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Computer Q&A: AOL has gone AWOL from customers in online support

Thursday, March 27, 2003

By David Radin

A few weeks ago, I wrote about America Online's customer support problems and how the company seems to have difficulty putting the right information within access of its customer support reps.


The case I discussed involved the AOL Instant Messenger application, and how AOL refuses to provide support because it doesn't charge extra fees for the software.

Apparently the problem is much deeper than just refusal to support a product for which the company charges you nothing.

Readers have let me know that they have had problems with AOL online gaming, spam filters, Web browser and connections -- and in many cases have reached severe frustration levels because AOL customer support doesn't solve their problems. And the dilemmas reach beyond AOL to the computer vendors, telephone companies and other related companies -- because AOL reps cannot respond properly, thereby requiring these other vendors to provide costly support that should be unnecessary.

Recently, I had the opportunity to help a person through his AOL software problem because it affected his ability to personalize his e-mail. This gentleman had purchased my spam blocking service to use with his AOL account, and was unable to use it with his AOL account because his AOL software was not acting properly. This became apparent shortly after I received his first phone call. So I took the liberty of calling AOL on his behalf. AOL would not support me because I was not the person with the problem on my AOL account. So I gave this user the AOL toll-free number and suggestions on how he should describe his problem.

The best solution that AOL could offer him was to uninstall and reinstall his software, which wiped out some of his AOL settings, and still didn't fix the AOL problem. So I ended up spending more than an hour walking this man through his AOL problem. I didn't have to do it; but it is the right thing to do when you're supporting a user, even if he has paid you only a few dollars for your product.

The fact that this gentlemen knows that I would jump through hoops to make it possible for him to take full advantage of my product will pay off in good will, strong users and many referrals. Going far beyond helping him with my product shows the good faith and the strong relationship between customer and vendor.

To me, anytime a vendor points a finger at another vendor, both companies get a black eye for product quality and support. Sometimes it is necessary; but when it happens just because it is convenient for the support person or cheaper for his company, it is unacceptable.

The support problems at AOL hit all aspects of the service -- phone support reps as well as those who respond interactively online or by e-mail. One reader referred to America Online as AOHELL, and told me that AOL support reps ended up tripling her monthly bill by creating duplicate accounts, which took another extra hour to fix. In her words: "The point I am trying to get across is there is no tech support at AOL."

The problem is easily corrected, although it may cost the company some money. AOL needs to put the right information in the hands of the support reps, instead of making them respond to your problems unarmed. It also needs to enhance the online help, because the current AOL online help lacks detail required. Screen shots wouldn't hurt either.

Poor customer support is not confined to America Online, as I'll discuss in future columns.

David Radin is a nationally syndicated radio show host. You can sign up for his tip letter at www.megabyteminute.com or find an archive of his previous columns at www.post-gazette.com/interact E-mail him your questions at david.pgcolumn@spamslicer.com

Click here for an archive of previous Interact articles

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