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AOL laying off 1,300, downsizing call centers

AOL is laying off about 1,300 employees, or 7 percent of its worldwide work force, and is closing its call center in Jacksonville, Fla.
/ Source: The Associated Press

AOL is laying off about 1,300 employees, or 7 percent of its worldwide work force, and is closing its call center in Jacksonville, Fla.

Other cuts will come from call centers in Ogden, Utah, and Tucson, Ariz. The layoffs announced Tuesday represent the first major cuts since the Time Warner Inc. Internet unit cut about 700 positions last fall.

"There is never an easy time to do this," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said of the Jacksonville closing, which will cut 780 jobs Tuesday. "... But the steps we take today will help ensure that AOL meets the needs of our members, meets our strategic corporate goals, and sustains the growth of our business."

Few employees outside the center in Jacksonville were willing to talk, but Tracy Carpe seemed resigned to losing the job she got in February.

"I just want to get my check and go," Carpe said as she walked into work.

Although AOL's subscription base has been declining, Graham attributed the layoffs to more savvy customers and better tools for them to help themselves.

"The Internet world of 2006 is very different from the world of 1996 when AOL first established these member centers," Graham said. "Today, AOL members are more savvy and sophisticated online. They are very different members today than they were in 1996."

In its early days, AOL had a reputation for attracting beginners, leading some longtime users to deride the service as the "Internet on training wheels."

But AOL dropped some of its hand-holding over the years and began offering its subscribers computer-diagnosis, anti-spyware and other free software, "allowing them to troubleshoot on their own," Graham said.

In addition, he said, AOL has been expanding its online help areas, such that 8 million customers a month now look up information themselves online, compared with 5.5 million who interact with a human by phone, e-mail or online chat.

"They are able to accomplish with a couple of clicks what it used to take them a phone call or two or three to accomplish," Graham said.

As a result, Graham said, call volume has dropped by about 50 percent since 2004.

"That's a remarkable success in terms of customer care," he said. "It requires us to rebalance our work force."

By contrast, U.S. subscribers dropped by about 22 percent in the past two years. AOL had 18.6 million subscribers as of March 31, down from a peak of 26.7 million in September 2002, as more Internet users drop dial-up connections in favor of broadband.

Graham said the company valued its time in Jacksonville and provided "significant investments to the local economy, tax base, and real estate market. As AOL grew, Jacksonville also grew into a world-class city."

It is laying off 300 in Tucson and 125 in Ogden, with nominal reductions in other locations such as Albuquerque, N.M., and Dulles, Va. More than 500 will remain employed in Tucson and 400 in Ogden. The Ogden reductions take effect Tuesday, and Tucson's are effective June 30.