Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Service from Afar

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Service from Afar

Article excerpt

Knight-Ridder Inc. has woven what it calls a seamless communications system linking readers of four Florida papers to one customer service center in Miami. By next March, seven more Knight-Ridder papers from around the country will be on the system, and the company has told its Eastern time zone publications that it is looking for space for a second center to eventually handle another dozen or so papers.

Centralized customer service centers may be the next trend for newspaper groups as they try to cut costs and gain efficiencies by consolidating back-office and administrative operations.

The New York Times Co., for example, will consolidate accounting, payroll, human resources and other record-keeping functions from throughout the company at its new Shared Service Center in Norfolt, Va. In addition, it recently opened a Customer Order Fulfillment department in New York City where advertisers can call to reserve space in the New York Times, change ad schedules, or get billing information or technical assistance.

Knight-Ridder's Miami Regional Call Center is housed at the Miami Herald and serves readers of the Herald, Boca Raton News, Bradenton Herald and Tallabassee Democrat - combined circulation about 506,000 daily, 665,000 Sunday.

The center's 60 service representatives handle 2 million calls a year - through toll-free customer service numbers from readers complaining they didn't get their newspaper or questioning their bills, said Arden Dickey, Herald circulation vice president and leader of Knight-Ridder's project to re-engineer customer services.

When fully operational, the Miami operation will employ about 100 customer service representatives - 30 to 40 fewer than would be working at the 11 papers combined, Dickey said. Customer service units have been shut down at the four papers now participating, and most of the jobs were either eliminated by attrition or workers found jobs elsewhere within the newspapers, Dickey said.

At Miami, employees in customer service transferred from the Herald to the service center without job loss, he said.

At the Bradenton Herald, one person was laid off from a customer service staff of five, said Ed Gruwell, circulation director.

Staffing requirements are expected to become a bigger consideration as the center takes on more papers, however.

"We're still dealing with some union newspapers," Dickey said. "A number of people who could be laid off could be union,

The Miami operation opened in April I SO@ to serve the Miami Herald. It took on Boca Raton in November, Bradenton and Tallahassee in January.

Shortly after the Bradenton Herald joined, circulation director Gruwell said, an unexpected rainstorm drenched just-delivered newspapers, putting the customer service center to a test. The down-pour prompted more than 1,000 calls, all handled with relative ease and a answer rate, Gruwell said.

"If that had happened before the conversion, there was no way to have handled that many calls. It's proved its worth to us," he said.

The Bradenton Herald paid no money up front to take advantage of the customer service center but does pay a monthly fee based on the number of calls from its readers. Gruwell declined to disclose the fees but said the per-call charge was less than $1.15, considered the national average for similar toll-free customer service operations. The number of calls from the Bradenton area ranges from 11,000 to 15,000 a month, primarily because the paper has so many seasonal subscribers, Gruwell said.

So far, the service center has cost "slighly" more than the Bradenton Herald was paying to operate its own customer service department, Gruwell said. …

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