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Being nice, keeping promises doesn't cost newspapers a dime.

Being nice, keeping promises doesn't cost newspapers a dime

When the auto service center told me that they would have my tire changed and I would be on the road in an hour, I was not really too thrilled with the prospects of bumming around the mall waiting, but it was something I could live with.

When I showed up slightly more than an hour later and found my car was not ready, I started getting steamed. When they could not even find my ticket and finally discovered that it was because my car had been pulled into one of the service bays and left sitting there untouched, I got madder.

I finally got my car back two hours after I had dropped it off, a full hour after it had been promised. With righteous indignation in my heart, I thought this story would be a terrific narrative lead for a column I had been wanting to write on how lousy service has got in our "service economy."

I never did write the column, though, and I do not know that I ever will, because I got to thinking about the embarrassing position it would put me in. I would have to end up defending the lousy service people get when they come to my own newspaper.

The full impact of that realization did more than take away a column idea. It got me thinking about service in our entire industry. You see, my first reaction to my own defensiveness was pretty weak. It was something like, "Well, gee, that's different. This is a newspaper. We are not a service industry."

Therein lies the ugly truth: We are not a service industry -- at least not in the real sense of the word "service" -- but we had better become one if we want to keep our customers.

As I think about the newspapers where I have worked and others with which I have dealt as both a subscriber and an advertiser, I am struck by the fact that most newspapers just do not seem to care about treating their customers decently. I have been working in and around newspapers for 12 years, but I have never yet had any training -- formal or informal -- on how I should treat customers. Surely there is some such training at some newspapers, but I have to admit I do not know of any.

When I have mentioned the subject of service in our industry to those outside the newspaper business, the response is very different. Respondents typically get an angry look on their faces and tell me two or three of their own worst horror stories from dealing with a newspaper. The interesting thing is that there is no single department that gets skewered; it is not just newspeople or classified order takers or delivery people. Want a couple of examples?

* A woman who had placed a classified ad in a major Georgia newspaper paid her bill when she got it. She continued to be billed. She sent the paper a copy of the canceled check. She continued to be billed. She called, but nobody was interested in helping her. She was turned over to a collection agency. The agency finally left her alone after she had threatened legal action if their incompetence damaged her credit.

The next time she called the paper to place a classified, she was told she had been placed on the paper's bad credit list. She actually had to use her work phone number and her maiden name to place a classified, and nobody at the paper cared.

* A man subscribed to a major newspaper in Alabama and told the order taker to put the bill on his credit card. It never showed up on his credit card, and his carrier started leaving him nasty messages written on the bills she was sending: "I ain't going to carry you no more if you don't pay."

The newspaper's circulation office could not seem to help. They took the credit card number again, but the carrier still did not seem to know. After talking to the circulation director, the customer learned that the newspaper not only did not have his credit card billed, but did not even have any record of his being a subscriber.

Not only that, but the circulation people could not figure out who the carrier was for that neighborhood. There is a great deal more to this story, but it turned out that the paper finally did bill the man's credit card six months late but, when they did, they put the charge through twice.

* A customer called a weekly newspaper to say that he had not been getting his newspaper. The response of the circulation person: "We just mail them out, so you'll have to call the post office."

* A woman brought a news item about a relative to a community paper and was told the item would be used. When it did not appear in any form, she called to ask about it. "Gee, we don't know anything about it," she was told. "Someone else'll have to call you back." Nobody ever called.

There are thousands of stories we could all add, but the bottom line is that most newspapers do a lousy job of dealing with customers. At most of our papers, real effort is saved for "important" things, i.e. the things that bring in money.

There is much handwringing in our industry about the future of newspapers. We talk about how we need to do this or that to appeal to various reader groups, and those changes to make our papers more reader-friendly are very important.

However, I fear that even more fundamental changes have to happen at the same time, things such as teaching people how to say "Thank you" and "Please"; things such as learning that readers are customers, not nuisances that we have to put up with so we can get on with writing our deathless prose.

If we are going to survive, we had better learn to compete in the "service economy," because it is not like the old days when we were the only game in town.

David McElroy is editor and publisher of the Demopolis [Ala.] Times.)
COPYRIGHT 1991 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McElroy, David
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 13, 1991
Words:1040
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