Automated phone systems, online self-service portals and other low-touch tactics have become the standard when it comes to customer service across industries. Companies these days seldom deploy real human beings to interact with customers when answering their questions or processing their transactions.

But for the embattled journalism industry, high-touch service may be one of the keys to driving sustainable consumer revenue growth, especially for community-driven news outlets.

Magic of the personal touch

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has been serving the state of Arkansas for 143 years, but since the newspaper of record hit a high of 300,000 subscribers in 1996, circulation has dropped every year after that — a decline that’s accelerated over the past decade. “We reached a point where we needed to do something drastic to save our paper,” explained circulation director Larry Graham, who’s worked at the Democrat-Gazette for over 40 years.

Graham attributed this free fall to an aging subscriber base whose numbers dwindled simply because there are fewer of them, and to the paper’s difficulty with capturing the attention of younger readers who have many other options competing for their eyeballs — not only from news, but also from entertainment.

“Back in 1980, when I started at the Democrat-Gazette, we were competing against the other newspaper — that was our competitor. Now, our competitor is everywhere. Every single person on the internet is our competitor,” he said. “We’re competing [for] people’s time.”

“So that just changed how people consume news, information; how they entertain themselves.”

To retain its primary audience of older readers and to cut printing costs, the Democrat-Gazette leadership team came up with an innovative, high-touch solution: Replace most of its home delivery of print newspapers with e-newspapers uploaded onto iPads. This move, spearheaded by publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., ended up being the Democrat-Gazette’s saving grace during COVID-19, a time when many local papers experienced major financial losses.

“We were going to lose money this year. We made money this year,” Graham said of 2020. “We turned it around.”

The circulation director added that the iPad program was “most definitely” the reason for this turnaround.

High-touch customer service may be one of the keys to driving consumer revenue growth, especially for community news outlets.

In January 2018, the Democrat-Gazette eliminated delivery to Blackville, Ark., an isolated community 200 miles from the paper’s headquarters in Little Rock. At the time, the Democrat-Gazette was delivering to every county in Arkansas, and wanted to use Blackville as its first test case for its iPad program.

For the same price they were paying to receive a print newspaper, the 200 subscribers in Blackville could get an iPad uploaded with the Democrat-Gazette e-newspaper, or full access to the website. After eliminating home delivery to this area, Graham and his team notified the subscribers via mail and also called them to set up iPad tutorial appointments.

“We wound up getting 70% of the subscribers converted over to reading us” on the iPad, he revealed. “So, we were really excited.”

Graham said adding a personal touch to customer support was a major reason for this high conversion rate. It took about two months for Graham and his team of 10 staffers to work through the 200 subscribers in Blackville. They met with subscribers in-person at a hotel meeting space or at their homes to show them how to use the iPad and e-newspaper app.

Graham’s specific role was to visit subscribers who didn’t want to meet at the hotel. He recounted a specific instance when he spent two hours teaching a 94-year-old man who “wasn’t happy about losing his newspaper” how to navigate the iPad. The circulation director said it took him 30 minutes to teach the man how to swipe a page.

“He was persistent. I mean, he really wanted to learn how to use it. So, about an hour and a half later, he was swiping pages, expanding the type,” Graham explained. “Then the next three or four days, he called our office every day. He was having trouble logging in, but he finally got it.”

Because of its success in Blackville, the Democrat-Gazette kept testing in more markets. In Mountain Home, Ark., 72% of print subscribers converted to the e-newspaper. In the more affluent Jonesboro, where Arkansas State University is based, 75% converted. Helena and West Memphis also had conversion rates of 70% and higher.

In South Arkansas, the Democrat-Gazette team tested a different offering for subscribers. They had three options: the iPad plus home delivery of the Sunday paper, digital-only access to the website or Sunday delivery only. The overall conversion rate to these products was 80% there.

Graham and his team also tested the type of device offered to subscribers. They started off using the 12-inch iPad, which costs $800 each and worked well because it’s the same size as the Democrat-Gazette’s print newspaper. But when they offered a smaller 9.7-inch iPad, which costs $300 each, the conversion rate was the same.

At this point, Graham had a team of 13 iPad trainers who went above and beyond when serving customers. “When somebody has a problem with their connectivity with [the] iPad, we go to their house, try to figure out why their Wi-Fi isn’t working. We [go] underneath your desk and try to get to the router, try to get the password,” he said.

In addition, the Democrat-Gazette customer service team is currently undergoing retraining to handle technical questions about the iPad and online access to its website. Whereas the average phone call from a print subscriber lasts a minute and a half (“They’ll call in and say, ‘I’m going on my vacation; stop my subscription for five days’ or whatever,” Graham explained), the average call from a digital subscriber lasts five to 10 minutes.

“When a phone call comes in, we seek out the person with the highest skill level for that subscriber,” the circulation director said. “Going through the iPad distribution, we’ve trained a lot of people that are really good at that.”

After testing in six or seven markets, in December 2018, the Democrat-Gazette decided to move forward with the smaller 9.7-inch iPad and Sunday delivery. The next month, in January 2019, the newspaper’s leadership team developed a plan to replace home delivery in every one of the Democrat-Gazette’s service areas. It took them a full year to complete the rollout.

As the iPad program expanded to more affluent, educated and tech-savvy areas of Arkansas, it started converting 80 to 85% of subscribers. Today, the Democrat-Gazette has 30,000 subscribers, of which 27,000 are using iPads. Eventually, it wants to increase that number to 28,000 or 29,000 iPad users, but achieving this goal requires a change in strategy, as the paper will have to shift from converting existing subscribers to capturing new ones.

“It really changed our department completely from being a print-circulation department to a techie department,” Graham said. “So, it changed customer service. It changed everything about what we’re doing.”

Half of the remaining 3,000 subscribers who don’t use iPads just want the Sunday paper, and the other half are digital subscribers who already have an iPad or don’t want one. This group has an annual churn rate of 30%, while the iPad group churns at 13%, according to Graham. “If we can get an iPad into somebody’s hand and get them using the iPad … for their email, playing games, downloading music, watching movies — whatever we do on the iPad — they’re more likely to keep taking the paper,” he explained.

Not having to print a newspaper six days a week also saved the Democrat-Gazette a lot of money, Graham said without citing specific numbers. The company still prints 3,000 papers a day that it distributes throughout central Arkansas; they’re usually for sale outside of grocery stores and gas stations, though Graham acknowledged that “at some point, we’ll probably stop that.”

The iPad program was such a success that the Democrat-Gazette’s parent company WEHCO Media, Inc. adopted it for another one of its newspapers, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, resulting in a 75% print-to-iPad conversion rate for the area. From January to September 2020, during the pandemic, iPad trainers made house calls while adhering to strict social distancing guidelines.

Delivery drivers are an ‘asset, not an afterthought’

The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper in Keene, N.H., is also investing in high-touch customer service by leveraging and retraining its staff. Unlike the Democrat-Gazette, however, the Sentinel is taking a lower-tech approach to improving customer relations.

Terrence Williams, the paper’s president and chief operating officer, became concerned after noticing that the Sentinel’s newspaper delivery tubes were strewn throughout Keene. “I’d be driving into work, and you see all these dead newspaper tubes that are tipped over — the plows knock them down, or they’re on the ground or whatever — and it’s just such a bad reflection on your brand,” he explained. “The grungy old tubes that, you know, faded — you can’t even see the Sentinel name on it.”

So, the customer service team came up with a simple solution: They paid their delivery drivers several dollars a pop to replace the old tubes with new ones. In three weeks, the drivers pulled nearly 400 tubes out of the market, and installed 120 new ones.

“It’s a simple idea, but it struck people [that] this wasn’t putting us in the best light.” Williams said. “It makes a huge difference.”

This project was just the beginning of the Sentinel’s shift in its perception of its delivery drivers and how they could contribute to customer service. From 2019 to 2020, the Sentinel’s leadership team started assessing ways to improve retention from a delivery standpoint, given the onslaught of complaints that its circulation department was receiving at the time.

“We also flipped the whole idea of what a driver was for us … so that is thinking about how can we use this driver for us — not just for delivery — but more as a proactive part of what it is that we do,” Williams explained. “We should use it as an asset instead of just kind of an afterthought.”

He and his team looked at compensation issues to figure out ways to improve working conditions for the drivers, who were independent contractors, so they’d continue working happily for the Sentinel. “They tend to show up, their vehicles are in tough shape, they’re doing this as a second job,” Williams said. “Bad weather, bad cars — just a nightmare.”

Since much of the drivers’ compensation comes from tips, the team surveyed them about what it takes to be a good driver. Based on the drivers’ advice and recommendations, the Sentinel developed a 16-step guide that it gives to incoming drivers to enhance customer service and ultimately generate more tips.

Williams and his team also came up with the idea to have drivers conduct simple surveys for the Sentinel, asking subscribers for feedback about delivery and content. The first survey went out to 4,500 households of which 1,800 responded, an “astounding” number, according to Williams. This increased interaction between Sentinel drivers and subscribers significantly improved customer perception of the newspaper.

“The overall perception of delivery was excellent. They liked their drivers,” Williams said, adding that complaints to circulation decreased from 4 per 1,000 customers to less than 1 per 1,000. “Using the driver force as a means to communicate with our customers is a real opportunity. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but there’s all sorts of communication we can give them to give to our readers.”

“In many cases, the readers have a better relationship with the driver than they do with us.”

Connecting authentically means staying local

Developing authentic relationships with readers comes naturally to the team at Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet VTDigger, according to membership and development coordinator Florencio Terra, who’s the main employee handling customer service inquiries.

“We just try to help people no matter what — not just donors,” he explained. “It’s just part of that whole ethos of a community news outlet. It’s just this ethos I think in Vermont where people help each other. It’s very community-oriented.”

Since he sees the outlet as part of the community, Terra said he regularly answers non-VTDigger-related queries from customers and non-customers alike, such as the best local restaurants for sandwiches and contact information for a state agency. This approach stems from Terra’s previous experience working at a small weekly newspaper where people would “come in for everything,” from posting classifieds for local businesses and placing obituaries for deceased loved ones, to requesting reprints of an edition that features the local high school sports team’s winning game.

Describing himself as “pretty personable,” Terra added that being a longtime Vermonter and knowing the area and people also helps.

“I’ve talked to people who call with crazy stuff that has nothing to do with membership and you just talk to them and you walk them off a cliff, sort of thing,” he said. “You have to be patient and you just use common sense, but yeah, it’s not like officially we were trained.”

Beyond maintaining a sense of calm, the “imminently patient” Terra has a knack for developing positive relationships with customers immediately, according to Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.

Peters confirms that a highly personal touch works well in Vermont because it’s a “small, insular place with a cozy rural ethos to it.” This ethos, she added, runs through the entire organization; for instance, founder and executive director Anne Galloway will reply to every member email in her inbox to ensure everyone gets a response.

Peters said she has many anecdotes of locals walking into VTDigger’s office with their phones, asking why the website isn’t loading properly, when their screens are just too zoomed out for anything to be legible. Even with those minor issues, staff try their best to address them.

“I think that really matters. Even if sometimes we can’t successfully troubleshoot something, people appreciate that we’ve given it an effort and actually looked at their issue, and aren’t just shoving things into a support ticket system,” she said, adding that it’s all about “making a human connection.”

Leveraging local knowledge to connect with customers is an approach that the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has an in-house call center, also values. Throughout his career at different media companies, vice-president of circulation Jim Gorman said he’s seen the transition from an internal customer service team to a regional call center to completely outsourced call centers, both onshore and offshore. For that reason, Gorman understands the power of connection through shared experiences and backgrounds, citing “dialect, familiarity with the customs, with the geography and understanding what’s going on internally at the newspaper” as benefits of having locally-based customer service reps.

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