Thursday, April 02, 2009

Saving pennies, losing customers

So my mother is a subscriber to the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C.
Like any newspaper in the country right now, it's having to face some tough financial times as advertising revenues dwindle.
There is a lot of navel contemplating in the news industry, even back in the good ole days. And I don't want to add to it. But there's something that hasn't gotten a lot of attention lately.
The big chains are having to make a lot of difficult choices. Some have filed for bankruptcy. Others have gone to web-only models, or web during the week, with a strong weekend edition, a Sunday. That's an interesting one.
But it seems like the bigger they are, the harder they are falling.
They are also doing things that other businesses have tried.
And so here comes Mom.
She would be described as a loyal newspaper reader. She wants to get her paper and have it bea PAPER. She wants something she can hold in her hand.
Apparently the paper switched the carrier on her route, however. Because when she gets her paper, more often than not, it's a mess.
She has a newspaper tube. She's had it for years.
But the carrier most of the time drops the paper at the end of the driveway. The tube is old, and there's a bush. But it's not invisible. After the first complaint about the paper being dropped in the driveway, it should have started going in the tube.
Sometimes it is in the tube. But we've had some heavy rain off and on over these past few months. The paper she gets, too often, is not in a bag. Even a couple that have been bagged have not been tied. So with unbagged or untied bagged papers in the rain, what does she get?
She gets a wet paper. Sometimes it's just a little damp. But sometimes it's a soggy mess.
One time, it was dumped, unbagged and came apart. My mom's paper scattered all over the neighborhood. The neighbors weren't too mad, the ones with subscriptions. That happened to them at other times.
The person running the newspaper route doesn't care.
Someone once said the very basic thing a newspaper can do is deliver a clean dry paper on time that's full of interesting things to read.
I won't speak for whether the Herald-Journal has anything interesting to read in it. As I said, my Mom wants the paper.
But she's getting fed up. The real problem isn't just a carrier who doesn't give a damn.
The Herald-Journal doesn't value her as a customer. It made a decision to put in a phone system that makes it hard to talk to a human being. When she finally got a human being on the line, she was able to get the person to admit where my mother's call went to.
Manila. As in, the Philippines. As in overseas.
The person had an accent, and it raised her curiosity.
With all the navel-contemplating that the news industry does, I don't recall a story about the New York Times Group of newspapers outsourcing a vital function like it's circulation department. The Herald-Journal is a New York Times newspaper. I used to be a stringer for them while I was in college, by the way. Full disclosure. Always liked them.
My mom called me last week, since I'm out on leave, and was telling me of her struggles to get a clean dry paper delivered to her home. I suggested she go to the phone book itself and see what numbers are listed there.
There are just two. One was the same number listed in the paper for redelivery issues. What would be the point of calling that number.
She tried the other number and finally got through to someone at the Herald-Journal office in downtown Spartanburg. That person was apologetic.
She suspected that the person actually running the route was not the assigned carrier but someone else helping that carrier out.
My mother was gratified to talk to someone who was sympathetic. But my take on the situation was that the person who took the call couldn't do anything to fix it. Despite having a file filled with complaints from other subscribers.
The person who took the call was frustrated as well. She said she urges everyone who has a complaint to write a letter to the editor.
Now, that might bring some notice to the problem in the public's eyes, if anyone actually takes her up. But the editor has nothing to do with the delivery of the paper.
The editor should be mad as hell about it. But a complaint like this has to be resolved by the publisher. But in the case, the publisher's hands are probably tied as well. because the corporate overseers made a decision to outsource most of their circulation work.
Many newspapers, when overseas outsourcing started ramping up, editorialized against the practice. Many realize that some kinds of outsourcing is the necessary end-product of free trade. We lose some jobs here in the hopes that the savings realized lead to development of other jobs, possibly better paying jobs, later.
But many of the companies that were outsourcing customer service functions have started coming back here. It is completely a short term savings issue.
My mother has reached the final straw. If she has to call Manila again, it will be to cancel her subscription. This is a person who wants a clean, dry paper, delivered on time, filled with interesitng things to read.
How can the newspaper industry attract new readers in different medium when it can't serve the people who, right now, want the product they are producing.
This isn't about my mother's complaints, per se. Her situation is absolutely representative of what is going on in this industry however.
The New York Times Newspaper Group isn't the only big company that has outsourced.
Some companies are using overseas companies to design and lay out their products. That doens't directly impact local customers. But others have onerous phone systems that don't allow you to speak to a human being. Press "1" for this person who won't help you, then press 2 for this person who will forward your call to a voice mail that won't get answered.
The sitautionis wearing on people at newspapers. As I said, the local human being that my mother finally got to said she tells EVERYONE who complains to write a letter to the editor, even though that won't do much good, logistically.
(A former publisher of mine noted the probable reason for this. Everyone knows that Perry White was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet and Superman's boss. Nobody knows who the publisher is.) The editor is the identifiable "authority" figure at most papers, to the public.
I know of one paper that has its circulation clerk out on the days when the paper is delivered. It frurstrates everyone who calls when they they are told a message will be taken.
Another company has a person who has fielded so many calls from people frustrated by the automated call system, pressing this number than that number than this number, ad infinitum, that they should just press "Zero."
Zero gets you through to an operator at the local office. But the automated message was changed so that callers are never told that.
Automated calling systems. An outsourced to the Philippines circulation department.
These are done because accountants know they will save pennies.
But when you lose customers, LOYAL customers, customers who want your product, than it's a long-term disaster.
I hate to resort to it, but it seems, most days, that newspapers are taking their customer service cues from Dogbert.

Dogbert: There are two essential rules to management. One, the customer is always right; and two, they must be punished for their arrogance.