As news outlets increasingly rely on digital subscriptions as a primary revenue source, many are finding that barriers separating their print and digital functions — particularly on the business side — are hindering their ability to provide quality customer service.

Get your systems talking to each other

For Terrence Williams, president and chief operating officer at The Keene Sentinel in Keene, N.H., this realization dawned on him in 2019 when he and his team joined the Poynter Institute’s version of the Table Stakes program, which coaches local publications in developing techniques that help them reach long-term financial sustainability. That’s when they were suddenly confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the 222-year-old daily newspaper didn’t have the infrastructure to adequately deal with complaints from its digital customers.

Since it was their responsibility to manage these complaints, there was “good communication” between Sentinel employees who handled digital circulation. However, according to Williams, he and the newsroom staff weren’t involved in those conversations with customers. Since consumer revenue sources, such as digital subscriptions, are significantly impacted by how customers feel about an outlet’s journalism, it’s essential that the newsroom is kept abreast of any customer complaints.

Managing complaints about digital subscriptions wasn’t a priority until the Sentinel enlisted a cross-departmental group of employees to join Table Stakes, and started identifying barriers to entry for subscribers, he explained.

“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.”

The team’s top priority was to create a single database that could house the Sentinel’s advertising and circulation customers, both print and digital. Before joining Table Stakes, the paper had two systems, according to Williams: TownNews, which the paper bought in the late 2000s, and Vision Data, which it bought in the mid-2010s after creating a paywall and setting up digital subscriptions.

After buying Vision Data, the Sentinel had two different ways that customers could sign up for a subscription: They could subscribe through TownNews, the newsroom front-end system, or through Vision Data, the circulation front-end system. That divided Sentinel subscribers into two buckets: TownNews subscribers and Vision Data subscribers. As a result, the circulation department had to “manage fulfillment on both ends, which was nuts,” Williams explained. They were getting frequent calls from both types of subscribers, so they had to know how to troubleshoot for both systems.

“We came together and said, ‘What are our problems? What are the obstacles we’ve got to clear in order to make it easier to subscribe?’” he said. “That’s when all this stuff kind of hits you in the face, and you realize what these poor people were dealing with — not just our customers, but our own internal people trying to make customers happy.”

“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.”

Ultimately, the Sentinel team chose Vision Data as its single database because the system can handle both print and online circulation, which was particularly helpful because many print subscribers were also entitled to an online subscription. So, the Sentinel migrated the TownNews database into Vision Data.

After making that critical decision, Williams explained, it was easier for the Sentinel’s customer service representatives to address digital customer 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,’” he said. “They were pretty advanced to begin with, but they’ve become even more so now that we’re just working with one system.”

Many legacy newspapers struggle with integration challenges that are similar to what the Sentinel experienced, including Bangor Daily News, a paper serving central and eastern Maine. Director of audience Joellen Easton said it uses different systems to manage print and digital subscriptions, and that the staff who manage these two systems have different skill sets. Easton and her team are searching for a customer relationship management (CRM) system that can hold all of the Daily News’ customer data, and connect with both the paper’s print and digital subscription systems, as well as an email marketing system.

“We’ve been struggling with how to put in place a system like ZenDesk or similar to provide unified customer service across all products, so all reps can have a more complete picture of the customer relationship,” Easton told API.

VTDigger, a Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet founded in 2009, also experienced integration pains but eventually addressed them in 2017 with the hiring of Florencio Terra, its first-ever dedicated membership and development coordinator. Before Terra joined VTDigger, the publication had an associate publisher who managed membership off the side of her desk  for a short while when the program was much smaller. But because this person was neither focused on people nor on the details of the membership program, they made mistakes, according to Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.

When Terra came on board, the publication was able to dedicate somebody to envisioning and running its membership program full-time. Part of his job involves sending acknowledgements and thank-you notes to members via online messages and direct mail. “We have somebody we can rely on to get it right,” Peters said.

Not only did membership receive little attention at the time, VTDigger’s systems weren’t talking to each other very well. Staff couldn’t tell, for example, if a member who had donated was also on VTDigger’s email list. Now, Peters explained, “Everything is a little bit better synced up so that you can get a better understanding, a holistic understanding, of who somebody is when they’re calling.”

Before this integration, VTDigger had a button on its website where readers could make a PayPal donation; this was connected to a system called Donor Tools, a donation-management software that had “bare-minimum” functionality, according to Peters, which meant it basically only recorded donations.

“If a donation got lost, if a donation was badly flagged, if it was a recurring donation, if it was supposed to be a one-time donation — there was not much we could do about it. We could delete that donation or re-run the credit card,” she said. “It was all really manual and really kind of onerous and probably not very secure.”

Now, VTDigger is connected to Salesforce, a popular CRM, and Mailchimp, a popular email marketing platform. It also has a third system that governs the website donation appeals on specific stories. Peters said all three systems talk to each other very well, which is a big reason why she decided to implement them.

“I feel like we’ve gone from a place where we’ve kind of had to shoehorn our processes and our business practices into someone else’s system to one where we can customize the experience to make the best of it for everyone,” she explained. “We can make decisions about what to put in front of people and when to put in front of people based on who those people are.”

Train audience engagement staff on customer service and vice versa

Andrew Losowsky, co-founder of open-source publishing platform The Coral Project (which is now part of Vox Media), has long been an advocate for integrating customer service into news outlets’ audience engagement departments because from an outside perspective, they’re one and the same.

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

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, according to Trusting News founder Joy Mayer. Not only should reps be prepared to field questions like “Where’s my newspaper?” and “How do I cancel my subscription?” Mayer said, they should also be able to manage journalism-related queries, including accusations of bias, requests for corrections and more. Because customer service representatives are on the front lines of audience engagement, these kinds of interactions are critical trust-building opportunities.

Mayer suggested that every customer service rep should be prepared to handle the following common journalism-related questions or concerns:

Requests for corrections. Reps should know the newsroom’s official policy on corrections, and the process for addressing them. They should be able to explain this to the customer and point them to the official channel for reading the policy and requesting a correction. They should explain what the customer can expect after the request is submitted.

Complaints that stem from misassumptions or a lack of knowledge about journalistic practices. Customer service reps should be able to identify complaints rooted in misunderstandings and dispel basic ones like:

-The newsroom’s ownership and its influence on editorial content.

-The difference between news and opinion.

-Perceptions of the newsroom’s fairness or bias.

Much of this information should be found in a news organization’s ethics policy; customer service reps should be familiar with this and, if there is a public-facing version (there should be!) be able to point customers there. But most importantly they should be coached to listen to the customer with empathy, identify whether their complaint is based on a misconception about journalism, and try to correct it. If it seems like the customer would appreciate an answer from or conversation with a journalist, the reps should make the appropriate connection.

Questions about how the newsroom operates. This includes:

-How journalists decide what to cover. Customers often have questions about which high school sports team gets featured each week or who gets highlighted as a featured new business.

-Journalistic processes like using anonymous sources, how reporters strive for fairness and accuracy, how stories are fact-checked, how breaking news is covered and how mistakes are corrected.

-The use of outside content such as wire stories and partner content.

Questions about how to participate in the reporting process.

-This includes things like submitting a letter to the editor, suggesting a story tip, requesting a photo reprint, etc.

The Keene Sentinel understood the integral role that customer service plays in a news organization. So, it launched an initiative that enabled all employees — including editorial — to learn from the customer service team. According to Williams, this decision “was an acknowledgement on our part that we needed people working on this across the company on all aspects of customer service — not just subscription tickets.”

To make customer service a top priority for the entire Sentinel team, Williams decided to create a guide that includes best practices and tips from employees who are effective with customers, including circulation administrative assistant Kim Ethier, business and HR manager Linda Flagg, print shop manager Kathryn Norbutus and assistant advertising director Shelly Bergeron.

“We pulled these folks together and said, ‘Okay, so when you think about how you treat your customers and how you like to be treated, what is your mindset?’” Williams explained. “‘What are the things that we need to make sure that we build into this guide, and then offer training to the rest of the company?’”

“You learn from these people how they interact with customers and how they’re able to retain them.”

The group created a list of expectations for behaviors and responsiveness that it included in the guide for customer-facing staff. Much of the practical advice is common sense, Williams acknowledged, but the guide will be helpful for those who don’t necessarily know how to handle difficult people, such as fresh college grads who are new employees. His ultimate goals are for the guide to become the standard that employees measure themselves against, and that when people think about interacting with the Sentinel, they have a favorable perception.

Establish regular communication between departments

As newsroom leaders, it’s easier to break down company silos and streamline processes when you have the buy-in of your team. When employees understand that temporary disruptions to existing workflows will lead to better long-term outcomes, there will be less opposition. Executives at two major media companies, The Seattle Times and McClatchy, said editorial integration with customer service has long been a priority for these companies.

Like many longstanding newspapers, The Seattle Times had a barrier between its editorial and business departments, but never between its newsroom and the customer service department. “The circulation department and its audience focus and its customer focus — I don’t think ever lived in that realm [of silos], even in the glory days of print. So the relationship’s been good. It’s always been open,” said Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue.

Oftentimes, before making any product changes, the Times newsroom would consult the customer service department to get customer feedback and guidance on how to publicly communicate these changes to their readership. Before content was cut, added or moved, there had to be a conversation between editorial staff and circulation customer service reps.

For its part, McClatchy launched an internal slogan — #OneTeam — several years ago to encourage departmental interconnectedness. Sarah Patterson, director of production in McClatchy’s publishing center, said this approach is part of the company’s ethos, and that it’s never been unusual for McClatchy’s customer service department to work with other departments, including advertising and audience.

Patterson cited a recent example when McClatchy moved its comics and puzzles section to digital from print, which involved a collaboration between the IT department, the pagination team and customer service. In addition, the newsroom worked with customer service three weeks before the switchover to get a sense of what readers’ reactions to the change might be, so they could strategize a response to handle them.

“We had a lot of communication with customer service to talk about what they were seeing and what we were seeing … and what sort of adjustments we needed to make in the comics and puzzles offerings, you know those little tweaks,” Patterson explained, adding that some customers asked for the comics to be enlarged because they were too small to see. “[We were] trying to make readers happy where we could.”

Both newsroom staff and customer service reps engage with McClatchy readers. Whichever department a reader contacts first is the department that manages the query, though the newsroom tends to handle complaints about journalism and customer service tends to handle complaints about subscriptions, according to Patterson.

The #OneTeam structure is both informal and formal at McClatchy. Patterson was recently added to a formal committee that’s composed of people from departments across the company, including news, audience and transformation, but said McClatchy also encourages its employees to reach out to their fellow colleagues and collaborate informally.

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