The day before we went live with our first web product at Bowker, customer service were fielding the typical customer complaints. One customer in Cleveland was missing volume two of a three-volume set and another in Jacksonville was questioning their standing order discount. These queries and many more like them were synonymous with moving physical units to customers but all that changed the day we went live.
The changes we were forced to make didn’t happen instantaneously and, while progressive, only became apparent when we reflected periodically on our progress. Over time, ‘customer service’ morphed into ‘technical support’ and became concerned with logins, sluggish search times and IP ranges. Customer service was only one example of a line function forced to reevaluate how it operated and interacted with customers. I wish I could admit that our transition was managed and handled methodically and perfectly but, like many businesses in our situation, we oscillated at times between confused and frantic.
We did reach a point where we took the unanticipated in stride and became expert at dealing with unforeseen developments. Ironically, the supposed ‘impersonal’ nature of the internet created an environment for us where we were far closer to the customer than we ever were in the print world.
Expediency can define the future
When I joined Bowker in 1999, the future of our business was seriously challenged. No need was more imperative than that for a web version of our primary database product Books In Print. Deluged with cancelled print orders, we couldn’t even engage our customers in a discussion about migration because we had no online option. Expediency ruled our web development: We had little or no time to do extensive user testing and involve our customers in any UI development; and, with limited options available to us, we chose to replicate the functionality of our CDROM product. That strategy proved highly effective (though perhaps not optimal) and we launched the product in 2000. That’s when the fun really began.
Getting a field sales force in place became a strategic imperative if we wanted to effectively sell our online products. Selling static print products is completely different from selling an online product, which can be sold effectively via telesales; however, we had an appallingly bad approach to the sales function prior to 2001. As we implemented the field sales effort, the company became a more effective sales organization, and we gained deeper insight into our market. (I’m glossing over how difficult the task of putting a new team in place was – maybe for a later post). Feedback from the sales force, coupled with a directive from me that product managers and senior staff make frequent ‘visits’ into the market with the sales force meant we became far more aware of and attuned to what our customers were looking for. Had this sales organization been in place prior to our web transition, it would have fed our initial web development effort.
Who's your buyer?
Making the assumption your buyers are the same in changing circumstances should be challenged before you waste a lot of time. In the move to field sales we also found that the buyers of online products at our institutional customers (mainly libraries) were frequently different from the typical buyers of the print titles. The money for electronic products often came out of a different budget and, increasingly, consortia (group buying at various levels) sales became a regular component of our selling process. Historically, our sales approach hadn’t been sophisticated enough to address these changing market dynamics but we addressed that issue by hiring more effective sales management, which brought a different philosophy to sales that we hadn’t had in the past.
More staff attuned to the market did lead to more insight. An important missing input to our initial development effort was the deep knowledge about how our customers were using our products. This sounds startling (and is) but what became clear to us was that many customers of the print version were using BIP as a simple look-up tool. This print ‘look up’ tool was pulled off the shelf to find an ISBN or confirm a title name and then the volume was returned to its place. When Amazon came along (and that data was never licensed to them by Bowker) retailers and librarians saw a far simpler and effective mechanism for finding this information. Suddenly we were competing with free, made worse by the fact we didn’t have an online version. (So, I guess ‘competing’ overstates our position). Had we understood their behavior at a deeper level during our development effort, it might have impacted how we designed the search and UI. That said, we were lucky enough to do very well with the initial development and the team pulled off a triumph in the launch and subsequent roll-out. While it sounds obvious, understanding how your customers use your products and what issues they face in their daily business should be considered vital to your initial planning process. Don’t take it for granted you understand this; prove it via primary research.
Renewals are about usage
In the first year of launch, our renewal rate for Booksinprint.com was in the 70% range. Feeble, and, in a market that doesn’t grow, finding new customers to take the place of the 30% subscribers we were losing became an impossibility. Admittedly, our first-year subscriber base was low; however, this was the future of the company and, unless we raised the renewal rate, the future success of BooksinPrint.com would have been in jeopardy. As any sales manager knows, selling to a current customer is a lot easier than selling to a new one. A focus on the customer experience - particularly user stats - and strong sales management enabled us to get the renewal rate up to the low-to-mid 90% range, which is an incredible improvement and a testament to the strength of the sales team we had in place at the time.
As I look back on our transition, I see three distinct stages - two of which I have described above. Firstly, the product development and market assessment phase, where we conceived the product. Secondly, the management of the implications of this transition (particularly on customer service and sales). Which leads me to the third phase of our migration process - maintenance.
Significant in our sales improvement was the sales administration support we gave sales reps in two areas: user statistics and training. When we started to analyze our renewal statistics in the early post-launch years, we saw we could predict which customers were likely to renew based on how and how much they were using the product. Sounds obvious, but we were learning as we went.
We used this data to intervene throughout the subscription term via sales and sales admin outreach and training. On-site customer training in our market wasn’t a new thing and our parent company had embarked on a similar effort several years before. Our customer training program was designed to ensure that customers understood how to use our product and what features of the product were available to them. We hired specific trainers to travel around the country giving these sessions (often in a group setting) at client sites.
Our trainers were able to generate significant customer engagement and the program proved instrumental in pushing the renewal numbers higher each year. The payback was measurable but having trainer staff face-to-face with customers also created a feedback loop for product development as we considered new enhancements to the product. Since we sold multiple products to the same institution, the trainers often delivered multiple product training sessions during each institutional visit.
Maturity shouldn't mean complacency
I often reflect on how distinct these migration phases were from development and launch through to maintenance, and how our activities changed over time to reflect those changes. For example, in the early launch days, our sales staff was focused on making sales and finding customers yet, as the cycle reached maturity and our renewals exceeded 90%, the sales activity became focused on making sure the customers were truly engaged with our product(s). New business was still important since any percentage point below 100% renewal means the organization needs to keep finding new customers to fill the gap (but the sales person’s time spent becomes weighted differently).
Migrating from a print focus to online delivery changes every part of a business and, in the discussion above, I’ve barely scratched the surface of how one organization made this tremendous turnaround over 36mths or so. In different circumstances we might have done this faster – the company was sold in the middle of this transition – but I do think the company managed exceedingly well to reestablish a future for itself that, in 1999, didn’t look so rosy. One note of caution: The maintenance phase can be dangerous because it has an ugly sister named complacency.