Customer disservice 

Please hold while corporate bullies rampage the New Economy

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"Post-merger, the core values and beliefs are still there, but they are not read. Nobody listens to them. You can bring up an argument and say, 'Here's a problem. We need to do this, and here's the core value and belief backing it up,' and they'd just ignore it. Nobody cares. It's all about profit now and the bottom line."

Today, Brewer, who left the company in August 2000, won't say MindSpring's core values are dead, but he will say they've lost their impact.

"I think the beliefs were pretty firmly in place as of merger time, but ..." His voice trails off. "We'd done some acquisitions, but it was always totally clear in the course of acquisitions what the philosophy was and how we were going to move forward. In the case of the merger with EarthLink, it really wasn't so clear. That was much more of a merger of equals kind of thing and so I think it's fair to say the culture didn't emerge the same as it had been back in MindSpring. So that was a different animal."

In 1999, Brewer was even more candid about the pressures a growing company faces. "I compare it to gravity," the AJC quoted him as saying. "The bigger we get it seems like there's a force trying to suck us back to being like any other company."

Today, LaPrairie no longer works for EarthLink. But he hasn't forgotten his old employer. He's the proud founder of earthlinksucks.net, whose tone is captured neatly in its home page introduction: "EarthLink: If we don't help our customers, maybe they'll stop calling."

Customer complaints abound: "Have I got an EarthLink hell story for you," goes one. "I have vowed never to give EarthLink my business again," goes another.

"I can't get them to credit my MasterCard my $598."

"EarthLink has become the same corporate evil as AOL."

EarthLink's vice president of customer service, Carter Calle, was hired in 1995 as MindSpring's 80th employee. The company now has close to 6,000 employees. He acknowledges that EarthLink has suffered some growing pains but says the company still follows its core values and beliefs.

Most of the complaints resulted from acquiring smaller Internet service providers that didn't maintain good records, he says.

But what about the other complaints, the ones sent in by longstanding EarthLink customers? Says Calle: "We take each and every issue very seriously and each and every issue on an individual basis. That's what we do and that's what we continue to do."

(Calle, true to the old company's core values and beliefs, even promised to work with irate customers toward a "speedy resolution" to their problems. E-mail him at cwcalle@corp.earthlink.net.)

Calle contends that some of the customers' rage comes from the fact that the Internet is now a vital part of daily life.

"I think it's more that the Internet went from being a luxury and an interesting toy to an absolute necessity," he says. "And when it made that shift, that's when it became the subject of ire to people if it wasn't there 24/7. It is expected to be like the dial tone, and people forget that it took over 80 years for the telecom industry to get to the point where they could consistently provide dial tone to your home phone every time you pick it up.

"We grew at a trajectory, not just in terms of size but in terms of importance and relevance to your daily existence, and all that happened in a span of seven to eight years. The reliability will one day be there. But there's still a lot moving pieces behind the scenes to make an Internet connection work. The technology changes so quickly. It is still a complicated beast."

When asked about the problems some customers have in getting charged after their accounts are canceled, Calle says, "I don't have an explanation for that. There's nothing systemically that I know of that is wrong. We cancel accounts on a daily basis. There must be something unique in those circumstances."

At the Better Business Bureau, most of the complaints against EarthLink are similar to Sandra Burke's problem. She was paying EarthLink $6.95 for about five hours of dial-up Web surfing a month. In February, she wanted a faster connection and signed up for high-speed cable with another company.

Burke thought it would be easy to cancel her Internet account with EarthLink.

She was told by at least three different customer service reps at EarthLink that her account was indeed closed. But her credit card statement for the next month showed another $6.95 deduction.

Burke finally was able to cancel her account, but two months of EarthLink deductions kept appearing on her credit card statement. Enduring another infuriating trip into the customer service labyrinth, she called back with her confirmation numbers and was told, again, that her account would be credited.

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