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The New York Times and the Customer Experience: Lessons in What Not to Do

April 04, 2013

For those of you who follow my postings, you know I’m very averse to using anecdotal personal experiences as examples of industry dos and don’ts. However, my recent experience with The New York Times concerning its ability/inability to deliver the physical paper caused me to cancel my subscription of over 30 years. 


It was based on a series of bad customer experiences; it had zero to do with the content which I enjoy. It illustrates on several fronts what not to do if your goal is to keep existing customers.

Here is my tale of woe. We moved several months ago, and had our Weekender subscription— (Friday, Saturday and Sunday delivery with free online access to the digital version—transferred to the address. For the first several weeks we had no papers at all – Friday only, Friday and Sunday, Saturday and Sunday but no Friday, and then Sunday only. Each time necessitated a call to the automated attendant to notify them of the missing paper and decide if I wanted it delivered or a credit. 

By the way, delivery does not mean immediately after the 8:30 time they promise, but usually after noon when the utility of the “morning” paper has greatly diminished value. It usually also meant talking to customer service people, since requested deliveries were also missed. They were very nice. Once, they even got the regional dispatch manager to personally deliver the paper. 

But the mishaps continued. My wife and I were spending more time on the phone with customer service than reading the physical version of the paper.

Fast forward. Prior to a vacation, we went online to put a hold on delivery while we were away. The stack of blue-wrapped papers on my lawn upon return was impressive. Good thing nobody with mischief on their minds decided to explore. Here is where it gets interesting. 

After getting no satisfaction from the initial customer service contact, except the constant “we are sorry for the inconvenience,” I escalated the problem to a supervisor. A very nice man assured me that the problem would be fixed. He did advise that the next time we went away I should not use the online capability to put the paper on hold but should call and have the agent agree to send a memo to both the carrier and the dispatch center. “Ninety-nine percent of the time that solves the problem,” I was told. I questioned why the paper had online self-service to do this if it did not work. It drew silence. 

To add insult to injury, the next day there was no paper delivered. I called to complain and see if based on my loyalty they would give me every day delivery of the paper for the rest of the year so the delivery person would not be confused. I was told the best they could do was give me two weeks of complimentary daily service. I told them that response was insulting and to cancel immediately. 

I relate all of this as mentioned above because below is my take on what the New York Times, who has well-documented financial challenges, needs to learn about the customer experience which should be food for thought for everyone running a contact center.

First: Get rid of the contact center agent script that says, always as the first thing, in any way that you apologize. I called with a problem to be fixed and not to hear and apology. What the company should be sorry about is being called. It costs time and money to solve problems. What you need to learn is what most parents tell their kids, “I know you are sorry but what you are sorry about is getting caught, now change your behavior.” I want an agent who starts by saying they are empowered to fix my problem and gets down to the details so the problem is solved and there is reason to believe it will not happen again. I also want them to pass me on to a person who can solve the problem or has discretion to provide me with satisfaction to make me feel better about being a customer, once they have the details. This needs to be done sooner rather than later. 

Second: If you have self-service online or through an IVR, it better be flawless. The last thing a customer wants or needs to hear is that self-service is a problem. “Sorry for the inconvenience!” Really?

Third: You have my history in front of you. It includes all of the instances of recent delivery problems along with how long I have been a customer. One would think, or should I say hope, that the lifetime value of my being loyal in a disloyal age would be worth something more than two weeks of free daily delivery. They just lost a great customer who in all honesty was contemplating going back to daily delivery. There is only one word to describe this, DUMB. Surely, The New York Times, and this is another universal lesson, at this point would have invested in the widely available software necessary to evaluate the quality of their various accounts and not want to disappoint a loyal customer. 

It seems incomprehensible that they would let someone like me get away without a fight.

Finally, it must be noted that contact center agents need to be told that every customer must be treated as the most important one. Marketing 101 teaches that it is way more expensive to obtain a new customer than keep an existing one happy, that you can turn loyal customers into brand advocates, and that the Internet amplifies to an unprecedented extent the ripple effect of what happens when customers have an unsatisfactory experience. This article should be the proof of that.

I miss having my paper delivered. However, I will get the Sunday version at a store that is in walking distance, and subscribe online for the digital version. Like I said, I am a fan of the content and have been reading the paper for over five decades and do not wish to stop relations completely. However, I will not pay for what cannot be delivered, and The New York Times is not maximizing my revenue potential.

From a business perspective, shame on them!

Maybe this is just a way to take a hit from customers who get the physical paper to drive them to only look at the much less expensive digital version, i.e., short term pain for long term gain. This is a case of be careful what you wish for, since the competition is a click away, and most e real problem is there are lots of alternatives out there and the paper might be surprised that once given the chance to spend time with the competition people like me might decide their time is sol value that there is not room for The New York Times.      




Edited by Braden Becker

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