They're unforgivably rude, rude, rude

Along with a slew of other America Online subscribers who were recently tormented by an enfilade of busy signals, I ditched AOL and hooked up with a smaller, so far reliable, local Internet service provider. America Online's failings of late have been highly publicized--and pinned, variously, on a megalomaniacal growth strategy, puny technology, an ethical slide, or too many lawyers with nothing to do except traipse around filing class-action suits against good old A. Online--all of which is providing fodder for B-school teaching assistants as they hastily crank out ratio-heavy case studies on the notorious recent service breakdowns.

But there is another, more fundamental reason I left my chums at AOL. When they promised me a service they knew they couldn't deliver 24/7, well, it was unforgivably rude, rude, rude. And they've acted like a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant clods, the folks at AOL have, blaming everybody, but especially their customers, for making a shambles of things. We loitered on-line, they sniffed. Our modems behaved like rabid dingoes. If only we could get it through our heads how hard they were working to muscle-build their network to serve us better. (Oh, so that made it OK for them to keep trolling for new customers? Well, rev up the Waring and call me Martha Stewart: I have a drawer full of sign-up-with-us-for-free disks, most of which arrived during America O.L.'s so-called recruiting hiatus and which now make perfectly splendid coasters.)

It messes with our heads, this thinly disguised contempt for one's "valued" customers--us--the ones who brought 'em to the party to begin with. It makes me so mad I could eat dirt. Had AOL been nice enough to apologize, not to say grovel--"We are truly, deeply, sincerely sorry, it's all our fault, we want to earn your trust"--I'd have been inclined to put up with another access-denied migraine or two and give the poor guys a chance. Instead, I got broken promises garnished with overbearing arrogance.

The $20 word for such conduct is hubris, but in my neck of the woods, we call it bad manners. It almost brought down once-beloved Apple Computer when that company myopically refused to license its user interface, even as customers defected to Windows and went in search of their inner Intel.

Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman has turned groin kicks directed at courtside spectators into almost a franchise operation for the Chicago Bulls, and the Baltimore Orioles' second baseman Roberto Alomar will live on in infamy for spitting in an ump's face. When technology and talent among rivals are pretty much the same, all that distinguishes one from the other is the way customers and spectators and umpires are treated.

A banker first taught me that when I, a Super-Glued client of a dozen years, calmly announced that I would be taking my banking somewhere else. What had pushed me over the edge was a new bank policy that limited to three the number of questions a customer could ask a customer-service rep over the telephone before being cut off. Apparently, our inquisitive ways were thwarting production efficiencies.

So I sat in a gunpowder-green faux-leather chair, listening as his nibs clued me in. "Speaking as your financial engineer," he began (uh-oh), "I think we can resolve this misunderstanding. We simply need to do a better job of educating you."

He meant that I was making a huge mistake, that if only I could be made to understand all the truly good things the bank had done for me lately, I would see how hasty--OK, stupid--my decision actually was. This bank, by the way, was awash in complex metrics used to measure customer-service quality. On paper, it was way off the charts on courtesy and friendliness and probably vim, too. Strange, then, that Mr. Banker never ventured to ask why I was leaving, or what the place could do to improve, or what it would take to win me back. In every bone, I knew he could not catch what I was saying. He really wasn't into listening, anyway (the ultimate imperative of genuine respect in any business).

Even if he'd stayed up nights with Letitia Baldrige's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners, it wouldn't have helped. Manners go deeper than a brushup on business etiquette, which easily relapses into a mindless paint-by-numbers exercise. Once, as a reminder to thank KMart patrons for shopping at the store, cashiers were given an acronym of the relevant phrase as a crib note: TYFSAK. Lore has it that "Thank you for shopping at KMart" quickly devolved into "tiff-sack!" which was rocketed at unsuspecting customers on their way out. You just know that somebody in management (or the customer-service guru hired by the chain) thought that would be a really super way to advance the store's customer-satisfaction agenda.

Some companies, like some people, are ill-mannered because they never learned better. Or else they think courtesy's for pantywaists. When I overheard the CEO of a high-tech start-up snipe to an assistant that "if our customers don't like our solutions, they have the wrong problems," it was a company Rorschach right there, and you don't need a psych degree to decode it correctly.

Real manners--a keen interest in and a regard for somebody else, a certain kindness and at-ease quality that add real value--can't be faked or finessed. Manners are part of the reason I love J. Peterman and West Marine, for instance (all-pro retailers with big booming catalog businesses in hypercompetitive industries). Yes, they always seem happy to hear from me. They keep their promises. And they are, well, nice and easy to work with--no small advantage. Charles Schwab, too. The people there know what they do best, whom they do it for, and how to make it all so tempting that customers would never dream of bailing out. Decoct their strategy, and this is what you get: They know it's people who matter, and they act accordingly. That's a lesson the folks at AOL should take to heart, assuming they still have one.

Nancy K. Austin (nkaustin@cruzio.com), a writer and management consultant, cowrote A Passion for Excellence with Tom Peters.