Keeping the news customer satisfied

The consumer group Which? has just named the best and worst firms in the country for customer service.

The First Direct bank, and retailers Lush and John Lewis top the table, with energy giants NPower and Scottish Power joining Ryanair at the opposite end of the scale.

Newspapers don’t tend to make it into the pressure group’s annual 100-strong list.

Which in some ways is a shame, as it would be hugely instructive and interesting to see how our industry fares when it comes to dealing with complaints, valuing readers and advertisers, knowing about products and answering phones.

Of course, we get an insight into how parts of our public see us on our own websites.

My former colleagues at The Bath Chronicle have spent the last week or so (and far longer in some cases) sweating blood to pull off a highly impressive relaunch timed to coincide with a price rise.

The reward for their efforts online has been more than a dozen variations of abuse.

Luckily on Twitter, Facebook and via email, more reasoned and generous counsel has prevailed.

I’ve always believed in trying to answer criticism – whether it was on the bottom of an online story, on Twitter or on Facebook.

And I’m delighted when journalists get – diplomatically – stuck in.

We need to explain why we make the decisions we do, and to apologise gracefully when we get things wrong.

But engagement of this kind only works if you’re dealing with people with open minds.

And perhaps only when you’re dealing with people who are open about their own identities.

We all know how ‘brave’ our critics can be when they’re keyboard warriors hiding behind an anonymous tag and hitting out at a general media monolith target.

Which is why I believe that meeting our various publics face to face can be so valuable.

It was said of onetime Prime Minister John Major that, if he could have had five minutes with every voter, his warmth, charm and gift of the gab would have had us all voting Tory.

When I’ve been at our own awards, at meet-the-reporter sessions or at other public events, the temptation has been to try something similar.

Certainly, when you’re face to face with people, it’s far easier to persuade them that the vast majority of journalists are honest, hard-working people who simply want to tell the best stories about their communities.

You hope that they go away with a better, warmer feeling about your paper and website.

And, more importantly, you hope they tell a few of their friends about how much they enjoyed their encounter.

Sometimes what readers (and non-readers) tell you can be frustrating and contradictory. Sometimes they can be painfully incisive.

But most of the time, people offer nuggets of gold that can help us get under the skin of the audiences we serve.

So here’s a challenge.

Over the next week or so, try to talk to three or four friends, family members, neighbours, fellow bus travellers, football club parents or sports club members about your paper and website.

If all the editorial staff in the Local World region I cover spoke to half a dozen people, we’d have more views than the average national opinion poll.

But be warned.

Sometimes people can come up with some pretty left field stuff.

At one meet-the-reporter session in a suburb in Bath, a very arty lady apologised for no longer buying the Chronicle as regularly as she once did.

“Once the children got a bit older,” she said, “we didn’t need quite so much newspaper for papier mache for school art projects.”

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