Dec 28, 2008

Missed Delivery: How the New York Times Lost a Loyal Subscriber

(I hope the New York Times is listening.)

Recently, I canceled my 10-year-old subscription to the New York Times Sunday edition. Nothing shocking here. We moved to Austin, Texas, the Times failed to deliver three weeks in a row, we called to complain, they did nothing, we called again, they did nothing, so we walked.

So instead of shuffling to my driveway to look for the blue plastic bag, I'll just walk/drive up the street to buy the paper. If I feel like it, that is, if some other task or interest doesn't take my attention first. Besides, I can always just go online and read the content there.

But here's what I find interesting about this mundane event: I LOVE reading the Sunday Times.

Even though the sports section talks incessantly about the stupid Yankees, Knicks and Giants, even though the Sunday Styles page trumpeted the goings on of the rich and clueless, this paper, with its great columnists and amazing international coverage, has become an important weekly ritual, one I share with my wife and parents. Sundays are just not quite complete without it. And I subscribed even though there was no financial incentive to do so.


What's so wrong with this picture?

Man, I don't know where to start.

1) In a media market openly hostile to newspapers (and paper in general, it seems) subscriptions would seem to be a valuable asset. It's a relationship formed by years of promises kept and payment made. Now mine has been thoughtlessly tossed aside. If the Times plans to try to generate revenue from my online reading, they have an uphill battle.

2) I was a loyal subscriber who always paid on time, and the Times let me go without so much as a "make-up" offer. I estimate they'll lose at least 50% of my yearly spend. That was money in the bank, direct debit. All they had to do was deliver my freakin' paper.

3) Pushing me to go out to buy the paper physically will install one of those functional irritants that change behavior. Once I get used to NOT reading the Times every Sunday, what's to stop me from simply going to other online sources, like the Guardian or other "liberal news media" outlet? I received The Economist for Christmas. Maybe I'll just buckle down and read that cover to cover instead.

4) The poor quality of the local distribution indicates an operational weakness. Maybe all the attention and worry paid to electronic content delivery has made them forget the importance of keeping promises to customers. This is like a phone company that can't assure you of a dial tone.

5) The lack of initiative displayed by the phone customer service folks indicates a strategic weakness. Perhaps the Times has let the decline in ad revenues blind them to the value of loyal subscribers. Or maybe they don't see paper subscribers as relevant to the digital world. When my wife called to cancel she was offered NOTHING to keep her. Nothing at all. The phone rep processed her cancellation like an address change.

6) My respect for this organization has fallen down a notch. I've been rooting for them (for all the paper newspapers, in fact), because I believe that a vital press is key to a democratic, open society.

I'm encouraged by the growth of so-called citizen journalism, but I believe in the value of professionals, and it seems to me that a smart group of people can figure out how to blend the two for better news and reporting. But if they can't deliver the paper I pre-pay for, and if they don't care enough to try to keep me as a customer, maybe they're doomed after all.

What would I do?

I'm not a newspaper exec. I don't really know the industry. But here are a few simple ideas that might save them a few subscribers:

1) Pay attention to your physical delivery channel. This is not rocket science.

2) Consider offering a financial incentive to subscribe. As I mentioned, I received zero cost benefit for my subscription. Convenience only goes so far. Offer me a special, year-end collection of articles or a calendar or every Krugman/Walker/Friedman column or something.

3) Since paper is disappearing, research the next format of "delivery." I think people will still pay to have special content sent to them somehow. Yes, Times Select didn't work, but paying for content is inevitable and common (HBO, Sirius, iTunes, cable). Just because it's "news" doesn't mean it's a commodity. C'mon, you guys can figure this out. (For starters, spend two hours researching Crossfit.com and The Crossfit Journal.)

4) Don't forget that as humans we're biased and regional by nature. Technology exists to customize information delivery. Use it. Give me my Times. Use predictive modeling (or whatever they call it) to suggest stories I might find interesting. Allow me to choose to read stories that are diametrically opposed to my point of view. Give me a social and personal reason to want to read you. TimesPeople may be a start, but to me it looks like a lot of work. I want the news SERVED to me.

5) Divide up your audience and serve each one. Painfully obvious, the Silents, Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials each have different ways of staying up on things. I don't see any reason why NYT content and/or nyt.com can't keep up with them all.

As I said, I hope someone in New York is listening, and not just because I'm a jilted subscriber. The future of their company depends on it.

5 comments:

McAdams said...

Tim... it's a customer service pandemic. World Market lost a $250 sale when a clerk don't sell me a floor model of a chair, but told me to "try another store."
I'm not driving all over L.A. for a chair.
Office Depot lost my business to Staples for good last week while a dozen people waited on line for one inexperienced cashier, while half-a-dozen guys in OD uniforms wandered around pretending to do very imperative tasks.
And we're all shocked the retail sector is suffering... please.

Cristi said...

I live in Sacramento, and had a similiar situation with The Sacramento Bee, no less! I feel your pain, man. Unbelievable in this day and age of the dying newspaper. You'd think they'd be jumping at the chance to keep you, but it's complete and total indifferance. It's like they've already given up. I ended up writing an email and copying EVERY exec at the paper, and guess what? My subsciption started coming again.

Cristi said...

I meant indifference--lol.

Tim Rickards said...

McAdams and Christi:

Thanks for stopping by.

It seems that many people have a newspaper story--several friends have related their own this past week--which doesn't bode well for that medium or business model. The fact that Cristi had to email every exec at the Bee to get her subscription back indicates just how invisible the problem must be. That line managers can't or won't solve something like this blows me away.

As for a "customer service pandemic," I'm not so sure. I actually think that we're pretty spoiled as consumers and that many people don't come to a store with honest problems; they're often trying to get over or they're unable to admit their responsibility in a retail transaction. (I have close relative who worked for Apple retail--talk about horror stories.)

Still, you've got to wonder about why a store that really tries to please its customers is the exception rather than the rule. Seems bass ackwards to me.

Roy said...

Great post about the failing home delivery service of the NYT. Below is an account of my ongoing struggle. I still haven't gotten a single Friday paper, much less a Sunday paper since circa Dec. 8. I'm very close to calling it quits.

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E-mail from the New York Times, October 25, 2008:

Dear “Paying Customer”,

Thank you for contacting us. We are happy to begin your subscription for home delivery of The New York Times. We hope you will enjoy the comprehensive news coverage, useful insights and sheer entertainment that the nation’s most honored newspaper brings you, along with the convenience of home delivery.

Your account number is XXXXXXXXX and your FRIDAY-SUNDAY service will start on 10/25/08, at $4.70 per week. You will be billed in advance for each billing cycle. At the end of the promotional period, your subscription will continue at the regular price unless you notify us otherwise.

You can also visit our Web site at www.homedelivery.nytimes.com to receive information on your account 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please follow the instructions to register if you have not done so already.

If there is anything else we can do to help you, please e-mail us at customercare@nytimes.com or call us at 1-800-NYTIMES (1-800-698-4637) from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday and 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday (ET).

Your satisfaction is very important to us and we hope you enjoy home delivery of The New York Times.

Sincerely,
Douglas A Campbell
Online Customer Care
The New York Times
www.homedelivery.nytimes.com

###

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E-mail to the New York Times, November 3, 2008:

Dear Madam or Sir:

I began my subscription to the NYT with the Friday-Sunday delivery plan on Oct 22. Delivery of my subscription should have started that Friday, Oct 24. However, I have not received a single paper at all since I subscribed.

I did not receive papers for the weekend of Oct 24-26. At first I thought that maybe my delivery would start the following weekend, Oct 31-Nov 2. However, since I did not get a paper on Friday, Oct 31, I called the customer service phone line. At first I called to report a missing paper and requested a replacement to be delivered, via the self-service phone menu. I later called and spoke with a customer service representative, who stated that I should have received papers starting Oct 24. I stated that I did not, but then the representative said he would credit my account for those missed papers of Oct 24-26. He also said he could pass along information to the carrier about my delivery. The representative also noticed my request for a replacement paper to be delivered, and he stated that the replacement paper (the Oct 31 issue) would be delivered by 2:30 pm. The replacement paper was not delivered.

On Saturday, Nov 1, I still did not receive a paper. I called the customer service phone line again, and spoke with a customer service representative. The time of my call was before the latest delivery time of 8:30 am on Saturdays, which I was not aware of, but I was duly informed by the representative, which is OK. I said to the representative that I assumed that my NYT subscription would be delivered with the local newspaper (The XXXXXXX Times) that my girlfriend subscribes to (she also gets the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal delivered here as well), but he said that they might not use the same carrier.

However, I waited until about 9:30 am, before I called the customer service phone line again to report a missed paper, and requested a credit to my account, again via the self-service phone menu.

On Sunday, Nov 2, I did not receive a paper. I waited until around 10:30 am (an hour later than the latest delivery time of 9:30 am on Sunday deliveries), and again called the customer service phone line to request another credit to my account for a missed paper via the self-service phone menu.

To say the least, I'm feeling frustrated. Due to the very interesting presidential campaign this year, I wanted to get a national paper delivered to my residence. I looked into both the Washington Post and the NYT, but I found that the NYT is the only one of the two that offers home delivery. And after getting one direct-mail offer, and also seeing the television spots advertising the "Weekender" subscription, this is why I chose the NYT.

Yes, I can read things online, but sometimes I'm more comfortable reading an actual paper, rather than a computer screen all the time (I do enjoy the Times Reader software, though I use the Mac beta version). Also, sometimes I'll come across an article in the actual paper that I may not "stumble across" online.

Could someone check into what the problem(s) may be?
Could the carrier not be getting my paper subscription in the first place, so that they can't deliver it, even if they wanted to?
Or is the carrier receiving my paper subscription, but they are not delivering it?

I feel that if I don't begin receiving my subscription at least by Sunday, Nov 9, then I will have to consider canceling my subscription, even though I received nary an issue whatsoever.

I kindly request a reply sometime by Friday, Nov 7. I realize that I'm not the only person who may have delivery problems, but I hope this matter can be resolved.

Thank you for your assistance,
“Paying Customer”

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E-mail from the New York Times, November 7, 2008:

Dear “Paying Customer”,

Thank you for visiting The New York Times’ Customer Care Web site on 11/07/2008 to let us know about a problem you are experiencing on your account XXXXXXXXX. This is the situation that you provided us: " : My home delivery service was slated to start since 10/25. Have not received a single paper since. Don't know if the carrier isn't being supplied the paper from you all in the first place, or if the carrier isn't delivering it to my residence.".

One of our customer care agents will assist you within 24 hours of receipt of your e-mail. We thank you for your patience.

Sincerely,
The New York Times
http://homedelivery.nytimes.com

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E-mail, from Trina Rodgers, Online Customer Care, The New York Times, November 10, 2008:

Dear “Paying Customer”,

Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention and are addressing the no start of your delivery and the missed papers you have been experiencing. We have escalated the matter to our distribution partners to ensure that this gets the attention it warrants so we can resolve the problem for you. In addition, your account XXXXXXXXX will be credited $9.40, which will reflect on your next statement.

If there is anything else we can do to help you, please e-mail at customercare@nytimes.com or call us at 1-800-NYTIMES (1-800-698-4637) from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday and 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday (ET).

Your satisfaction is very important to us.

Sincerely,
Trina Rodgers
Online Customer Care
The New York Times

###

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E-mail to the New York Times, December 8, 2008:

Dear Madam or Sir:

I am writing in regard to my New York Times (NYT) subscription, specifically Account Number XXXXXXXXX, which is a Friday-Sunday subscription.

I contacted the NYT previously in an e-mail about delivery problems with my subscription (full text below).

Unfortunately, not all the delivery problems have been rectified. I will outline the problems below:

Friday delivery: To begin, even though my subscription started Friday, October 24, and after more than a month later, I have not received a single issue of a Friday newspaper whatsoever. As far as I know, I have been credited for all these missed papers that were supposed to be delivered Friday.

Saturday delivery: Saturday delivery has for the most part been good, since my previous e-mail of November 3. It seems I usually get the Saturday paper.

Sunday delivery: Sunday delivery was good; however I have missed the Sunday paper the past two weeks, on November 30 and December 7. For the November 30 issue, I requested a replacement copy via the telephone customer service menu; however I never did receive a paper for that day. And I forgot to report this missed issue for credit via the telephone service, so you probably don’t have a record of this event. If I am not eligible for credit of the missed November 30 paper, that’s OK, because I forgot to report it.

For this past Sunday’s paper, December 7, I initially requested a replacement copy to be delivered. However, a replacement was not delivered, and I called customer service, and a representative did credit my account.

Newspaper location: Another complaint I have is how I am finding the newspaper itself, when it is delivered. I live in a house in the City of XXXXXXX, but the neighborhood where I reside could be considered “suburban.” It is at an intersection of two streets, and there are public sidewalks. There is a walkway, about 20 feet long, from the house to the public sidewalk and street.

Currently, I can recall but one time when the paper’s location, when it was delivered, was actually on the front porch. The rest of the deliveries were elsewhere: either somewhere on the front-half portion of the yard closest to the public sidewalk, or else on the public sidewalk itself. There was even one time when I found my newspaper in the curb/gutter on the street.

It is my belief that the carrier delivering my newspaper is driving by my house and tossing the newspaper out of their vehicle’s window from the street, and the newspaper lands where it may. As I said in my previous e-mail, we also get a local daily newspaper, The XXXXXXX Times, and the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal. The carrier for these newspapers puts these papers on the front porch usually.

The only reason I bring this up is because there are people in this neighborhood who own dogs and walk them around, as well as people who walk for exercise, in the morning hours.

If the newspaper is not delivered in a closer proximity to the house, at least on the front porch, then a case could be made that some person(s) may be taking the newspaper as they walk by my house, especially if they find it near the sidewalk, on the sidewalk, or out in the street. They may see it and think that:

(a) It’s trash, or
(b) It was dropped accidentally, and since there’s no name/address label on the paper, they don’t know who it belongs to, and they take it, or
(c) They steal it outright.

I don’t know if this is happening, but I offer it only as a theory.

I have thought this: could it be possible for the person who delivers the XXXXXXX Times and the Wall Street Journal here to my residence, to deliver the New York Times as well? I don’t know if it is possible, but if it could be, I can contact this person to see if he was willing and able (he lives in the same area where I do).

In any case, if someone could look into this matter, I would appreciate it very much.

Sincerely,
“Paying Customer”

###

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E-mail from New York Times, December 10, 2008:

Dear “Paying Customer”,

Thank you for contacting us. We do apologize for the inconvenience. We appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention and are addressing the irregular delivery that you experienced. We will ensure that this gets the attention it warrants, so we can resolve the problem for you. We did contact our distribution center to ensure that the paper is delivered every Sunday to the front porch. In addition, your account will be credited $3.40 for the missed 11/30 paper, which will reflect on your next statement.

If there is anything else we can do to help you, please e-mail at customercare@nytimes.com or call us at 1-800-NYTIMES (1-800-698-4637) from 5 a.m. to midnight (ET).

Your satisfaction is very important to us.

Sincerely,
C. Mason
Online Customer Care
The New York Times
www.homedelivery.nytimes.com

###

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E-mail to New York Times, December 10, 2008:

C.,

Thanks very much for the reply...make sure to tell the distributor to deliver not only Sunday's paper, but Friday's and Saturday's as well, in the vicinity of the front porch. :)

Regards,
“Paying Customer”

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E-mail from New York Times, December 11, 2008:

Dear “Paying Customer”,

Thank you for contacting us. In response to your inquiry, we will contact the carrier to ensure your paper is delivered to the front porch.

If there is anything else we can do to help you, please e-mail us at customercare@nytimes.com or call us at 1-800-NYTIMES (1-800-698-4637) from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday and 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday (ET).

Your satisfaction is very important to us and we thank you for your feedback.

Sincerely,
Marcus Johnson
Online Customer Care
The New York Times
www.homedelivery.nytimes.com

###

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E-mail to girlfriend about New York Times, January 5, 2009:

If you would like to call them, here's the NYT Customer Care phone line:

1-800-698-4637

You'll probably have to go through a phone menu. When you speak with someone, they'll ask to confirm:

Account Number: XXXXXXXXX
Name: “Paying Customer”
Address: [“Paying Customer”’s Residence Where Obviously We [The New York Times] Can’t Deliver a Friday or Sunday Newspaper]

You may have to tell them you're "my f**king wife."

Points:
1. I still haven't received a Friday paper whatsoever.
2. The Saturday delivery of the December 27 paper was not on the front porch. It was in the front yard, next to the public sidewalk.
3. Still haven't received a Sunday paper since I complained in my last e-mail to them on December 8, 2008.

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