How Putting the Newspaper Customer First Can Turn Your Business Around

Illustration by Tony O. Champagne
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe was plagued with an array of home delivery problems after switching to a new vendor. Thousands of subscribers didn’t receive their papers, and Globe reporters even had to go out and help deliver Sunday papers.

“We apologize for our inconsistent delivery,” Peter Doucette, the Globe’s vice president of consumer sales and marketing, said at the time. “Our expectation is that every subscriber gets their paper on time every day and we’re not going to rest until we get it fixed.”

Although the delivery issues did get resolved, valuable customer service lessons were learned, but how much damage had already been done to their subscriber base?

As newspapers shift their focuses on finding new sources of revenue while operating with fewer resources, perhaps they have lost sight of what should be their number one priority: their customers. Newspaper customers are running around in circles trying to get someone to return a simple phone call or email, or they’re being transferred to call centers three states away. That frustration and poor communication can lead to customer service woes, and as a result, readers are cancelling their subscriptions.

Whether it’s not getting their newspaper on time, not being able to reach the appropriate person for a certain question, poor website user experience, or not being able to renew a subscription, these issues should still need to be addressed. It’s going to take a new set of skills and goals, but newspapers can make customer service a priority again.

The Art of Customer Service

Kevin Slimp, director of The Institute of Newspaper Technology and consultant
Kevin Slimp, director of The Institute of Newspaper Technology and consultant

Kevin Slimp, director of The Institute of Newspaper Technology who consults with hundreds of papers a year, notes, “When it comes to newspapers, we are no different than any other business. Customer service should be number one on our radar. When I’ve worked with companies like Delta Airlines, AT&T, I constantly remind them that it is much easier to retain customers than to gain new customers.”According to B2B International, new customers can be up to 20 times more expensive to land than keeping existing customers.

Slimp said making customer service a priority can turn any business around. “Delta Airlines went from one of the lowest rated airlines in customer service just a few years ago to the highest rated after making customer service the number one priority of the company. It’s the best way to keep customers.”

Joy Mayer, a consultant and Poynter Institute teacher who focuses on audience engagement, puts it very succinctly. “When it’s done well, customer service is about respect for and reliance on keeping customers happy. A respect for the need to keep customers happy and the realization that if they’re not happy, you don’t have a job.”

But what about customer service in the digital age?

Keith Schwartz is president and CMO of Minnesota-based Skybridge Americas, which provides customer service to newspaper clients including Sun Times Media in Chicago, the Miami Herald, and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. He explains that working with an older clientele that’s not used to managing their account online can be difficult. On the opposite end of the customer service spectrum are those people who want as little human interaction as possible. “Clientele that is extremely tech-savvy generally do not like to talk to customer service individuals,” he said.

But getting on the phone or emailing is often their only choice since, as Schwartz points out, many newspapers do not offer chat or texting customer service options to their subscribers. He sees the demand for those options only growing, as well as the need for seamless integration across different communication channels. Whether a client emails, calls or sends a text—or does all three— the experience needs to be positive and the response time quick.

One thing everyone also hates is navigating an automated phone system to in order reach a real person.

“What does your message sound like? What are the prompts? Are they friendly or is it very robotic?” said Elnian Gilbert, lead service trainer at ZingTrain, a spin-off of the highly successful Zingerman’s restaurant, that has long been noted for its exceptional customer service.

Gilbert continued,  “If you call your own phone system and listen to it—I’ve seen people do this—the CEO of an organization starts listening to it and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, is that what this sounds like?’ They’re embarrassed. All these different touch points should be viewed through your customer’s eyes.”

And don’t forget to clearly guide the user through your message system: While working on this story, I called the customer service number of an Indiana newspaper and wound up talking to someone in Michigan who thought I was calling about a completely different paper. I was transferred to a voicemail box, left a message and never heard back.

Among the other trends Schwartz sees: A stronger push for self service and the growing popularity of the call-back feature, where you don’t have to wait on hold. Your local cable provider probably does this, but if your newspaper does not, there’s an app for that: offers the call-back service for papers including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Slimp, who’s well-known for his industry surveys, suggests newspapers host focus groups, made up of readers and non-readers, at least twice a year. “I do this for clients and the value can’t be overstated. We learn what readers and non-readers like and don’t like.”

Mayer also recommends frequently surveying your readership: “I’m a big fan of surveys and Google surveys are free and easy to ask people what they want. You offer a $25 pizza gift card and it’s amazing how much information people will give you about what they like.”

Social Media Should be a Two-Way Street

Joy Mayer, consultant and Poynter Institute teacher
Joy Mayer, consultant and Poynter Institute teacher

“We use social media as a distribution platform instead of a place to host and invite conversation,” said Mayer. “We have no business being on a two-way platform and not listening to what’s coming back.”

She added that a golden opportunity to connect with customers is going overlooked when newspapers simply hit “share” on Facebook and never engage with readers.

“It’s 2016 and I can’t believe how often I see comment threads or Facebook threads where people are asking journalists questions and nobody’s answering,” she said. “People are talking to you and we are doing the equivalent of turning around and walking away. If somebody tweeted at us in the middle of the night that their name was spelled wrong in the middle of a story and 12 hours later, no one’s fixed it, that’s irresponsible and it’s really poor customer service.”

Mayer shared the example of the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, who recently posted a call to action on their Facebook page for circulation complaints. She praised the idea for not only directly engaging readers, but for the cross-departmental involvement where news editors passed the complaints off to circulation.

Ann Elise Taylor, the paper’s news editor, said it wasn’t uncommon for the paper to solicit feedback on Facebook. “Two weeks ago, we asked, ‘Do you have a story for us? Is there a way we could be serving the community better? Let us know, here are the ways to contact us.’ We try and do something like that maybe once every two weeks.”

She said that not only is the feedback extremely informative, it helps serve as an FAQ for other customers. “If you have three or four people who comment with a complaint or a way we might do our jobs better, it gives us a chance to respond. It has the added benefit that if other people who might have that same complaint, it can act as a response to them as well. I think the community really appreciates it. We also try to share a phone number and an email address and a couple of other ways they can get in touch with us.”

Training Your Staff to Track the Problems

The Standard-Examiner recently underwent companywide customer service training by bringing in ZingTrain.

“It ended up being very valuable,” said Taylor. “It gave us a way to focus on different problems we were experiencing and put us all in a room together so we could find solutions. For example, anyone in the building can give a free two-week subscription to someone. Often you’re taking a complaint from a customer and it’s incredibly beneficial to go that extra mile and put something out there that’s an act of goodwill.”

Taylor also said accountability is uppermost at the Standard-Examiner. The newspaper encourages the person who initially gets a complaint to remain the point person until the issue is resolved.

“There are few things more obnoxious than calling a business and being transferred 10 times before your complaint can be taken by the correct person,” she said. “So whoever the original complaint is made to, that person needs to do everything they can to try and carry that process through to completion. By having a single person own that until the end of it, it gives the customer a point of contact and there’s a relationship there and you avoid that obnoxious process of being transferred constantly and put on hold.”

The Standard-Examiner has adopted ZingTrain’s five-step approach to handling complaints, which is, according to Gilbert: “Acknowledge the complaint and apologize, take action to make things right, thank the customer for complaining, and then document the complaint.”

Tracking complaints was one of the key takeaways from the training, Taylor said. “We worked out a system for documenting complaints or praise. We have Google forms that are shared with everyone in the company. That’s been really valuable because it can give us a way to track where problem areas might be. For example, if we’re seeing a lot of people saying, ‘My newspaper didn’t end up on my porch, it was in the gutter,’ that gives us a way to identify, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here, we need to do something about it.’ And that’s something that came out of that customer service training. Prior to that, I think everyone could anecdotally identify trends and where we could be doing a better job, but that gave us an actual way to document that.”

ZingTrain offers its popular “Code Red” form (used to document customer complaints and/or requests) free on as a way for businesses to start their own tracking process.

Personalizing the Experience

Elnian Gilbert, ZingTrain’s lead service trainer
Elnian Gilbert, ZingTrain’s lead service trainer

Gilbert challenges businesses to think of different ways to “go the extra mile” with customers. “That’s where we have to get creative and think, ‘What are the things we can do?’ she says. “Maybe if we find out a subscriber is going on vacation, so they put their delivery on hold, a nice extra mile would be to send them a postcard that’s there when they get home. ‘Welcome back, we’re ready to restart delivery when you are. We hope you had a great trip.’ It doesn’t cost any money, really.”

Consultants also suggest revisiting those generic email forms: Does it say “valued reader” when it could be personalized? Are all emails “do not reply” or do they give the consumer contact options if they have a problem?

Nick Woodcraft, a London-based solutions analyst, posted to Quora, “This always feels like a failure in customer service. ‘do not reply’ just says ‘we don’t care’ Where the company doesn’t have the resources to reply to and manage mail like this, a simple auto-reply containing appropriate support information and FAQs will do a lot to improve people’s impression. Nothing beats a fast personal response, but demonstrating you’ve given the problem some thought means a lot.”

One option that might not be immediately obvious is that different pricing tiers might be the secret to keeping customers. Slimp shared a story about how a colleague’s elderly mother was told she could only subscribe to her local paper in six- or 12-month intervals, meaning she would need to pay more than $100 each time her subscription fee was due. “Her mother, like many, couldn’t afford to cough up $100 plus when the bill came in, so she canceled her subscription.” Paying in smaller installments might have been the difference for this particular client.

Whose Job Should Customer Service Be?

While many companies have a dedicated customer service department, Gilbert said ZingTrain believes “every single person—even those who never see a paying customer—is expected to give great service to every other person that they interact with.”

Skybridge’s Schwartz added: “We define customer service as much more than an isolated department or a set of rules to follow. Customer service should be an extension of a company’s mission and philosophies. Every interaction with a customer—whether through a phone call, an email or on a FAQ page on a website—is an opportunity to have the outcome be positive to the customer.”

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One thought on “How Putting the Newspaper Customer First Can Turn Your Business Around

  • September 3, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Wow, such ground – breaking insights. Puh-leeze.


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