From the blog of Tim Rickards, a copywriter/creative director in Austin, Texas, posted yesterday afternoon:
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.
Three weeks of no delivery. Two complaint calls ignored by the customer service department. Another cancelled subscription. Is it any wonder the Times is $1 billion in debt?
If Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reads Rickard's reasons for cancelling his subscription, he'll understand why he's got an angry mob of shareholders, investors and industry analysts asking for his head.
It turns out it's not just the corporate end of the business that's being grossly mismanaged; it's also the retail side that's screwed up. Any businessman knows that good customer service is essential in keeping a business viable. When good customers like Tim Rickards give up on the Times, is it any wonder the business community has started to give up on the Times, too?
Fortunately for Sulzberger, Rickards hasn't lost faith in the product itself, at least in theory:
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.
And Rickards has done Sulzberger the ultimate courtesy of collating his thoughts into a coherent and considered list of rants about the Times, and suggestions for how to win him back.
First of all, Rickards can't understand how the Times let him cancel his subscription to begin with:
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....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.
He then notes that the customer-service failure bodes poorly for the future of the business:
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.
Rickards then goes on to offer the Times some suggestions for how it could improve its subscription business. They're simple, smart and easy to implement, and worth reprinting here in full:
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/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 nytimes.com can't keep up with them all.
Smart guy, Tim Rickards.
Hey, Mr. Sulzberger -- how hard would it be to offer Tim Rickards an incentive rate to re-subscribe? And what about sending him (and other loyal print subscribers) a calendar or a Krugman collection -- or even something from your freaking Obama store -- as thanks for maintaining home delivery of the paper?
Giving some thought to his bigger ideas wouldn't hurt, either. He's right, TimesPeople looks like a chore.
You have to wonder how many people like Tim Rickards are out there right now, ready to pay for the print edition but unwilling to do battle with a customer service department content to ignore them, and a web-obsessed newspaper ready to give up on them.
Pay attention, Mr. Sulzberger. Print isn't dead. Not yet.