How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences
- Customer service needs to be a bigger focus for news outlets, especially now that they are more reliant on consumer revenue.
- Start with integrating customer databases across media types and departments, to create a holistic view of customers and provide seamless service.
- Customer service representatives should be prepared to answer questions about their news outlet’s journalism, which present a critical trust-building opportunity.
- Hands-on customer service may be key to driving consumer revenue growth, especially for smaller news outlets.
With advertising becoming a less reliable source of revenue for the embattled journalism industry, more news outlets are turning toward sources of consumer revenue to shore up their coffers. This rise of subscription and membership models has dovetailed with the rise of audience engagement in recent years, as newsrooms seek to build stronger relationships with their audiences. But scant attention has been paid to revitalizing approaches to customer service, which poses a problem because support teams are often the first or only point of contact for many customers.
Bad service, in other words, means a bad first impression and ultimately a bad reputation.
Scant attention has been paid to revitalizing approaches to customer service at news outlets, which poses a problem because support teams are often the first or only point of contact for many customers.
That’s why the American Press Institute decided to take a deep dive into how customer service functions should evolve as news outlets place greater emphasis on consumer revenue and audience engagement. It’s critical that these organizations strive to make their interactions with customers as satisfactory as possible, especially since there is a direct link between the quality of customer service and subscriber retention and acquisition.
We also see customer service as an opportunity to rebuild trust with audiences during a time when public trust in American media institutions is at an all-time low. Besides helping resolve routine issues for customers, such as subscribing and cancelling, customer support representatives may also hear complaints about the journalism or tips that may inform reporting. That’s why they need to be prepared to handle feedback in a way that builds — rather than reduces — trust in the organization.
In fact, during this time of great polarization, strong service can help retain customers across the political spectrum. As Joellen Easton, director of audience at Bangor Daily News, told us, “If someone skeptical of the newsroom has issues with the product they have purchased … we can still build trust with them through excellent customer service.”
For this report, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, media consultant Anita Li interviewed around a dozen newsroom leaders at a diverse array of U.S.-based news outlets about their successes and barriers when it comes to improving customer service:
- Chapter 2 explains why it’s essential to break down silos and integrate departments for better, more streamlined communication.
- Chapter 3 takes a close look at how to optimize online processes, like purchasing or canceling a subscription, by making them as frictionless as possible.
- Chapter 4 shows how to invest in hands-on approaches to service, and provides successful examples.
- Finally, Chapter 5 outlines how a leadership team should take strategic risks and test out creative customer service strategies.
News outlets can no longer afford to see customer service as an afterthought in this new era of journalism. People who reach out through these channels care enough to engage with their news provider, so poor experiences with that organization’s frontline reps can ultimately cause them to disengage. Don’t let that happen to your organization — it’s time to bring customer service for journalism firmly into the 21st century.
Breaking down silos and integrating departments for better communication
As news outlets increasingly rely on digital subscriptions as a primary revenue source, many are finding that barriers separating their print and digital functions — particularly on the business side — are hindering their ability to provide quality customer service.
Get your systems talking to each other
For Terrence Williams, president and chief operating officer at The Keene Sentinel in Keene, N.H., this realization dawned on him in 2019 when he and his team joined the Poynter Institute’s version of the Table Stakes program, which coaches local publications in developing techniques that help them reach long-term financial sustainability. That’s when they were suddenly confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the 222-year-old daily newspaper didn’t have the infrastructure to adequately deal with complaints from its digital customers.
Since it was their responsibility to manage these complaints, there was “good communication” between Sentinel employees who handled digital circulation. However, according to Williams, he and the newsroom staff weren’t involved in those conversations with customers. Since consumer revenue sources, such as digital subscriptions, are significantly impacted by how customers feel about an outlet’s journalism, it’s essential that the newsroom is kept abreast of any customer complaints.
Managing complaints about digital subscriptions wasn’t a priority until the Sentinel enlisted a cross-departmental group of employees to join Table Stakes, and started identifying barriers to entry for subscribers, he explained.
“We had the right people in that group to make sure that every step along the way had an advocate there,” Williams said. “We had the right people from circulation involved. We had news people involved. We had our tech folks and we had our digital staff. They’re all integrated, and they all saw right away that this was a real problem for us. So they bought in completely.”
The team’s top priority was to create a single database that could house the Sentinel’s advertising and circulation customers, both print and digital. Before joining Table Stakes, the paper had two systems, according to Williams: TownNews, which the paper bought in the late 2000s, and Vision Data, which it bought in the mid-2010s after creating a paywall and setting up digital subscriptions.
After buying Vision Data, the Sentinel had two different ways that customers could sign up for a subscription: They could subscribe through TownNews, the newsroom front-end system, or through Vision Data, the circulation front-end system. That divided Sentinel subscribers into two buckets: TownNews subscribers and Vision Data subscribers. As a result, the circulation department had to “manage fulfillment on both ends, which was nuts,” Williams explained. They were getting frequent calls from both types of subscribers, so they had to know how to troubleshoot for both systems.
“We came together and said, ‘What are our problems? What are the obstacles we’ve got to clear in order to make it easier to subscribe?’” he said. “That’s when all this stuff kind of hits you in the face, and you realize what these poor people were dealing with — not just our customers, but our own internal people trying to make customers happy.”
“I gotta tell you, it was a pain in the ass. I mean, it was really challenging to know two systems, to get analytics off two systems.”
Ultimately, the Sentinel team chose Vision Data as its single database because the system can handle both print and online circulation, which was particularly helpful because many print subscribers were also entitled to an online subscription. So, the Sentinel migrated the TownNews database into Vision Data.
After making that critical decision, Williams explained, it was easier for the Sentinel’s customer service representatives to address digital customer complaints. “Our circulation department has become pretty versatile at handling all manner of complaints, ranging from ‘I didn’t get my paper’ to ‘I can’t seem to sync my subscription to actually be able to look at your website online after I hit the paywall,’” he said. “They were pretty advanced to begin with, but they’ve become even more so now that we’re just working with one system.”
Many legacy newspapers struggle with integration challenges that are similar to what the Sentinel experienced, including Bangor Daily News, a paper serving central and eastern Maine. Director of audience Joellen Easton said it uses different systems to manage print and digital subscriptions, and that the staff who manage these two systems have different skill sets. Easton and her team are searching for a customer relationship management (CRM) system that can hold all of the Daily News’ customer data, and connect with both the paper’s print and digital subscription systems, as well as an email marketing system.
“We’ve been struggling with how to put in place a system like ZenDesk or similar to provide unified customer service across all products, so all reps can have a more complete picture of the customer relationship,” Easton told API.
VTDigger, a Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet founded in 2009, also experienced integration pains but eventually addressed them in 2017 with the hiring of Florencio Terra, its first-ever dedicated membership and development coordinator. Before Terra joined VTDigger, the publication had an associate publisher who managed membership off the side of her desk for a short while when the program was much smaller. But because this person was neither focused on people nor on the details of the membership program, they made mistakes, according to Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.
When Terra came on board, the publication was able to dedicate somebody to envisioning and running its membership program full-time. Part of his job involves sending acknowledgements and thank-you notes to members via online messages and direct mail. “We have somebody we can rely on to get it right,” Peters said.
Not only did membership receive little attention at the time, VTDigger’s systems weren’t talking to each other very well. Staff couldn’t tell, for example, if a member who had donated was also on VTDigger’s email list. Now, Peters explained, “Everything is a little bit better synced up so that you can get a better understanding, a holistic understanding, of who somebody is when they’re calling.”
Before this integration, VTDigger had a button on its website where readers could make a PayPal donation; this was connected to a system called Donor Tools, a donation-management software that had “bare-minimum” functionality, according to Peters, which meant it basically only recorded donations.
“If a donation got lost, if a donation was badly flagged, if it was a recurring donation, if it was supposed to be a one-time donation — there was not much we could do about it. We could delete that donation or re-run the credit card,” she said. “It was all really manual and really kind of onerous and probably not very secure.”
Now, VTDigger is connected to Salesforce, a popular CRM, and Mailchimp, a popular email marketing platform. It also has a third system that governs the website donation appeals on specific stories. Peters said all three systems talk to each other very well, which is a big reason why she decided to implement them.
“I feel like we’ve gone from a place where we’ve kind of had to shoehorn our processes and our business practices into someone else’s system to one where we can customize the experience to make the best of it for everyone,” she explained. “We can make decisions about what to put in front of people and when to put in front of people based on who those people are.”
Train audience engagement staff on customer service and vice versa
Andrew Losowsky, co-founder of open-source publishing platform The Coral Project (which is now part of Vox Media), has long been an advocate for integrating customer service into news outlets’ audience engagement departments because from an outside perspective, they’re one and the same.
“The reader sees [customer service] as talking to the newsroom, same as emailing a journalist,” he explained. “We need to treat customer service as teammates and part of the editorial mission.”
Improving collaboration between customer service and the newsroom would better equip reps to handle questions and complaints about journalism, which helps build trust between news outlets and news consumers, according to Trusting News founder Joy Mayer. Not only should reps be prepared to field questions like “Where’s my newspaper?” and “How do I cancel my subscription?” Mayer said, they should also be able to manage journalism-related queries, including accusations of bias, requests for corrections and more. Because customer service representatives are on the front lines of audience engagement, these kinds of interactions are critical trust-building opportunities.
Mayer suggested that every customer service rep should be prepared to handle the following common journalism-related questions or concerns:
Requests for corrections. Reps should know the newsroom’s official policy on corrections, and the process for addressing them. They should be able to explain this to the customer and point them to the official channel for reading the policy and requesting a correction. They should explain what the customer can expect after the request is submitted.
Complaints that stem from misassumptions or a lack of knowledge about journalistic practices. Customer service reps should be able to identify complaints rooted in misunderstandings and dispel basic ones like:
-The newsroom’s ownership and its influence on editorial content.
-The difference between news and opinion.
-Perceptions of the newsroom’s fairness or bias.
Much of this information should be found in a news organization’s ethics policy; customer service reps should be familiar with this and, if there is a public-facing version (there should be!) be able to point customers there. But most importantly they should be coached to listen to the customer with empathy, identify whether their complaint is based on a misconception about journalism, and try to correct it. If it seems like the customer would appreciate an answer from or conversation with a journalist, the reps should make the appropriate connection.
Questions about how the newsroom operates. This includes:
-How journalists decide what to cover. Customers often have questions about which high school sports team gets featured each week or who gets highlighted as a featured new business.
-Journalistic processes like using anonymous sources, how reporters strive for fairness and accuracy, how stories are fact-checked, how breaking news is covered and how mistakes are corrected.
-The use of outside content such as wire stories and partner content.
Questions about how to participate in the reporting process.
-This includes things like submitting a letter to the editor, suggesting a story tip, requesting a photo reprint, etc.
The Keene Sentinel understood the integral role that customer service plays in a news organization. So, it launched an initiative that enabled all employees — including editorial — to learn from the customer service team. According to Williams, this decision “was an acknowledgement on our part that we needed people working on this across the company on all aspects of customer service — not just subscription tickets.”
To make customer service a top priority for the entire Sentinel team, Williams decided to create a guide that includes best practices and tips from employees who are effective with customers, including circulation administrative assistant Kim Ethier, business and HR manager Linda Flagg, print shop manager Kathryn Norbutus and assistant advertising director Shelly Bergeron.
“We pulled these folks together and said, ‘Okay, so when you think about how you treat your customers and how you like to be treated, what is your mindset?’” Williams explained. “‘What are the things that we need to make sure that we build into this guide, and then offer training to the rest of the company?’”
“You learn from these people how they interact with customers and how they’re able to retain them.”
The group created a list of expectations for behaviors and responsiveness that it included in the guide for customer-facing staff. Much of the practical advice is common sense, Williams acknowledged, but the guide will be helpful for those who don’t necessarily know how to handle difficult people, such as fresh college grads who are new employees. His ultimate goals are for the guide to become the standard that employees measure themselves against, and that when people think about interacting with the Sentinel, they have a favorable perception.
Establish regular communication between departments
As newsroom leaders, it’s easier to break down company silos and streamline processes when you have the buy-in of your team. When employees understand that temporary disruptions to existing workflows will lead to better long-term outcomes, there will be less opposition. Executives at two major media companies, The Seattle Times and McClatchy, said editorial integration with customer service has long been a priority for these companies.
Like many longstanding newspapers, The Seattle Times had a barrier between its editorial and business departments, but never between its newsroom and the customer service department. “The circulation department and its audience focus and its customer focus — I don’t think ever lived in that realm [of silos], even in the glory days of print. So the relationship’s been good. It’s always been open,” said Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue.
Oftentimes, before making any product changes, the Times newsroom would consult the customer service department to get customer feedback and guidance on how to publicly communicate these changes to their readership. Before content was cut, added or moved, there had to be a conversation between editorial staff and circulation customer service reps.
For its part, McClatchy launched an internal slogan — #OneTeam — several years ago to encourage departmental interconnectedness. Sarah Patterson, director of production in McClatchy’s publishing center, said this approach is part of the company’s ethos, and that it’s never been unusual for McClatchy’s customer service department to work with other departments, including advertising and audience.
Patterson cited a recent example when McClatchy moved its comics and puzzles section to digital from print, which involved a collaboration between the IT department, the pagination team and customer service. In addition, the newsroom worked with customer service three weeks before the switchover to get a sense of what readers’ reactions to the change might be, so they could strategize a response to handle them.
“We had a lot of communication with customer service to talk about what they were seeing and what we were seeing … and what sort of adjustments we needed to make in the comics and puzzles offerings, you know those little tweaks,” Patterson explained, adding that some customers asked for the comics to be enlarged because they were too small to see. “[We were] trying to make readers happy where we could.”
Both newsroom staff and customer service reps engage with McClatchy readers. Whichever department a reader contacts first is the department that manages the query, though the newsroom tends to handle complaints about journalism and customer service tends to handle complaints about subscriptions, according to Patterson.
The #OneTeam structure is both informal and formal at McClatchy. Patterson was recently added to a formal committee that’s composed of people from departments across the company, including news, audience and transformation, but said McClatchy also encourages its employees to reach out to their fellow colleagues and collaborate informally.
Making the customer experience frictionless
After breaking down organizational silos and integrating different systems, news outlets should get more granular in assessing areas where they can improve the customer service experience for potential subscribers. One simple way outlets can achieve this is to make the online user experience as frictionless as possible.
That’s exactly what The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper serving Keene, N.H., did after building a single database that could house all of its advertising and circulation customers, both print and digital. Terrence Williams, the paper’s president and chief operating officer, said centralizing customer data made it easier for his team to focus on their main goal of creating “the simplest possible way to subscribe.”
Make it as easy as 1, 2, 3
The Sentinel’s streamlined checkout process for subscriptions has three steps. Customers must first register with a username and password, which requires them to confirm their registration via email. “Once that was secure, then it was an easy three steps to get a subscription, including the payment piece,” Williams explained. “That made a huge difference.”
He estimates that his team spent around five weeks working with a couple of vendors to revamp the process, which involved a lot of work updating the Sentinel’s tech stack and payment messaging to remove the more legacy, print-oriented language. Despite this effort, however, Williams said the paper’s circulation customer service department was “very responsive” and welcomed the changes because “they knew it was going to make their life easier.”
“We’re pretty happy with what we’ve got. I mean, we can still make improvements to it, but we’ve got a good, simple, basic way to subscribe now,” he added.
Williams said the Sentinel “immediately saw an uptick in subscriptions,” which he attributed partly to the frictionless checkout process, but also to the paper’s introduction of Easy Pay, an online payment system similar to PayPal, as well as heavy marketing and promotion of online subscriptions.
“We’re making it so hard on readers who just want to get a subscription.”
This new checkout process is a major departure from how it was before. After it became clear that the Sentinel needed to make it easier for customers to subscribe in order to drive circulation, Williams asked everyone on his team to sign up and test out the process.
“It was a horrible process,” he said. “I remember being extremely frustrated myself, personally, trying to subscribe. I managed to finally do it, but I don’t consider myself necessarily a Luddite when it comes to tech — but boy, this was a challenge.”
“We all went through and kind of reached the same conclusion — that we’re making it so hard on readers who just want to get a subscription.”
Grab low-hanging fruit
The Seattle Times took a similar approach to improving its checkout process, which like the Sentinel’s, originally had a lot of friction. Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue, said this goal was the daily newspaper’s top priority early on because it was “low-hanging fruit.”
Before revamping the process, customers had to fill in 24 form fields across six pages. “If somebody actually had had the guts to make it all the way through that, then hopefully we could actually fulfill the subscription,” he said.
Today, Huber describes the Times’ checkout experience as “the gold standard” because customers only have to fill in five or six fields, depending on their subscription preference. To achieve this, the paper removed delivery-address and phone-number fields for digital-only customers. It also added options for social logins, so customers don’t have to create usernames or passwords, and instead can log in using their Facebook, Google or other accounts.
The Times now has multiple payment methods, too, including Amazon Pay and PayPal. The team is working on getting Apple Pay, which enables customers to subscribe automatically by pressing their iPhone’s Touch ID sensor once they hit a paywall — a virtually frictionless experience. All of these changes involved frequent testing on different platforms and of attributes like payment messaging and button colors and positioning.
Beyond optimizing its checkout funnel, the Times is also optimizing retention processes to minimize involuntary churn. After becoming a subscriber, customers provide their credit card information or other payment information to enroll in automatic payments, which happen every four weeks for the Times.
“When you put your entire subscriber base at risk every four weeks because you can’t process a payment, then you have nothing — that’s far different than the print world,” Huber explained, adding that 62% of “stops” among digital subscribers happened because the Times just couldn’t process the payment. Sometimes, a card’s expiration date changed or a card was replaced, for example.
To address this issue, the paper improved its dunning process — that is, the process of communicating with customers to try to collect payments due — by sending pre-notifications and revising messaging, among other tactics.
Meet customers where they are
Finally, the Times optimized conversion by ensuring customers have easy access to its payment portal so they’re incentivized to subscribe. Many readers don’t arrive on the Times’ website via its homepage, but rather through a newsletter, a breaking-news alert, an in-app notification or something else, according to Huber.
That’s why the paper is focused on deeply engaging readers with Times journalism, and providing multiple pathways to subscribe via its various news products. “It’s this focus on content and finding out where they are, and surfacing content in front of them” because readers are more likely to pay for something they value, he explained.
Much like the Times and the Sentinel, Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet VTDigger applied similar best practices when reducing friction in its checkout process. For example, VTDigger has an address form field, but it’s optional and can be autofilled.
The publication also pays a lot of attention to website responsiveness, not just with the latest iPhone, but also older devices. If a customer is on an old device that VTDigger doesn’t support, its site shows a message saying, ‘“We’re really sorry if this is not the best experience for you. Please call Florencio [Terra, the membership and development coordinator]. He’ll help you,’” said Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.
On the other end of the spectrum, Peters added that the publication also strives to accommodate customers with the latest, fanciest devices. She recounted a time when a major donor asked her why VTDigger’s site didn’t look good on his expensive 56-inch monitor. “We want to make sure it works for the guy spending $50,000 on a monitor because he’s also probably writing a check to us. So, you know, being able to fill in the gaps and make sure that we’re supporting the people writing the big checks, as well as the people giving us five bucks, is I think kind of the scope of our interactive design,” Peters said.
“We really want to guide your journey,” she added. “We really, really take great pains to make sure that everyone is covered, at least to some degree.”
Making it easier for customers to unsubscribe can actually be a way to build trust with a publication’s brand.
Over the years, VTDigger has added small, frictionless ways for their customers to give feedback. On the business side, it uses the email marketing platform Mailchimp, which has automation tools that enable customers to provide feedback. Indeed, customers are able to leave comments at every point in VTDigger’s membership funnel — for example, when they subscribe and unsubscribe to the mailing list, as well as when they donate — so the publication knows how to improve. “That’s all just a few words that we’re gathering from people, but it really helps guide almost everything we do,” Peters explained.
And though it may seem counterintuitive, part of reducing friction for customers is making it easier for them to unsubscribe; this can actually be a way to build trust with a publication’s brand. But according to API research, just 41% of U.S. news publishers make it easy for subscribers to cancel their subscriptions online.
On the editorial side, VTDigger has a “tip drop” function and a “report an error” function on every story it publishes; when they’re clicked on, a form pops up asking customers for their name, email and relevant information. According to Peters, the editorial team follows up on all the tips they receive, and have written stories based on around 800 tips so far. The tips are input into spreadsheets, which journalists analyze for trends to determine what Vermonters are interested in. The “report an error” function has resulted in both minor typo fixes and major reporting corrections. VTDigger simplified these tools iteratively over the past few years to make them easier to use.
Investing in ‘high-touch’ customer service
Automated phone systems, online self-service portals and other low-touch tactics have become the standard when it comes to customer service across industries. Companies these days seldom deploy real human beings to interact with customers when answering their questions or processing their transactions.
But for the embattled journalism industry, high-touch service may be one of the keys to driving sustainable consumer revenue growth, especially for community-driven news outlets.
Magic of the personal touch
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has been serving the state of Arkansas for 143 years, but since the newspaper of record hit a high of 300,000 subscribers in 1996, circulation has dropped every year after that — a decline that’s accelerated over the past decade. “We reached a point where we needed to do something drastic to save our paper,” explained circulation director Larry Graham, who’s worked at the Democrat-Gazette for over 40 years.
Graham attributed this free fall to an aging subscriber base whose numbers dwindled simply because there are fewer of them, and to the paper’s difficulty with capturing the attention of younger readers who have many other options competing for their eyeballs — not only from news, but also from entertainment.
“Back in 1980, when I started at the Democrat-Gazette, we were competing against the other newspaper — that was our competitor. Now, our competitor is everywhere. Every single person on the internet is our competitor,” he said. “We’re competing [for] people’s time.”
“So that just changed how people consume news, information; how they entertain themselves.”
To retain its primary audience of older readers and to cut printing costs, the Democrat-Gazette leadership team came up with an innovative, high-touch solution: Replace most of its home delivery of print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads. This move, spearheaded by publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., ended up being the Democrat-Gazette’s saving grace during COVID-19, a time when many local papers experienced major financial losses.
“We were going to lose money this year. We made money this year,” Graham said of 2020. “We turned it around.”
The circulation director added that the iPad program was “most definitely” the reason for this turnaround.
High-touch customer service may be one of the keys to driving consumer revenue growth, especially for community news outlets.
In January 2018, the Democrat-Gazette eliminated delivery to Blackville, Ark., an isolated community 200 miles from the paper’s headquarters in Little Rock. At the time, the Democrat-Gazette was delivering to every county in Arkansas, and wanted to use Blackville as its first test case for its iPad program.
For the same price they were paying to receive a print newspaper, the 200 subscribers in Blackville could get an iPad uploaded with the Democrat-Gazette e-newspaper, or full access to the website. After eliminating home delivery to this area, Graham and his team notified the subscribers via mail and also called them to set up iPad tutorial appointments.
“We wound up getting 70% of the subscribers converted over to reading us” on the iPad, he revealed. “So, we were really excited.”
Graham said adding a personal touch to customer support was a major reason for this high conversion rate. It took about two months for Graham and his team of 10 staffers to work through the 200 subscribers in Blackville. They met with subscribers in-person at a hotel meeting space or at their homes to show them how to use the iPad and e-newspaper app.
Graham’s specific role was to visit subscribers who didn’t want to meet at the hotel. He recounted a specific instance when he spent two hours teaching a 94-year-old man who “wasn’t happy about losing his newspaper” how to navigate the iPad. The circulation director said it took him 30 minutes to teach the man how to swipe a page.
“He was persistent. I mean, he really wanted to learn how to use it. So, about an hour and a half later, he was swiping pages, expanding the type,” Graham explained. “Then the next three or four days, he called our office every day. He was having trouble logging in, but he finally got it.”
Because of its success in Blackville, the Democrat-Gazette kept testing in more markets. In Mountain Home, Ark., 72% of print subscribers converted to the e-newspaper. In the more affluent Jonesboro, where Arkansas State University is based, 75% converted. Helena and West Memphis also had conversion rates of 70% and higher.
In South Arkansas, the Democrat-Gazette team tested a different offering for subscribers. They had three options: the iPad plus home delivery of the Sunday paper, digital-only access to the website or Sunday delivery only. The overall conversion rate to these products was 80% there.
Graham and his team also tested the type of device offered to subscribers. They started off using the 12-inch iPad, which costs $800 each and worked well because it’s the same size as the Democrat-Gazette’s print newspaper. But when they offered a smaller 9.7-inch iPad, which costs $300 each, the conversion rate was the same.
At this point, Graham had a team of 13 iPad trainers who went above and beyond when serving customers. “When somebody has a problem with their connectivity with [the] iPad, we go to their house, try to figure out why their Wi-Fi isn’t working. We [go] underneath your desk and try to get to the router, try to get the password,” he said.
In addition, the Democrat-Gazette customer service team is currently undergoing retraining to handle technical questions about the iPad and online access to its website. Whereas the average phone call from a print subscriber lasts a minute and a half (“They’ll call in and say, ‘I’m going on my vacation; stop my subscription for five days’ or whatever,” Graham explained), the average call from a digital subscriber lasts five to 10 minutes.
“When a phone call comes in, we seek out the person with the highest skill level for that subscriber,” the circulation director said. “Going through the iPad distribution, we’ve trained a lot of people that are really good at that.”
After testing in six or seven markets, in December 2018, the Democrat-Gazette decided to move forward with the smaller 9.7-inch iPad and Sunday delivery. The next month, in January 2019, the newspaper’s leadership team developed a plan to replace home delivery in every one of the Democrat-Gazette’s service areas. It took them a full year to complete the rollout.
As the iPad program expanded to more affluent, educated and tech-savvy areas of Arkansas, it started converting 80 to 85% of subscribers. Today, the Democrat-Gazette has 30,000 subscribers, of which 27,000 are using iPads. Eventually, it wants to increase that number to 28,000 or 29,000 iPad users, but achieving this goal requires a change in strategy, as the paper will have to shift from converting existing subscribers to capturing new ones.
“It really changed our department completely from being a print-circulation department to a techie department,” Graham said. “So, it changed customer service. It changed everything about what we’re doing.”
Half of the remaining 3,000 subscribers who don’t use iPads just want the Sunday paper, and the other half are digital subscribers who already have an iPad or don’t want one. This group has an annual churn rate of 30%, while the iPad group churns at 13%, according to Graham. “If we can get an iPad into somebody’s hand and get them using the iPad … for their email, playing games, downloading music, watching movies — whatever we do on the iPad — they’re more likely to keep taking the paper,” he explained.
Not having to print a newspaper six days a week also saved the Democrat-Gazette a lot of money, Graham said without citing specific numbers. The company still prints 3,000 papers a day that it distributes throughout central Arkansas; they’re usually for sale outside of grocery stores and gas stations, though Graham acknowledged that “at some point, we’ll probably stop that.”
The iPad program was such a success that the Democrat-Gazette’s parent company WEHCO Media, Inc. adopted it for another one of its newspapers, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, resulting in a 75% print-to-iPad conversion rate for the area. From January to September 2020, during the pandemic, iPad trainers made house calls while adhering to strict social distancing guidelines.
Delivery drivers are an ‘asset, not an afterthought’
The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper in Keene, N.H., is also investing in high-touch customer service by leveraging and retraining its staff. Unlike the Democrat-Gazette, however, the Sentinel is taking a lower-tech approach to improving customer relations.
Terrence Williams, the paper’s president and chief operating officer, became concerned after noticing that the Sentinel’s newspaper delivery tubes were strewn throughout Keene. “I’d be driving into work, and you see all these dead newspaper tubes that are tipped over — the plows knock them down, or they’re on the ground or whatever — and it’s just such a bad reflection on your brand,” he explained. “The grungy old tubes that, you know, faded — you can’t even see the Sentinel name on it.”
So, the customer service team came up with a simple solution: They paid their delivery drivers several dollars a pop to replace the old tubes with new ones. In three weeks, the drivers pulled nearly 400 tubes out of the market, and installed 120 new ones.
“It’s a simple idea, but it struck people [that] this wasn’t putting us in the best light.” Williams said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Using the driver force as a means to communicate with our customers is a real opportunity … In many cases, the readers have a better relationship with the driver than they do with us.—Terrence Williams, The Keene Sentinel
This project was just the beginning of the Sentinel’s shift in its perception of its delivery drivers and how they could contribute to customer service. From 2019 to 2020, the Sentinel’s leadership team started assessing ways to improve retention from a delivery standpoint, given the onslaught of complaints that its circulation department was receiving at the time.
“We also flipped the whole idea of what a driver was for us … so that is thinking about how can we use this driver for us — not just for delivery — but more as a proactive part of what it is that we do,” Williams explained. “We should use it as an asset instead of just kind of an afterthought.”
He and his team looked at compensation issues to figure out ways to improve working conditions for the drivers, who were independent contractors, so they’d continue working happily for the Sentinel. “They tend to show up, their vehicles are in tough shape, they’re doing this as a second job,” Williams said. “Bad weather, bad cars — just a nightmare.”
Since much of the drivers’ compensation comes from tips, the team surveyed them about what it takes to be a good driver. Based on the drivers’ advice and recommendations, the Sentinel developed a 16-step guide that it gives to incoming drivers to enhance customer service and ultimately generate more tips.
Williams and his team also came up with the idea to have drivers conduct simple surveys for the Sentinel, asking subscribers for feedback about delivery and content. The first survey went out to 4,500 households of which 1,800 responded, an “astounding” number, according to Williams. This increased interaction between Sentinel drivers and subscribers significantly improved customer perception of the newspaper.
“The overall perception of delivery was excellent. They liked their drivers,” Williams said, adding that complaints to circulation decreased from 4 per 1,000 customers to less than 1 per 1,000. “Using the driver force as a means to communicate with our customers is a real opportunity. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but there’s all sorts of communication we can give them to give to our readers.”
“In many cases, the readers have a better relationship with the driver than they do with us.”
Connecting authentically means staying local
Developing authentic relationships with readers comes naturally to the team at Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet VTDigger, according to membership and development coordinator Florencio Terra, who’s the main employee handling customer service inquiries.
“We just try to help people no matter what — not just donors,” he explained. “It’s just part of that whole ethos of a community news outlet. It’s just this ethos I think in Vermont where people help each other. It’s very community-oriented.”
Since he sees the outlet as part of the community, Terra said he regularly answers non-VTDigger-related queries from customers and non-customers alike, such as the best local restaurants for sandwiches and contact information for a state agency. This approach stems from Terra’s previous experience working at a small weekly newspaper where people would “come in for everything,” from posting classifieds for local businesses and placing obituaries for deceased loved ones, to requesting reprints of an edition that features the local high school sports team’s winning game.
Describing himself as “pretty personable,” Terra added that being a longtime Vermonter and knowing the area and people also helps.
“I’ve talked to people who call with crazy stuff that has nothing to do with membership and you just talk to them and you walk them off a cliff, sort of thing,” he said. “You have to be patient and you just use common sense, but yeah, it’s not like officially we were trained.”
Beyond maintaining a sense of calm, the “imminently patient” Terra has a knack for developing positive relationships with customers immediately, according to Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.
Peters confirms that a highly personal touch works well in Vermont because it’s a “small, insular place with a cozy rural ethos to it.” This ethos, she added, runs through the entire organization; for instance, founder and executive director Anne Galloway will reply to every member email in her inbox to ensure everyone gets a response.
Peters said she has many anecdotes of locals walking into VTDigger’s office with their phones, asking why the website isn’t loading properly, when their screens are just too zoomed out for anything to be legible. Even with those minor issues, staff try their best to address them.
“I think that really matters. Even if sometimes we can’t successfully troubleshoot something, people appreciate that we’ve given it an effort and actually looked at their issue, and aren’t just shoving things into a support ticket system,” she said, adding that it’s all about “making a human connection.”
Leveraging local knowledge to connect with customers is an approach that the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has an in-house call center, also values. Throughout his career at different media companies, vice-president of circulation Jim Gorman said he’s seen the transition from an internal customer service team to a regional call center to completely outsourced call centers, both onshore and offshore. For that reason, Gorman understands the power of connection through shared experiences and backgrounds, citing “dialect, familiarity with the customs, with the geography and understanding what’s going on internally at the newspaper” as benefits of having locally-based customer service reps.
Challenging conventional customer service methods
Integrating departments to break down silos, optimizing the customer experience and investing in high-touch service are all effective ways for news outlets to improve their customer relationships — but if there’s resistance to introducing these strategies from higher-ups, there won’t be buy-in from newsrooms. That’s why it’s essential that management show leadership by taking calculated risks and testing out creative approaches to customer service.
A risk-taking mindset is precisely what helped snatch the Chicago Sun-Times “from the jaws of extinction,” according to chief executive officer Nykia Wright, a former corporate strategy consultant who joined Chicago’s second biggest daily newspaper as chief operating officer in 2017 before being promoted to CEO a year later.
After arriving at the Sun-Times, Wright and her team needed to figure out how to cut costs and pivot the newspaper into becoming a digital-first publication. So she enlisted the help of vice-president of circulation Sheila Reidy, who worked in the news business for 34 years before retiring in 2013, only to return in 2016 after the Sun-Times asked her to consult on its circulation operation.
Offshore vs. onshore
At the time, the newspaper was outsourcing customer service to an offshore call center in South America. After analyzing the effectiveness of this call center with a Sun-Times customer service manager, Reidy said she quickly became aware that subscribers were having a difficult time communicating with these offshore customer service reps, and that the company wasn’t getting what it was paying for.
According to Reidy, there were two main issues for Sun-Times subscribers, who skew older: One, “they could not communicate their issue to people who would understand it” so the offshore reps “did not understand exactly what was wrong” and two, they were reluctant to give personal information like credit card numbers “to somebody with an accent.”
Wright acknowledged the possibility that some may find these insights uncomfortable, but emphasized the importance of serving customers the way they want to be served. “Regardless of what you think about that idea, I have to listen to my paying customers. So when you marry the need to cut significant costs and the need to change based upon our customer requirements, we felt that it was an opportunity to look at something different,” she said.
The way newspapers are sold and consumed in South America isn’t the same as it’s done in the United States, so customer service reps must understand and “work with the lens of how things are done in that market,” Wright added. For example, if reps don’t understand that back-and-forth negotiations are standard in America, “they don’t understand those cultural nuances” that’ll help them make a sale or provide adequate support.
Prioritize customer perspectives
Based on her decades of experience at newspapers, Reidy said the top priorities for any circulation department are to solve problems for customers, and to ensure customers feel comfortable in their relationship with service reps.
So, Reidy and Wright set out to replace the offshore call center, and interviewed three candidates; two were big companies with both offshore and onshore offerings, but the Sun-Times ultimately went with the third candidate, a startup suggested by Wright who noticed that major brands she’d previously consulted were successfully partnering with a lot of startups.
Called Millennial Services, the winning company is an end-to-end domestic customer care and contact center solution whose agents work from home — a boon during COVID-19. It also means the company can hire broadly and that agents can hop on and off as needed, depending on demand. Based in Michigan City, Ind., Millennial Services is owned by Logan R. Rush, a man in his twenties who’d previously lived in Chicago.
There was no one that believed that we could do (customer service) Stateside. No one.—Nykia Wright, Chicago Sun-Times
“We interviewed this young man, and he had experience and he had a good business model, but you know, that’s a lot to put your call center in the hands of a person that’s young and doesn’t have any newspaper experience at all,” Reidy said. “We were definitely going against the grain. It was a leap of faith.”
Wright agreed, saying, “There was no one that believed that we could do this Stateside. No one. … I talked to a place in Texas [that said], ‘Yeah, we can do it but it’ll cost you double.’”
Ultimately, though, the Times took a chance that paid off. Staff at the paper trained the Millennial Services team, which successfully integrated its system into the Sun-Times system. After becoming experts in handling customer issues and billing, over time, the Sun-Times gave Millennial Services more customer-facing responsibilities.
“As time passed, subscribers of the Sun-Times were ecstatic. We would get calls, ‘Oh my gosh! What did you do?’ We couldn’t have been happier, nor could our readers,” Reidy said. “[Millennial Service] are so good and flexible at adapting to new changes or any issue that they have. It’s been an amazingly positive experience for us.”
Cut down on call-center costs
In addition to embracing forward-thinking approaches to technology and data and analytics, Wright added that Millennial Services has an innovative cost structure that helps the Sun-Times keep costs down. Specifically, the company can ramp up or ramp down the number of customer service representatives on call, which means it can offer the Sun-Times variable pricing — a cost-saving measure.
A major metric for call centers is the “abandonment rate,” that is, people who hang up before they are able to reach an agent. The Sun-Times’ offshore call center had a rate of 0.1%; this meant there were too many agents available at any given time, which translates to higher costs, according to Reidy, who said the abandonment rate “sweet spot” is 3 to 5%, which is where Millennial Services lands each week.
“The more efficient they became, the less our costs had to be, and so it was a win-win across all boards.” Wright explained. “We didn’t have this archaic model of pricing.”
After bringing on Millennial Services, the Sun-Times had a 97% decrease in refunds, a retention level that she said demonstrates the call center’s excellence.
Sheila’s leadership and experience gave Wright the confidence to take the risk to hire a startup, the CEO said, adding that it’s important to get the right team in place, especially the right executive who has both historical knowledge and a willingness to “not pivot, but swivel to the future.”
“I knew with her veteran experience, she could build upon what [Millennial Services’ Logan R. Rush] didn’t know. What I needed him to do was bring his technology, his team and his brain. And no offense, I was going to allow Sheila to do the rest,” Wright said. “You have to get super creative in finding people who have the hunger to figure it out, then putting the right people around them to help guide them to figure that out.”
Essential to this success was Wright and Reidy’s readiness to merge old with new. In other words, they experimented as efficiently as possible and weren’t afraid of challenging the status quo, which Reidy called a “death sentence.”
“We were forced to embrace it. Just leaned into that. There are some areas that are still very legacy that are more difficult to turn around, and so we exercise patience there. But in other areas where we can make quicker, faster decisions, we do that. I mean, we tried everything,” Wright added. “Everyone was sort of rowing in the direction of understanding: We’ve got to get more out of this boat. How do we do it?”
Take a risk
At the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette, a daily newspaper serving the state of Arkansas, publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. was the person responsible for getting everyone on his team rowing in the same direction. As mentioned in chapter 3, Hussman Jr. was behind the Democrat-Gazette’s highly successful iPad program, which involved replacing most of its home delivery of print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads. Let’s take a deeper look at the decision-making process behind this innovative project.
Hussman Jr. came up with the idea in January 2017, and called circulation director Larry Graham into his office to propose a test. They chose Blackville, Ark., an isolated community 200 miles away from the paper’s headquarters in Little Rock, to survey the 200 Democrat-Gazette subscribers there. So, Graham and several other colleagues bought four or five devices, and asked the subscribers if they’d be willing to read the newspaper on an iPad if home delivery stopped.
“We got absolutely shut down: ‘No, I wouldn’t do that. Why would I want to read you on the iPad? I don’t want to do that. I want to keep getting my paper,’” he said. “I mean, we really got negative results out of that.”
Testing stopped, but nine to 10 months later, Hussman Jr. brought up the iPad idea again, telling Graham at the time, “I keep thinking about this iPad deal. Maybe we should go up there and stop delivering and see how many people actually would take [the iPad].”
The circulation director balked at the suggestion because the surveys overwhelmingly told him that subscribers weren’t receptive. “When he called me back in for that second meeting, I came back to my folks and said, ‘Walter cannot get this iPad thing [out of his mind]. He can’t stop thinking about it.’ I did not think it would work,” he said. “But it was totally different when it actually happened.”
The Democrat-Gazette went ahead and stopped delivery to Blackville in January 2018 — a move that was very well-received, according to Graham. He was surprised because the 2017 survey results didn’t indicate that Blackville subscribers would embrace the iPad if they had no other alternative. Once the Democrat-Gazette team showed its app and the iPad to subscribers, however, they were impressed. Ultimately, the Blackville test was so successful that the Democrat-Gazette rolled out its iPad program across Arkansas, and was able to convert 75 to 90% of its print subscribers to the e-newspaper.
“It does not read like a website. It’s the actual replica of our newspaper,” Graham explained. “That’s a bridge between our aging subscribers and our younger subscribers who want to read us on their phone or some other way. Our aging long-term subscribers want a newspaper format; they want it to look like a newspaper, feel like a newspaper, read like a newspaper. On our app, that’s what it does.”
No longer exclusively the realm of retailers, customer service should become a bigger focus for media outlets, especially now that consumer revenue models like subscription and membership are providing newsrooms with more pathways to financial sustainability beyond advertising.
Much like how effective audience engagement draws news consumers into an outlet’s reporting and editorial processes, good customer service helps build trust between publisher and subscriber or donor.
At the end of the day, whether you’re talking editorial or biz, it all comes down to relationships. Providing quality customer service is one way of building trust and getting to know — not to mention better serve — your readers, listeners and viewers.
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