Operations

Putting Pre-Pandemic Quality Back into Customer Service

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Throughout the pandemic, many of our main offices and print facilities that were normally open to the public shut down. Signs appeared on front doors telling walk-in customers we were temporally closed to the general public and customers were either directed to call or conduct business online. During these trying times, many of our employees fielded phone calls from home, and we did our best to conduct business as seamless as possible.

Post-pandemic, we are seeing new challenges. Most of them, we’ve never encountered before and many we didn’t consider and are now ill prepared for. While working from home brought challenges and uncertainty to some, returning to work now seems to bring its own set of challenges.

For printers and newspapers, customer service comes in many forms and involves several areas of our operation: newsrooms, circulation, accounting, and commercial printing just to name a few.

Communication is the core of our business and one area for which the pandemic presented major issues was our newsrooms. For many of us, it meant no more face-to-face interviews, community meeting coverage, investigative reporting conducted primarily through a phone line…the list goes on. With reporters covering their beat remotely, it took the faces familiar to many of our community leaders out of sight. Photographers and news gathering staff that normally were an active part of the community now were reduced to a voice on the phone. Yet, our newsrooms found a way to do their jobs and maintain a quality of journalism we could be proud of.

As we move out of a time and a virus that threw us all a curve, we now are slowly opening newsrooms to the public, getting back to covering community meetings, taking photos of sporting events, and conducting in-person interviews.

Many of our properties are once again opening their doors to the public. As we rebuild staffing levels in our front offices and accounting areas, it’s more important than ever that we’re ready to provide the necessary degree of customer service. It’s my opinion that customers still want a personal connection with their local newspapers, some now more than ever.

The Personal Touch

The same online world that provides convenience to some can present a challenge to others. Some of our senior and economically challenged customers may not have access to online services or may not be comfortable using them. Throughout the pandemic, I have personally met at the door many mask-wearing “fearful customers” with handwritten classified ads, confused on how to place their ad in the paper. Electronics and websites were not one of their strong points.

The time is finally here to shore up reception areas, front offices, classified staffing, and return to providing customer service to our walk-in customers like they expected pre-pandemic.

In our circulation departments, we didn’t see much change in carrier function. From the safety of their vehicles, our loyal carriers social distanced themselves and continued to deliver the news. Any changes in how we conduct customer service tended to be office personnel working remotely instead of in our offices. Many of the same issues that resulted in other areas with walk-in customers found their way into our circulation departments as well. As much as online services have become the norm in our society, there are still many customers who prefer the personal touch.

To make things worse, some properties who previously provided local circulation personnel now have made a business decision to move to group call centers and funnel local delivery complaints to out of area providers. As a business decision, this makes perfect sense, but as a local newspaper provider, it can seriously alienate readers.

I’m sure these out of state call centers do the best they can to provide the guise of a local response, but subscribers I’ve heard from don’t necessarily like the fact that they’re dealing with someone miles away (which they figure out pretty quick) that isn’t familiar with their town and the location of their property. Often, I hear from customers who want their local paper to stay local, and it’s important to them to be serviced by individuals who know their area, their challenges, and can relate to their delivery issues.

Equipment Knowledge

As far as things go in our production departments, throughout the pandemic we continued to provide quality and customer service as usual—with one exception.

As the pandemic hit—despite our best efforts to protect our employees from harm—fear and worry still grew in the ranks. Some long-term employees decided to call it quits and enjoy retirement and others simply didn’t feel comfortable enough to stay in the workforce. I think newspapers lost a lot of loyal and qualified individuals as a result of the pandemic. With this came a significant loss of knowledge, skill, and expertise. I believe this loss had a negative effect on quality in some of our production operations.

I love seeing new people come into our business, eager to learn and start their career in printing. But printing has changed so much over the years that the lessons we teach today are totally different than just a few years ago.

Running a press isn’t easy; it can be a dirty job, require a lot of maintenance and isn’t for the faint of heart. With that said, for many of us, the need to scoop ink from fountains, fill water trays, hand mix color inks, and stop the press for a paster have now been replaced by push buttons and air-conditioned quiet rooms. For the printing process, this can be a good thing, but what it lacks can be a solid understanding of how the printing process works, which in the long run can affect reproduction quality.

I’m not trying to imply that individuals new to our business don’t want to better understand the printing process. I’m merely saying that based on automation, the same understanding of the printing process is no longer necessary and over time can hurt quality.

Education is essential in our shops and in some cases, automation has changed our focus. A cursory understanding of the printing process should be mandatory for every employee in every pressroom. I’ve been in pressrooms in which pushing the buttons is considered running the press; this is the wrong way to look at things. When is the last time you had a printing issue and researched it by discussing screening, dot quality, ink/water balance, ink blends, etc.? 

For those of you who came up through the ranks and worked with these processes, it’s like breathing, yet the “deer in the headlight” look is pretty common in many pressrooms today when discussing specifics of the printing process.

Let’s continue to provide quality printing for our customers and grow our employees at the same time by educating operators in printing. Don’t shortchange operators by letting them learn to operate a press without understanding the concept of ink on paper.

Outside Revenue

This brings me around to what I regard as one of the most important areas of our business: commercial/outside printing. I have written about this area on many occasions and will continue to do so based on the importance and contribution it makes to our organizations.

For many years, we’ve seen declines in ad revenues and our print subscriber base. This loss of revenue has driven many newspapers into insolvency and others into unrealistic and painful staff reductions. Somehow, we had to replace revenue, and commercial revenue has been the salvation of many properties.

To grow our commercial revenue stream and keep it flowing, we need to provide superior customer service and high quality to clients. I’d like to go through a few ways to provide ongoing support to customers and ensure quality printing, while at the same time running a business that affords a reasonable contribution to the bottom line.

It all starts with an accurate quote. Of course, you want the business, and the opportunity to bring in new revenue and provide additional stability to the organization.

You need to remember there’s only one shot at getting this right. There is nothing worse than “negotiating” with a customer on price. Do your homework and present a solid bid that you can be confident of in the first place. Quote it right the first time and stick to it. Don’t play games with pricing. Treat the customer the way you’d like to be treated from the very first step.

Don’t bid high betting the customer has nowhere else to go. For one thing, it’s unethical and just as soon as they can jump ship they will. Building loyalty and a stable customer base will solidify your business a lot faster than trying to make a quick buck.

On the other hand, you owe it to yourself and the company to make a reasonable profit. Make sure to take everything into account in your quote. Don’t purposely bid low to get business; it will bite you in the long run, I guarantee it.

Be clear in your description of the work. If the customer wants double strapped bundles, don’t bid things like that won’t take extra time. Charge for it, but charge fairly. If a customer changes the rules mid-stream, make sure you’ve written the agreement/arrangement to adjust for these changes.

I once had a customer who provided bundle tops for their paper. When the bid was placed, the work called for “bundle tops to be placed on carrier papers.” For the first few months, we had a total of nine bundle tops and the rest of the papers bulk. After a short period of time, the customer changed to a new route software and shifted from nine specific bundle tops to more than a hundred, adding quite a bit of time and labor to our operation.  Unfortunately, the generic language in the agreement fell within the original request of placing bundle tops on papers and while we added additional expense, we were not able to increase costs to offset that expense. Not only is it important to include all your expenses in the initial bid, but it’s equally important to be clear on what work is and is not included.

Make sure you’ve put enough time in your bid to provide quality and customer service to keep the account. Most times customers may be willing to pay a bit more if they’re treated right and feel like you understand and respect their needs. Like you, they may find that the cheapest price may not always provide the best service and the finest quality, and when other printers come calling, they will remember that.

A Two-Way Street

A few points I’d like to make that may not fall into the customer service area, but more so into the preservation of revenue and understanding, is that the customer also has a commitment to you as the supplier.

Late pay (or no pay) customers—unless you went into the commercial printing business to provide free banking services and no interest loans—you’ll need to keep on top of the receivable side of accounts. At one time or another, we’ve all fallen into the trap. First, the customer gets behind a few weeks, but on good faith, you continue to print them. Then, it turns into a few months, and before you know it, they’ve dug themselves a deep hole they’ll never dig out of.

Why does this happen? Most often it’s because you trust your customer, and you just know they’ll pay, so you stretch them out just a little more and then a bit more and before you know it, you’re right in that hole with them. Other times, you may have a commercial rep who is more interested in their commission than if the company gets paid.

Establish strong relationships with your accounting department, your commercial sales branch, and in particular, your customer. Know when enough is enough and address it, Most customers will understand that you too are trying to run a business.

However, you want to work things out, do something. Set up a payment plan where the customer pays a certain amount extra with each printing or takes out a loan (from the real bank, not you). Above all else, when a non-paying customer starts to get out there, nip it in the bud. We tend to be reluctant for some reason to stop printing customers for non-payment. We always believe they’ll change and catch up. Sometimes they may surprise you, but most of the time what the biggest surprise can be is when they move to another printer and leave you holding the bag. And the bag will not be full of money.

Customer service is a two-way street. Treat them well, play fair and more often than not, you’ll come out on top. 

Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at simpkins@tds.net.

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