Just Say No: Why AOL’s Infamous Customer Service Debacle has Become the Ultimate Marketing Cliche

Let’s say you’re writing a marketing book. Advice: Under no circumstance regurgitate the story of Vincent Ferrari, the blogger who posted a recording of his call with an AOL rep who tried to prevent him from canceling his service.

We have advice for anyone planning to write a book on marketing—and there are scads out there, with pithy titles like The New Influencers, Tactical Transparency and The Brand Who Cried Wolf. Under no circumstance regurgitate the story of Vincent Ferrari, the blogger who posted a 21-minute recording of his phone call with an AOL customer rep that tried to prevent him from canceling his service. The blog post became what the New York Times likened to a “top-of-the-charts single,” and Ferrari ended up on The Today Show while AOL became a blogospheric whipping boy. This is usually served up as a cautionary tale: Companies that don’t listen to their customers in this day of rapid communication could end up dipped in dog doo doo.


Um, duh?

Seriously, is there anybody with a 5th grade education who doesn’t already know this? Yet, book after book after book on marketing cites the Ferrari incident. Wiley published not just one, but four marketing tomes by different authors, all of which spout Ferrari’s techno-tale of woe. What, don’t authors read other people’s books?

For example: “… The problem began when AOL customer Vincent Ferrari of the Bronx, New York, called the company with a simple request to cancel his membership… ” (Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service, by Chip R. Bell and Ron Zemke, AMACOM, 2007.)

“… Consider the case of Vincent Ferrari, who recorded his attempt to cancel his America Online (AOL) account, then posted the recording to his blog. …” (Tactical Transparency: How Leaders Can Leverage Social Media to Maximize Value and Build their Brand, by Shel Holtz and John C. Havens, Jossey-Bass, 2008.)

“… the corporate attitude that filters down to employees can have negative consequences. One AOL (America Online) customer, Vincent Ferrari, wanted to cancel his service.” (The Brand Who Cried Wolf: Deliver on Your Company’s Promise and Create Customers for Life, by Scott Deming, Wiley, 2007.)

The customer service representative “eventually asked the thirty-year-old Ferrari to put his father on the phone instead.” (FWD This Link, by Rhodri Marsden, Rough Guides, 2008.)


“… Nonetheless, complaints keep coming, including a famous blog posting by 30-year-old Vincent Ferrari of the Bronx, who posted the audio file of his 21-minute struggle to cancel AOL online, embarrassing the company.” (Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough: Reinventing The Customer Experience, by Jonathan M. Tisch, Wiley, 2007)

There are loads more.

Fast Company Edict: Say no to Ferrari and any other oft-told anecdote. And dear would-be authors, while you’re at it, don’t re-re-re-relate the story of “Dell Lies. Dell Sucks,” the prickly Jeff Jarvis post from 2005 on why Dell’s customer service was the pits—unless you’re Jeff. Then you’re cool.

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books.