also that I had a meeting in ten minutes (I did) and needed to get this transition to a free account done as quickly as possible.
No problem, he replied, as he continued to read from a script. He assured me he had all my customer information in front of him, and it would take a few entries to make the change.
A few moments later, he informed me that my free AOL services were activated. They took effect immediately, and they did not include dial-up and customer service.
The script then informed me that I was agreeing to waive pre-paid dial-up charges that I'd already paid in for the month, and that I remained responsible for any other charges.
He also informed me that I could get additional support help.aol.com.
He then asked me if he could help me with anything else.
"No", I said.
The rep then asked me while parting if I was interested in a video lesson from video professor, and a "free" video camera. If so, he could helpfully connect me with a representative who could help me.
That was the second attempt to sell me an additional service.
Again, I politely declined, and hung up the call.
The whole thing had taken almost 40 minutes, 16 of which were spent on the phone.
It'd probably be a long longer for most mainstream folks, who may not be as determined in their quest to follow the trail of links, and solve the guessing puzzles through the voice recognition system gauntlet to get to a human operator.
So, there're still a fair number of friction points to try "retain" paying customers as passively as they can.
Two attempts to up-sell me to additional revenue producing services.
That's why they were making millions of customers call a toll-free number rather than facilitating a simple online transfer from paid to free.
What a lost opportunity to get existing and/or new users excited about the new, ad-supported AOL.
Instead, it was more of the same old attempts at telemarketing.
Old habits die hard, I guess.
I'm now a free AOL user, waiting like millions of other users to see if the new AOL is any different from the old AOL.
Not holding my breath though.
Overall, I'd give AOL a "B-" in this one person's anecdotal journey from paid to free.
It would have been an A- if the initial, automated telephone response had mentioned key word "free aol services for existing members" as the third option.
Or an A if they'd allowed members to do it all online.
An A+ if they'd given concrete examples of how the new, free AOL was going to be exciting and really different from the old AOL.
I must say that I was surprised to be able to actually make the transition from paid to free on the day of the official announcement.
And I'd expect the process to get simpler and hopefully easier over time.
I was expecting to give them a C going into the whole thing though, so they did better than expected.
Curious to hear if your experience is any different.
DISCLOSURE: I remain a long-time, increasingly frustrated Time Warner shareholder.
Update #3 AUG 4, 2006
Reader Dave comments to the above post:
"It's easy online