Getting customer service right costs money, but does it cost as much as getting it wrong? Publishers, whose profits are based on repeat business, can’t afford to alienate customers. Jess Burney looks at the importance of joining up the customer journey.
In my role as a subscriptions director, with responsibility for all aspects of marketing and subscriptions fulfilment, I am often the person who wears the customers’ hat at work. What may make sense from a process viewpoint can sometimes lead to a customer experience that, in the long term, loses money through turning off the customer. For example, restricting call centre opening hours or leaving customers to languish in long telephony queues, may cost less in fulfilment terms but lose you money in lost orders.
I know that an unhappy customer, in a business based on long term repeat transactions, is very bad news. Equally, a happy customer is often an advocate for the brand and will be open to deepening their relationship over time. Given appropriate marketing activity, a good customer will often go on to introduce new customers to your business.
As we all know, make the right offer at the right time and you have a sale. But once you start to work on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programmes, complexity becomes the name of the game.
For those of us whose working lives revolve around subscriptions marketing, we know all too well that the customer experience is a journey which can take a number of different forms across a number of different contacts. Mapping out the multitude of different variations on individual customer journeys can involve process maps of some intricacy as well as many tens of thousands of tracking codes!
Customers Come in Many Different Guises
Some subscribers are recruited via traditional in-magazine sources and, for them, the experience is often all about the benefits of this different purchase route. Convenience, reliability, a gift with purchase or a saving linked to subscription are all benefits of subscribing for the purchaser who used to buy frequently at the newsstand. For the publisher, increased frequency of purchase and a longer relationship will deliver better profitability at customer level, if not at individual copy level.
Others, and these are increasing in volume all the time (given larger than ever portfolio campaigns and much greater participation in retail subscription programmes), are given a subscription as a gift and may be reading the magazine for the first time. And, here, publishers have the opportunity to convert the lucky recipient into a subscription devotee through delivering a high quality experience. At the same time, assuming most recipients will let the gift giver know if they really enjoy the gift, publishers also have another opportunity to drive home the message to the gift giver that this is the perfect gift solution. Making the set up process easy and giving an attractive gift card will also help here.
Other subscribers have been tempted into a trial offer, perhaps as a result of responding to a free copy offer in another publication. For these customers, the trick is to up-sell appropriately and get a commitment over time. Once a readership habit has been formed, quality editorial linked to direct debit payment can see very high levels of retention over many years, even from cold acquisition sources.
These are just a few examples of different customer types. And even within these broad groupings, there will be differences in behaviour defined by marketing source and price paid on acquisition.
Customers acquired directly will behave differently (usually better in retention terms) than those acquired via a third party. Segmenting and tailoring your ongoing customer communication programme to reflect the acquisition source is the first step to keeping the customer happy, improving retention and generating cross-sell sales.
And, of course, we should never forget that first impressions really count. There are some basics that we, as an industry, should always get right:
1. If the subscription is a gift, we shouldn’t mail issues until the gift giver has received his / her acknowledgement letter with enough time to mail on the accompanying gift card to the lucky recipient.
2. We should make sure that all the details in the welcome pack are correct.
3. We should make the welcome pack a great experience in its own right.
4. We should use this first point of contact to up-sell or cross-sell, where relevant and appropriate.
One Transaction - Two Customers
Gift subscriptions require particular thinking in CRM terms.
Historically, recipients have always been under-marketed to. This is partly because data protection laws restrict the amount of marketing where permissions have not been given at the point of acquisition. Partly, however, it is because subscription marketers have not always thought enough about the fact that you effectively have two customers linked to one transaction.
Targeting renewals activity to the donor is completely sensible. At the same time, building a relationship with the recipient and turning a passive relationship to an active transactional relationship should always be a goal.
Targeting recipients prior to expiry, and in an integrated way with the donor communications, will uplift recipient response up to fivefold.
Joined up Thinking
The traditional renewal segmentation model is built on a simple Recency, Frequency, Value model, usually taking into account acquisition source, price paid and length of subscription relationship. However, adding more dimensions into this model to reflect values held in the single customer view of large publishers’ databases, is an obvious next step.
Propensity modelling techniques have advanced hugely in the last few years and appending additional data from third party sources can even further enrich your ability to get the right offer to the right person at the right time.
This is particularly important where an individual has a number of different interactions with the same organisation – eg. multiple print subscriptions, online interaction, newsletter sign up, mail order purchases. To ensure that marketing communications don’t see any individual being over-targeted and running a high risk of that customer opting out from future communications, a single customer view is essential.
Equally, the most sophisticated database marketing plan is not enough in itself to deliver your perfect marketing solution. It needs to be linked to a marketing communications plan that builds out from the database marketing opportunity, remaining true to the brand while utilising customer insight in a highly sophisticated manner.
The best marketing is always built on a great understanding of human psychology. Understanding how your customer behaves and their predictability means that you can respond appropriately to foster and deepen your relationship. The original thinking behind direct marketing was all about one-to-one interaction. You want to surprise and delight your customers and give them something they really want. You don’t want to have them feeling either mis-sold or inappropriately marketed to.
A Two Way Conversation
When you are on the receiving end of a conversation with an irate subscriber, it can sometimes be hard to remember that this is a really valuable source of direct feedback. For every one person who complains another nine will suffer in silence, but will review whether or not they want to continue the relationship at the time of renewal. Sometimes, a poor experience is simply down to human error and is a simple one off. Other times, a process failure may be uncovered and the complaining customer has done you a big favour bringing it directly to your attention.
I believe it is essential that everyone in the organisation treats every customer contact professionally, courteously and aims to turn any negative experiences into positives through resolving their problems.
Of course, it is important that a sense of reasonableness is applied. The reader who called a food magazine editorial team wanting an entire wedding menu planned for them entirely free of charge was rightly pointed in the direction of a wedding planning service, but by way of going the extra mile, the staff member kindly furnished the caller with a few phone numbers to start her on the way!
On the other hand, filing reader complaints to languish for weeks at the bottom of bursting in-trays, or leaving voicemail messages unanswered is an unacceptable way of treating your customer, and it is important that this principle comes from and is reinforced top down through an organisation.
The customer charter and the accompanying values a business adopts in customer interactions will often determine how willing customers are to stick with you when an unavoidable crisis in systems happens.
Companies like John Lewis live by their reputation for reliability, and when they let you down they have both an explanation and a no-questions-asked policy on giving reasonable compensation. When I experienced a no-show with a John Lewis delivery, the customer service adviser tracked down the driver, discovered that the cause of delay was his involvement in an accident, called me with an explanation, gave me a delivery charge credit and rebooked the delivery for the first convenient date for me. By contrast, three no-shows by British Gas were entirely unexplainable by their embarrassed customer service adviser and the words "can I have some compensation" met with no corresponding "yes".
With a business model built on repeat business, and an ability to model lifetime value with a satisfying level of sophistication, it is very good to see that the publishing industry is more and more open to developing CRM programmes that are customer focused rather than single title subscriber focused.
The PPA Subscriptions Committee last year rebranded itself as the PPA Customer Direct Group as part of a series of measures designed to deepen understanding of, and investment in, long term direct relationships with customers - first and foremost subscriptions. This reflects the way that many big publishers are now structuring their businesses and the key topics with which they are engaging.
It’s important to note that, generally, subscriber feedback tells us the subscription experience is a positive one. And the growing numbers of subscriptions in the UK suggests that we are all doing something right! Long may this growth continue.