Joining up the Customer Service Dots

Articles, Subscriptions — By on 16/07/2012 9:56 pm

The latest Dovetail Subscriber Service Survey was the biggest yet, with over 125,000 active magazine subscribers taking part, making it one of the largest customer service surveys in any industry.


“Multi-channel” is the phrase on everyone’s lips, whether you are a publisher, a retailer or an FMCG manufacturer. Delivering a service via all the platforms that are available to consumers is a real front-end marketing challenge. Yet it is also having a massive impact on the back-end customer service – this is one of the biggest issues currently facing a subscription fulfilment operation like Dovetail. All this is why this year’s Subscriber Service Survey is so important in trying to track the fast-moving reader of the magazines we service; joining up the dots in an increasingly complex subscription picture.


What is the Subscriber Service Survey?

Each year, the Subscriber Service Survey (SSS) gathers the views of active magazine subscribers, both in the UK and overseas. Managed by Dovetail and with Demographix providing the online survey tools and Wessenden Marketing the detailed analysis, the survey has grown from its start-point in 2007 as an internal Dovetail initiative with five of our own clients into an annual, industry-wide project. Now in its fifth year, 65 publishers with 487 titles participated, polling the views of a massive 125,000 active magazine subscribers.


Multichannel contact

The shift in how subscribers want to contact us with their queries and problems has been moving steadily from year to year, with letter and phone contact dropping as email and website usage increases. This move has had a major impact on our staff – how we train them and how we structure our customer service teams. At Dovetail, we have found the handling of emails to be a difficult skill to get right, but as the latest survey shows, we have managed to pull our email service back into line with the other established contact channels and slightly above the industry average with a satisfaction score of 8.4 out of 10.


Website usage

While our subscribers are generally moving to more digital contact, this is not universal as the data on website usage shows…

* Magazine brand sites. For the first time in this year’s survey, we asked about subscribers’ usage of magazines’ own editorial brand-sites. Overall, 29% of active subscribers use it regularly and 38% occasionally. So, this means that 67% of subscribers ever use the site, leaving a significant 33% who never use it. Predictably, subscribers to Computing titles come out top as the biggest users of the brand sites with 76% who ever use them, closely followed by Trade (76%), General (75%), Women’s Craft (75%), Sport (74%) and Music (73%). At the other extreme are Puzzle titles (only 39% ever using), Children’s (45%) and TV Guides (48%).

* Self-service subscriber areas. We have been monitoring this for three years. After seeing some growth in awareness and usage, this year’s survey shows that awareness levels have plateaued at 60% of subscribers who know that their magazine has a self-service area with 28% (up by two percentage points on last year) actually using the site – the most common task is renewing the subscription with 48% of self-serve customers using the site for this. So, both awareness and usage are solid, but could do with extra profile-raising among non-users and with more pushing among users so that they undertake more tasks on the site.


Future contact channels

We also asked what new contact channels subscribers would like to use in the future in order to manage their subscription. The clear winner was Facebook (22% of subscribers finding this potential service appealing), followed by live chat (16%) and Twitter (11%). So, while the demand for these new channels is not overwhelming, it is significant and growing and is already a very important request for particular pockets of the subscriber audience.


Usage of electronic readers and magazines

This is a growing area that the SSS covers (and which will be the subject of a separate article in the next issue of InPublishing), but the penetration of electronic devices is growing (13% of total subscribers claim to have an iPad and 14% a Kindle) as is their usage of electronic magazines (12% read them). Yet the overall impression is that it is books and newspapers which are making the digital running with magazines producing solid but luke-warm satisfaction scores in terms of their electronic reading experience.


Rising levels of customer service

Yet at the core of the SSS project is tracking subscriber satisfaction levels with the core subscription service. Here, there are some subtle, but real changes from last year…

* A small (13.2%), but rising (+0.4%) proportion of subscribers have had problems with their subscription over the last twelve months, the majority of these relating to late delivery of the postal subscription copy.

* More subscribers are reporting these problems than a year ago, rising by +1.1% to 68.9%.

* Subscriber satisfaction with the problem resolution has risen year-on-year (by +1.2% points to 65.3%). Yet fail to satisfy the consumer and that has a dramatic impact on renewal intentions. 85% of consumers who were “very satisfied” with their problem resolution intend to renew their subscription as opposed to only 27% who were “very dissatisfied”. If ever there was any doubt, these figures demonstrate just how critical first-rate customer service actually is.

The overall picture is that the incidence of subscription problems is rising and that the more critical consumer is reporting more of these incidences. Yet the quality of problem resolution has also improved. The net effect is that when asked to say whether they agreed with the statement “I have been impressed by the high quality service from the magazine”, 73% agreed, up by a massive 12% points year-on-year.


Creating a subscription toolkit

The SSS survey creates such a mass of rich and deep data where publishers can drill down to track the detailed customer journey of individual titles that Dovetail has created a “toolkit” which it has already trialled with some of its own clients. This allows our account management team to zoom in on what really matters and to have a more structured discussion in client planning meetings and to “join up the dots” in creating a practical action plan. The toolkit takes twenty key parameters from the survey and compares each title within the client’s portfolio against each other as well as against the market sector and the industry averages – the industry averages from the latest survey are shown in the table below.


The key measure running through the whole survey is renewal intention – the percentage of active subscribers who intend to renew their subscription. “Intention” is different from actual “live” renewal rates (a big gap between the two would suggest something amiss with the renewal series), but it is a very good indicator of the strength of the bond, or the “brand glue”, between the subscriber and the magazine. At an industry level, there has been little change in renewal intentions from year to year – just a slight edging down from 75.8% a year ago to 75.5% currently. Yet this topline stability conceals some major changes by title from year to year and a massive range in performance by market and title – the magazine with the lowest renewal intention figure (34%) is a major lifestyle brand and the highest (96%) is a countryside magazine – the biggest range we have seen in recent surveys and an indication that the market is actually quite volatile.

We have picked out three key factors in the profile of the subscriber file which have a material effect on the subscription marketing plan – the age of the subscriber, direct debit penetration and the average lifetime of a magazine’s subscription. Moving to subscription intake, how and why subscribers subscribe in the first place will shape their behaviour forever after. The subscription experience itself is an obvious area which will impact on renewal rates as is the ease of the renewal process and the relevance of the renewal communication with the subscriber. Website usage and digital editions are two additional elements which are becoming more and more important in the whole subscription package.


So what does it all mean?

Modern magazine customer service is now about a lot more than just answering the phone within three rings. The subscription package itself has become more complex: print + digital bundles, variable pricing, an increasing range of services and products which can be cross-sold and up-sold at various stages of the customer journey – all these elements make each contact with the customer both more valuable and more complicated. Also, customer service is now seen as part of the “product experience” itself rather than a separate after-sales add-on. With the increasing variety of channels that subscribers want to use on their subscription contacts, this means we have so many more dots to join up to make a coherent and workable customer service package. Add in the fact that consumer expectations are being driven upwards by the superb service of companies like Amazon online and John Lewis in retail and the magazine business has a major customer service challenge on its hands. The evidence from the SSS project is that the industry is rising to that challenge, but only by constantly adapting and improving – and that can never stop!


The Subscriber Service Survey Methodology

Random selections of email addresses were taken from the active subscriber files of the participating titles and an email, sent with the individual title’s branding, was broadcast to the names, driving them to an online self-completion questionnaire. In addition, the URL of the online questionnaire was printed on the carrier sheets of subscription copies. An incentive was offered to the consumer to complete the survey: entry into a prize draw where 10 cash prizes of £100 each were available to be won. Respondents had to elect to be entered with over 98% choosing to do so. Collectively, 125,176 completed questionnaires were generated over a period running from October 7th, 2011 through to January 1st, 2012. These responses came from across 487 titles, published by 65 publishers.

For a free copy of the full report go to or for more background about the Subscriber Service Survey, please contact Jim Bilton at Wessenden Marketing. / 01483 421690

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