16 Ways a Publisher Successfully Retooled Its Customer Focus

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Columbia Books & Information Services began as a directory publisher, then moved into databases, and then started acquiring several companies in distress. They went from a successful, small-staffed, two-industry company to a very successful, 30-staff, 10-industry one.

As Brittany Carter, VP of CBIS, recounted in her excellent talk on How to Retool Your Customer Service at last month's SIIA Onboarding and Renewal Bootcamp (which members can view here), the staff that came along with those companies were also stressed.

"They were trained to put their head in the sand and just get the job done," she said, "[thinking] it will be fine. So we acquired a lot of people who were afraid to speak up and get to know their customers. People who said, 'this isn't my job.' We had gone from being very customer-centric to a lot of people who had never interacted with the customers for fear of staying in line."

Carter knew they had a serious problem; they were customer blind. It all pretty much hit home when they acquired a company that published a same-sex marriage/HR compliance rules guide. Does this even apply anymore, Carter asked? The author assured her yes and they published it.

"We didn't sell a single copy,"Carter said, andshe soon found out that the last one didn't either. But because of the lack of transparency, " nobody knew," not even the author. "I said right there, 'We will rearrange this.' You don't think any of this can happen, but if no one is thinking about the end user and what the customer is telling you, then it can happen."

Here's what they did:

Created 10 new teams based on the industries and built them out with core strength sets. "We put a marketing lead, sales lead, content lead, data lead and training lead," Carter said. "We're a data company so we always have a data person on each team. We nominated a team leader, not necessarily the boss, but they are the cheerleader and ultimately the one making sure that everyone is thinking about the customers. With 30 people and 10 industries, there was some crossover, but we tried to limit it to 2-3 teams a person would be on."

Nominated function experts across the company. For instance, one woman in the company is an expert in ad-supported selling. "It's good to have someone to go to, even if he or she is not on your team," Carter said.

Placed no senior management on any team. "Empowering people and giving them the opportunity to make the decisions makes a huge difference," Carter said. "You'll see people step up who you never expected would."

Launched a mini-MBA program. Most of the people had no financial training. In the program, "we do everything from training on competitive analysis to product development to how to understand and interpret business financials," Carter said. The program occurs about every six weeks and is very popular.

Gave everyone in the company access to the financials. And every person in the company sees order confirmations in real-time—editors, data teams, customer service. "They are recognizing that they may know someone at that company," Carter said. "'Why are all these associations buying this energy compliance publication?' They're also starting to connect with the customer who is buying these things. This has been the best thing ever."

Talk openly about successes and failures. They now meet as a company every five weeks and give out awards [maybe gift cards] to someone who has done something for the customer or created a customer-centric product. "It's a nice way to openly recognize success," Carter said. Someone may say, "I'm really struggling with this product development—does anyone know a customer or prospect who would be good to talk to?" It has also allowed them to work across teams.

Coded every customer who has ever bought something from them in the last five years. This took time and survived groans but has been very successful. "We looked at products—what customer type is buying it?" Carter said. "This one was government relations. This product was bought by lobbying firms." It told staff who to talk to in the customer base. "They now understand who they're writing and developing products for. When you start to see where revenue is coming from, it can be surprise."

Started monthly team meetings. These can work better for the quieter people. They go over customer pipelines, review financials and make plans.

Mandatedstaff to attend events. "Not just our events, but also industry events," Carter said. "They'll see that a whole group was engaged when talking about a certain subject and [come back saying] 'We should make sure that our articles, books and products are hitting on that.' They're mystery shopping so to speak—watching customers and how they react to content."

Required non-sales staff to sit in on product demos or a client meeting once a month. They get to listen to prospective or existing clients and what they're saying about the products—hear the questions they're asking. Carter said this is where the same sex marriage compliance guide would have gotten nixed.

Encouraged networking for team members at events. Carter recommends employing the buddy system in the beginning. "Send your most confident person with the newest or shyest person to show them how to network. Don't ever send someone to an event without someone who has been there. Then once they realize it's not so scary, they'll want to go out and do it again. A woman on our data team [who was shy] is now constantly asking what she can go to."

Asked staff to think about who they know. "Trust me, you know someone," Carter urged. "We're based in Washington, D.C. where most of our customers are. You have friends, family, neighbors. Say it's a compliance product for pharmacy professionals. You probably know some pharmacists. 'My dad's friend is...' There's always a connection.

Talked to more people. Carter doesn't like to rely on surveys and customer interviews, believing people in that setting often just tell you what you want to hear. "Shy away from that," she said. "Just talk to people." She recalled a time they needed a salary product, so she helped to develop a salary survey business. "You're not always going to learn that from just asking. It's getting to know people. When you're writing marketing email or a new program, think about someone you know. Do they care about what you're saying? Would you open that?"

Had everyone examine inbound orders. "Tell me about this customer, why they bought it. What else would they buy and how would you approach them?" Carter said. "We got people in the mindset of thinking about the customer and why they're making that decision. Staff will be way more excited to do this if you give them the right tools."

Changed the seating in the office. People used to sit together by function; now they sit by teams.CBIS put several teams next to each other that had crossover, maybe similar grants or involvement in FDA. Good webinar speakers and sales leads started to be shared. "Now someone might be sponsoring both of our verticals," Carter said. "We doubled revenue just by positioning certain people next to each other... because we're thinking about the customer."

Rotated team leaders if need be. Of the 10 teams, seven are functioning very well. "You have to be careful when selecting the cheerleader [team leader]. That person has to be confident and bought in enough to get out there and set an example." If not, change.

Again, members can view this session here. Carter starts at about the 27-minute mark.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…