Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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How customer service offers “critical trust-building opportunities” for publishers: API report

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Customer service has become more important now as publishers are increasingly focusing on generating revenues directly from readers. However, “scant attention has been paid to revitalizing approaches to customer service,” according to a new API report, How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences. This “poses a problem because support teams are often the first or only point of contact for many customers.”

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.

How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences

“Direct link between the quality of customer service and subscriber retention and acquisition”

The report takes a “deep dive into how customer service functions should evolve as news outlets place greater emphasis on consumer revenue and audience engagement.” It is written by media strategist and consultant Anita Li, and based on interviews with newsroom leaders from a wide range of US-based news outlets.

“There is a direct link between the quality of customer service and subscriber retention and acquisition,” writes Li. “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.” 

She recommends a four-pronged strategy to develop customer service. These are:

  1. Break down silos and integrate departments
  2. Optimize online processes
  3. Invest in hands-on approaches to service
  4. Take strategic risks and test out creative customer service strategies

“Challenging to know two systems”

The communication barriers between the print and digital departments often hinder publishers from providing quality customer service. Terrence Williams, President and COO of The Keene Sentinel in Keene, N.H., found that the 222-year-old daily newspaper was finding it challenging to deal with complaints from digital customers. 

Williams told Li that while Sentinel employees in-charge of digital circulation communicated well with customers, he and the newsroom staff weren’t involved in those conversations. The publisher got a cross-departmental group of employees to join Poynter Institute’s version of the Table Stakes program. It helped them identify barriers to entry for subscribers.

“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.

Terrence Williams, President and COO of the The Keene Sentinel

Their top priority was to create a single database of the Sentinel’s advertising and circulation customers, both print and digital. The publisher was using two different systems for subscription which created a lot of confusion for both customer service as well as subscribers. “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,” explained Williams.

The team opted to go ahead with only one system that could handle both print and digital circulation. This made it easier for the customer service representatives to handle 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,’” Williams added.

“The reader sees [customer service] as talking to the newsroom”

And that’s just the beginning, publishers must also consider training audience engagement staff on customer service and vice versa. 

The reader sees [customer service] as talking to the newsroom, same as emailing a journalist. We need to treat customer service as teammates and part of the editorial mission.

Andrew Losowsky, Co-founder, The Coral Project, an open-source publishing platform

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, writes Li, quoting Joy Mayer, Founder, Trusting News.

“Because customer service representatives are on the front lines of audience engagement, these kinds of interactions are critical trust-building opportunities,” she adds.

Mayer suggested training customer service reps to address:

  • Requests for corrections
  • Complaints that stem from misassumptions or a lack of knowledge about journalistic practices
  • Questions about how the newsroom operates 
  • Questions about how to participate in the reporting process

The Keene Sentinel did that through an initiative that allowed all employees — including editorial — to learn from the customer service team. The publisher also created a guide compiling best practices and tips from employees who were effective with customers.

The above suggestions would help a publisher’s staff get ready to serve customers effectively. The next step is making the online user experience as frictionless as possible. 

“Simplest possible way to subscribe”

Centralizing customer data made it easier for The Keene Sentinel to create “the simplest possible way to subscribe.” The publisher reduced the subscription checkout process to three steps which led to an immediate “uptick in subscriptions,” according to Williams. Heavy marketing and promotion of online subscriptions, and introduction of an online payment system called Easy Pay also contributed to the success. 

Similarly, The Seattle Times revamped its subscription process which originally involved filling 24 form fields across six pages, to just five or six fields. The publisher removed delivery-address and phone-number fields for digital-only customers. It made sign-up easier by allowing customers to use their social logins. They could log in with their Facebook, Google or other accounts if they did not want to create new usernames or passwords. The paper also offers multiple easy payment options including Amazon Pay and PayPal.

VTDigger, an investigative journalism publisher based in Vermont, pays a lot of attention to website responsiveness. It tries to ensure that readers get the best experience on their devices whether they are using the latest phones or older devices. The publication also makes it easy for customers to leave feedback at every point in the membership funnel. This helps it understand users’ needs better and improve accordingly. 

“We made money this year”

Beyond automation, several publishers are investing in ‘high-touch’ customer service, that is, using the magic of personal touch to connect with readers. 

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.

Anita Li, Author, How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette successfully combined hitech with high-touch, to turnaround declining revenues. The publisher had an aging subscriber base and consistently declining circulation. It decided to replace print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads.

The goal was to capture the attention of young users as well as reduce printing costs. Initial surveys showed that their loyal readers were totally opposed to the idea of replacing print with digital. But the publisher eventually went ahead with the idea. 

It started by eliminating delivery to Blackville, Ark., which was at a distance of 200 miles from the paper’s headquarters in Little Rock. Subscribers were offered iPads uploaded with the Democrat-Gazette e-newspaper at the cost of their print subscription. 

The publisher deployed its employees to personally train readers in using the device. “We wound up getting 70% of the subscribers converted over to reading us” on the iPad, Circulation Director, Larry Graham told Li. The Democrat-Gazette then moved onto testing in other markets. They were eventually able to achieve between 70 to 85% conversions in various markets across Arkansas. The Democrat-Gazette now has 30,000 subscribers, of which 27,000 are using iPads.

We were going to lose money this year. We made money this year (2020). We turned it around.

Larry Graham, Circulation Director, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Graham credited the personal touch in customer support as a major reason for the high conversion rate. “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.

The publisher is also retraining its customer service team to handle technical questions about the iPad and online access to its website. “It really changed our department completely from being a print-circulation department to a techie department,” noted Graham. “So, it changed customer service. It changed everything about what we’re doing.”

“It makes a huge difference”

The Keene Sentinel took a lower-tech approach to provide high-touch customer service to its readers. It employed delivery drivers to do the job. The publisher started by paying them to replace old newspaper tubes with new ones.

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. The grungy old tubes that, you know, faded — you can’t even see the Sentinel name on it.

Terrence Williams, President and COO, The Keene Sentinel

That sparked a shift in the perception of what delivery drives were capable of and spurred the publisher into thinking up ways to use them for customer service. 

“It’s a simple idea, but it struck people [that] this wasn’t putting us in the best light,” Williams added. “It makes a huge difference.”

They went further and got the drivers to conduct simple surveys asking subscribers for feedback about delivery and content. The response was astounding, according to Williams. Complaints to circulation decreased from 4 per 1,000 customers to less than 1 per 1,000.

“This increased interaction between Sentinel drivers and subscribers significantly improved customer perception of the newspaper,” notes Li. 

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.

Terrence Williams, President and COO, The Keene Sentinel

Taking risks is important as demonstrated by the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette which went ahead with its iPad strategy despite getting negative feedback from subscribers. The ability to back forward looking ideas combined with personal touch can create magic. 

“No longer exclusively the realm of retailers, customer service should become a bigger focus for media outlets,” writes Li in conclusion.  

“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.”

Anita Li, Author, How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences

The full report is available at The American Press Institute:
How customer service can build trust and engagement with audiences