Subscribing to good customer service practices is a must

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Fulfillment can mean many things in the subscription business, but subscribers just want a fulfilling experience with the publication chosen.

That begins with prompt delivery of the first issue. Oops, that takes "six to eight weeks." Then they want the content to match the marketing hype and be timely and accurate. That usually works pretty well. If it doesn"t, the editors' names are prominent, and editors encourage readers to write to them.

The last leg of the three-legged fulfillment stool for the subscriber is customer service. Changes of address, renewals, bill payments, refunds, gifts and status inquiries are the chief reasons for a subscriber to contact the customer service department.

Low customer expectations

Unfortunately - and I'm referring to all customer service now, not just subscription - it is often less than a fulfilling experience for the caller.

In fact, it seems callers have had so many bad experiences they have already arrived at these conclusions when dialing:

■ They will get a recording with numerous options and numbers to choose from.

■ They will be put on hold and forced to listen to ads or terrible music.

■ They will be told repeatedly in a recording they should conduct their business on the Web site, which they already knew and chose not to do.

■ The person who finally answers the phone will be uninformed, uncaring or both.

Don't we, as callers, want to speak with someone who is courteous and tries hard? And have the correct information at hand?

It seems so simple. So why is it that there are so many complaints about this operation?

Let's return to the subscription-fulfillment industry for some answers.

Personal and technical support varies. Customer service runs the gamut from an in-house operation where the publisher's staff knows many of the readers by name to an outsourced call center - maybe not even at the fulfillment-service bureau - handling hundreds of titles and with limited knowledge of each product.

The in-house representatives mean well but may lack the latest subscriber-status information to accurately answer the question or the technical expertise to process the order correctly. And usually the call transaction system is not automated or efficient.

This is simply not something publishers care to allocate a lot of resources to, even though when they get a call from an irate subscriber, heads roll.

The performance of the outsourced call center representatives depends on how well they are trained, the technical tools at their disposal and whether they are staffed appropriately to handle sudden spikes in calls, say, in response to a particular promotion. No matter the size or set-up, attitude is a big factor in satisfying the caller.

Here are some elements considered critical to a successful customer service operation:

■ Ability of the caller to connect with a person as quickly as possible.

■ Clear instructions regarding leaving messages if after hours.

■ Call-backs made in a timely fashion.

■ A real-time, user-friendly look-up system where the latest data is always available to the representative, enabling accurate information to be relayed to the caller quickly.

■ A methodology for reporting each call and disposition so that if the subscriber calls back later, the information is posted, no matter who responds.

■ Details about the publication at the representatives' fingertips: prices, mail dates, rules about back issues and headquarter contact information.

So, what if the publisher or fulfillment company possesses all of the above elements and it is the caller who has an attitude, not the representative?

Employees should follow these guidelines:

■ Don't interrupt. Let them vent until they run out of steam.

■ Don't argue.

■ Acknowledge their pain or frustration without dwelling on it.

■ If they are so irate they won't calm down, pass them on to a "supervisor." Just hearing another voice - supposedly one of authority - will calm and reassure them that their complaint is important.

Customer care e-mail

E-mail inquiries require a different skill set. So far we have addressed telephone customer service, but e-mail inquiries are becoming a larger factor in the customer service equation. While these are easier than telephone inquiries in many ways, they require the respondent to be precise, accurate and professional. The goal is to answer the e-mail in a timely manner and in such as way that this does not turn into a ping-pong game.

For example, put the publication name in the "from" or "subject" line, regardless of what the writer used. List the account number in the response so you do not have to re-research if a follow-up inquiry arrives. Always use a spelling and grammar checker at all times. Create canned responses, and cut and paste them to save time in repetitive messages, such as the tedious wire transfer instructions.

Training representatives in the art of e-mail response is crucial. The shorthand, text-messaging style of e-mail writing has no place in customer service. It's "Thank you," not "thanx" or "no problem." It's complete sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization, not one run-on sentence with several thoughts.

This is all common-sense stuff, right? And not expensive to implement. It's just a matter of establishing a mind-set that the most cost-effective way to keep a customer happy and renewing is through stellar customer service.

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