As a commercial director at a news organisation, I have hunted for new customers for ages. It eventually turned into a bloodbath with ever-increasing marketing budgets because of ever bigger presents for new readers, lower and lower prices, and shorter and shorter trial periods, which generated less and less loyalty.

But over the past two years, my colleagues at customer service have taught me a valuable lesson. That lesson? Caring for employees and customers leads to better results than hunting for profits.

Let me explain.

It is my mission at the Amsterdam-based news organisation NRC to become the most customer-driven news organisation on the planet. We have gone through profound change in the past three years to come closer to this goal. And, as we started to get better at understanding and measuring customer experience, I came to realise that behind every bad customer experience, there is almost always sub-optimal behaviour from an employee.

The amount of impact from your automated e-mails is limited. You should, of course, improve these, too, but you can only improve them so much. The real moment of truth, we found, is in human contact.

Our customer service director, Heiko Imelman, saw this much earlier than I did. He decided to reduce the computer responses on the phone to a minimum, favouring live phone calls with an actual service rep. I thought he was nuts, because costs were much higher. But now I know better. Human contact is where the relationship with your customer really starts to take off.

Just look at how, in every tenure group, we have decreased the number of people stopping their subscriptions at NRC. Whether people have been customers for one year or for 20 years, we have a lower churn rate year over year.

Churn has dropped among all subscribers at NRC.
Churn has dropped among all subscribers at NRC.

The drastic reduction in stops in the first categories of a customer lifetime is due to dumping trials, selling longer contracts, and understanding our customer needs better.

Human contact makes all the difference

The higher retention in the existing base of subscribers is built on a high plateau of our excellent high-quality journalism. The peaks come from better human contact.

Why do we try to get people who comment on Twitter on the phone? Because many customers cannot formulate their actual question very well. There is usually another question behind the question.

Let’s take someone who cries out the news app doesn’t work. It may be the loss of their password. Robots can guess at that question, but they cannot really empathise like your reps can on the phone, and that is the crucial factor for a great experience.

Based on these past experiences, the service director and I decided to make a bold move and jump into the deep end of the pool by placing my sales team under the supervision of the service team leader. We moved the retention team — reps trying to retain subscribers who say they want to stop the subscription — from an external sales-focused call centre to the internal service department.

Many were worried that the service people didn’t have “what it takes.” They were considered too nice, too caring about the customer’s interest. Board members were worried. What is your plan if they do not perform as well as the external sales people?

The commotion among the marketers was hard to believe when the service team leader said she preferred to get rid of the bonuses. Why not lower their base salaries, the marketers argued, and give them a bonus for good sales results, as we had always done with the external sales team?

The sales people felt we needed to be able to reward (and punish). But still, the service director and myself decided to stick to our guns and go with trust.

We took into account there could be a negative outcome, but we figured we could mitigate the problem of lower sales scores by attracting a team leader with a background in sales but with excellent social skills. We also set up an intensive recruitment process — figuring out who would be good at consultative selling — followed by a comprehensive two-week onboarding programme and extensive training.

With a new structure in place, retention rates increased.
With a new structure in place, retention rates increased.

Right from the start, the internal service team reaped good results, especially on the e-mails, which were responded by an outbound call. The average retention rate was immediately north of the 28% we were used to. These new “half service, half sales” reps followed up on the e-mails faster and with more empathetic calls.

There is a clear benefit from not using bonuses, says team coordinator Omid Holterman:

“I see more synergy in the group. Many sales organisations have a ‘every man for himself’ mentality. It reigns less here. Exceptions aside, these individualistic teams fail to share information with each other. In our retention group without bonuses, ideas are exchanged, people coach each other, and they share good one-liners. If one employee performs better, everyone benefits. They do this thing together, and not for the bonus.”

Recently, this internal retention team reached a new record, retaining 51% of the people who e-mailed us to stop their subscriptions — almost doubling the score of our external and bonus-driven sales team.

I am so proud of them, and they teach me so much. Believe me, this caring thing has a great future in business.

The secret is they want to improve the results because they care about the relationship with our readers. Caring lasts the whole work day. Financial rewards don’t.