Newspapers’ self-inflicted wounds

You might also title this, “How bad customer service kills good newspapers.” For while newspapers across the country are in the fight of their lives to attract advertisers and subscribers, they have frequently been their own worst enemies when it comes to keeping the very customers they’ve worked hard to obtain.

Admittedly, I’m a focus group of one. But I also am predisposed to like newspapers (as a former alternative weekly newspaper columnist), which apparently puts me in the minority. Yet, despite my high newsprint-stupidity threshold, these customer prevention policies stun even me:

Trial Subscription from Hell. After years of reading USA Today as a road warrior, I decided it would be nice to get it at home. I signed up online for an eight-week trial subscription at a special rate. Within three days, my credit card was charged twice at two different rates. After several emails and phone calls during which USA Today couldn’t find the extra charge (though both appeared on my credit card online statement), I disputed the second charge with my card issuer and cancelled the first subscription. I thought that was it.

A month later, what should appear in my inbox but an email from USA Today, “welcoming” me as a new subscriber. Apparently the second subscription charge had finally made it through their system and generated a new trial subscription. I called, cancelled again … and a week later received a letter congratulating me for enrolling in the automated EZ-PAY subscription renewal program. The next day, an email and phone call from USA Today asked me to renew what I’d cancelled.

This time I also wrote a letter, leading to a call from an “executive customer service” rep who, rather than trying to fix the problem, basically accused me of making it all up. When in doubt, blame the customer. I swore I’d never do business again with a company that couldn’t keep track of customer payments.

Delivery by Godot. Next, I figured, why not try the New York Times? Because of my frequent travel, I wanted to start with Sunday only. I subscribed, got a prompt confirmation, and the payment was correct. So far, so good. I waited for the first delivery. And waited. No paper the first Sunday; I called to report it. Little did I know that, over the next four months, my usual Sunday routine would be: walk Golden Retriever, check paper tube, curse delivery person, visit NY Times Web site, report missed delivery. This occurred roughly every other Sunday and, at the very end, in three out of four.

The sad part was the disappointed Golden with nothing to carry back to the house.

Newspaper Roulette. During one of the many gaps either before or during the New York Times delivery, I decided to re-subscribe to the Wall Street Journal to ensure something would show up. And, well, something did. But not always the Wall Street Journal. Turns out the Journal (like many national newspapers, such as the New York Times) contracts with carriers of local papers for delivery. But not every carrier reads the delivery labels carefully.

Often we’d receive, instead of the Journal, a copy of Investors Business Daily or the Tacoma News-Tribune. We also have a large collection of Journal delivery labels with other people’s names and account numbers, so we know the neighbors with whom we share a common dead-tree media experience. Of course, the down side is that someone else’s subscription probably stops when we ask for a vacation hold. At least no one has to deliver the online version to us.

Yes, these are anedotal stories. And they are for national, not local, newspapers. But every time I hear that Craigslist and Google News are killing newspapers, I think about crappy customer service and incompetent carrier delivery that awaits the ever-fewer, aging subscribers. Bad customer service isn’t an external company-killer. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

And that’s a marketing lesson any struggling business should learn.

2 thoughts on “Newspapers’ self-inflicted wounds”

  1. Well-said, Frank. Your closing here could be writ large:

    “Bad customer service isn’t an external company-killer. It’s a self-inflicted wound. And that’s a marketing lesson any struggling business should learn.”

    At the core, though, I agree because I’ll always believe that it’s not just about “getting” the importance of service in a marketing vacuum. It’s about genuinely giving a damn about the concentric circles of one’s (family, community, nation, world). May we choose well.

  2. Frank – it sounds like it’s time wash the newsprint from your hands and invest in a Kindle.

    [from the Amazon site]
    Improved Newspaper Experience
    Using Kindle’s new 5-way controller, you can quickly flip between articles, making it faster and easier to browse and read the morning paper. Want to remember the newspaper or magazine article you just read? Clip and save entire articles for later reading with a single click.

    I need to live vicariously through early adopters like you so I look forward to that report.

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