One of the most underestimated aspects of business today is good old-fashioned customer service. Newspapers that create and execute a customer service business strategy recognize that delivering high-quality service is a powerful tool in a rapidly evolving industry and tough economy. How does practicing good customer service benefit newspapers? By creating opportunities to improve subscription sales, renewals, product distribution and delivery, advertising sales, back issue requests, and general queries.


First impressions matter
Newspapers compete for readers in many different ways. When readers choose a news source, time and convenience is a major deciding factor. And with digital options at their fingertips, many have come to expect instant gratification. “We need to get it right the first time as customers may not give us the chance for a second try,” said Carroll Duckworth, circulation director of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press. “If, perhaps, they give us the opportunity for a second chance, it needs to be executed seamlessly, because a botched recovery screams incompetence.”

Customer satisfaction is essential for maintaining any company’s customer base. Technology has made it easy to obtain news and information through the Internet, but what sets a newspaper apart from an online news source is solid, attentive customer service. “An online news source will not call you to see if you are happy with the product they are putting out. A newspaper should,” said Evelyn Bruns with Crossfire Newspaper Group, a newspaper marketing company.

“A large amount of customer contact occurs in unstructured and informal situations, and every one of these occurrences represents an opportunity to win or lose a customer,” said Tim Weddle, advertising director of the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press. He said to think of the victories newspapers are capable of winning if every individual in the company is trained and buys into the customer service philosophy of the newspaper; then, imagine the losses suffered when there is no such strategy.


Use technology to your advantage

When it comes to turning readers into repeat subscribers, newspapers must continue to be innovative as they address the needs of an ever-changing readership, said Bill Green, circulation director of The Winchester (Va.) Star. “We developed a very successful paid website model along with a very nice e-edition package. This accounts for around 7 percent of our circulation,” he said.

Outstanding customer service means making yourself accessible in as many places as possible. Embracing technology in all its forms allows newspapers to meet the needs of tech-savvy readers. Newspaper Next LLC has developed ScanScribe — a tool that utilizes a QR code on the front page of the newspaper, giving readers the ability to sign up for a subscription on their smartphones.

Recognizing that telemarketing has its limits, Crossfire developed a software program — Circulation Marketing Analytic Software, or CMAS — that helps newspapers manage their databases and reach out to potential subscribers. The software tags any federal, state, and inhouse Do Not Call (DNC) numbers, finding email addresses and/or mailing addresses to use in place of the restricted phone numbers. “This opens up a wider range of potential customers a newspaper cannot reach through telemarketing,” Bruns said.


Balancing act
Newspapers must constantly be thinking of how to better serve readers and advertisers. “We need to provide products and services that are pleasing to both groups, while looking at these situations as challenges and opportunities, not problems,” Duckworth said.

By providing products and services that readers want, newspapers can increase the opportunity for their advertisers to succeed. “Many newspapers have cut off fringe circulation to save distribution costs but at the same time decreased advertising revenue,” Duckworth said. “In some situations it makes sense, but in others it’s suicide.”

Green pointed out that the core of the newspaper business is in meeting the needs of both readers and advertisers. “I have a very good working relationship with the ad manager. We work closely together to convey an attitude that we are there to be of service,” he said. Communication across all departments is a vital survival tool as newspapers strive to outsmart competition from all sides.

Bruns described the process in terms of the bottom line. Readers want attention-grabbing news content, along with advertisements that will save them money. If readers are satisfied with the content and are receiving adequate delivery and customer service from the newspaper, then a consistent stream of new and continuing subscribers should follow. “This consistency shows advertisers that their investment with the newspaper isn’t wasted.”


Outside examples
“We need to learn from the service we personally experience, whether it’s with the cashier at the grocery store or the person at the drive-thru,” Duckworth said, adding that sometimes it’s not necessarily what is said, but how it’s said. Sincerity, expressions of thanks, and apologies go a long way in maintaining customers.

Some of the strongest examples of loyal customers and quality care come from outside our industry. A J.D. Power and Associates cross-industry report released earlier this year titled “Achieving Excellence in Customer Service” identified 40 brands as J.D. Power 2011 Customer Service Champions. They were selected through customer feedback, and some standout companies from the list include Cadillac, T-Mobile, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos.com.

“To be good in any industry, it makes sense to look at the best practices across industries,” said Gary Tucker, senior vice president of global services and emerging industries at J.D. Power and Associates, in a release. “Every day, consumers interact with companies from a myriad of industries. Invariably, they compare the quality of these service experiences. Industries and companies should be doing the same if they expect to keep pace in today’s increasingly competitive environment.”

“I think a great example of customer service can be observed in the airline industry,” Weddle said. “Southwest Airlines is a great example of a company that offers the same product as the other companies and faces the same market forces but goes to market with such a different outlook and experiences such a drastically different result.”

Southwest Airlines consistently ranks as one of the top companies in customer satisfaction surveys and is routinely named among the top five “Most Admired Corporations in America” and “Best American Companies to Work For” in Fortune magazine. Founded in 1971 by Herb Kelleher, the company’s success was in daring to be different. The airline offers low fares by eliminating unnecessary services and has built traffic in secondary airports to avoid crowds.

Although Kelleher stepped down as chairman and CEO in 2008, his legacy remains in the company he built. In an article for the Peter F. Drucker Foundation, Kelleher described the company’s strategy: “We market ourselves based on the personality and spirit of ourselves. That sounds like an easy claim but, in fact, it is a supremely dangerous position to stake out because if you’re wrong, customers will let you know — with a vengeance. Customers are like a force of nature: You can’t fool them, and you ignore them at your own peril.”

Another customer service champ is Zappos.com. The motto of Zappos is “powered by service,” and it’s a motto the company doesn’t take lightly. On its website, the company includes its 10 family core values, customer testimonials, blogs, and customer videos to showcase the Zappos.com “experience.” Part of this experience is achieved by recruiting employees who live and breathe the Zappos customer service philosophy.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Bill Taylor, author of “Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself,” wrote that Zappos pays new employees to quit. You read that right. Employees are put through a rigorous four-week training period, but after the first week Zappos presents “The Offer” — a $1,000 check, just to quit. Some take the money and run; the rest finish their training with a renewed commitment to carrying out the company’s values.

Hiring and retaining dedicated people has big implications. “Companies don’t engage emotionally with their customers — people do. If you want to create a memorable company, you have to fill your company with memorable people,” Taylor wrote.


Help is available
Putting a renewed focus on customer service may seem daunting if you’re short on employees, resources, time, or all of the above. That’s why Crossfire and similar companies are here to help turn satisfied customers into repeat customers.

“Retention calls and customer service calls show the customer that a newspaper is truly interested in their satisfaction,” Bruns said. However, the amount of contact being made is very important. “Too few calls, emails, or direct mailing may make you irrelevant, and too much communication can make readers feel inundated,” Bruns said.

Direct response mailers and bind-in order form envelopes are another strategy to reel in higher circulation numbers. B&W Press focuses on increasing customer response rates while simultaneously lowering mailing costs. B&W creates custom printed forms featuring everything from new product development to high-volume production management.

“Our formats have a built-in business reply return envelope, plus the flyer portion subscription offer. This all-inone combination has the potential for up to a 5 percent return from readers of the paper,” said Paul Beegan, owner and president of B&W Press.


The big picture
Weddle recalled an interesting experience involving a popular story and potential advertisers. The newspaper published a “Restaurant Inspection Report” in print and online and, in the process, upset many of the locally owned restaurants in town that were flagged for offenses such as having mold in the ice dispenser. Although the report fulfilled the newspaper’s mission of reporting important news to the community, Weddle said it has been challenging to retain those restaurants as regular advertisers.

“The fact is, the newspaper and its Web product is absolutely the place these businesses need to be, and although most of our advertisers understand that, we have to help them get over their adverse emotional reaction and look at the positive reader results,” he said.

Without compelling editorial content, there won’t be an audience to view those ads — whether in print or online. “It’s crucial that all newspaper departments — including editorial, advertising, circulation, production, and accounting — buy into and contribute to the idea that a newspaper has a critical community mission: to report the complete news,” Weddle said.    



4 Tips From Tim Weddle, advertising director of the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press

1. Establish that every individual in the company is responsible for customer service. This includes advertising reps who encounter unhappy readers; editorial writers who encounter customers who are unhappy with delivery service; circulation employees who talk to a classified customer upset about billing, etc.

2. Define and teach the principles of strong customer service, and empower company representatives to confront customer issues at their level, regardless of their position or department.

3. Beware of deploying processes (voice mail, online widgets, e-tearsheets, estatements, etc.) that serve to distance the newspaper from its customers or are only for the paper’s convenience. We have to establish how these processes will enhance the customer experience in terms of better service, flexibility, or convenience.

4. Keep promises to the customer at all levels of the organization.    


Customer Service Dos and Don'ts
Tips from the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press, The Winchester (Va.) Star, and Crossfire Newspaper Group.

Do...
- Respond to inquiries in a timely manner
- Follow up with readers to make sure they are enjoying subscriber benefits to the fullest
- Be accessible through multiple channels of communication
- Resolve issues quickly and efficiently
- Make customers feel important
- Maintain a positive attitude when talking to readers and advertisers
- Convey the benefits of subscribing
- Foster employee loyalty to the newspaper

Don't ...
- Frustrate customers by using outdated or inefficient call software — make it easy for them to talk to a real person
- Create a language barrier by outsourcing customer service to a foreign country
- Make it difficult for a customer to resolve an issue
- Waste valuable time
- Forget to be patient    


"Creating Customer Evangelists: How loyal customers become a volunteer sales force"
Authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba outline the six basic tenets of how to create customer “evangelists” who spread the word about your company:

Customer plus-delta: Continuously gather customer feedback
Napsterize knowledge: Make it a point to share knowledge freely
Build the buzz: Expertly build word-of-mouth networks
Create community: Encourage communities of customers to meet and share
Make bite-size chunks: Devise specialized, smaller offerings to get customers to bite
Create a cause: Focus on making the world, or your industry, better

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