At the Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi, trying to buy a small packet of peanuts recently proved extremely revealing.

At the first counter, there were three attendants: One was on her smartphone, while the second was braiding the third’s hair. None even looked up at the client, ready to make a purchase. 

Second try: two men discussing with each other. Neither seemed interested if there were clients or not, let alone if they scored any sales.

My first guess is these non-devoted employees in the state-run airport shops earn monthly salaries for “looking after the store,” and no incentives such as sales commissions and no feedback such as client satisfaction surveys.

My second, not so wild guess: The turnover is far from dazzling.

This experience, made last week in Vietnam, where I was facilitating a workshop on the future challenges of journalism training, pulled my attention to a similar pattern in our own industry: The clients storm into our “stores,” but we don’t greet them, we don’t smile at them – and, most importantly, we don’t sell them much.

Even though they, in many cases, are eagerly looking for a product or a service.

One pretty remarkable assumption we base many of our managerial decisions on is that media consumers cannot be guided or steered. They are irrational, disloyal, and all we can do is follow what they do and try our best to adapt.

So we serve them a certain content selection and claim they prefer “news” – even though it’s a “Catch-22” situation: Unless we serve them an alternative, what else can they click on?

So we serve them a pre-packaged offer on one platform and claim young readers don’t want news — unless we serve them an individualised offer on the platforms of their choice (constantly shifting, 24/7), what else can they do but turn away?

Ask any manager within the retail industry if she or he believes you can affect sales numbers by changing store layout, pricing, bundling, lighting, colours, etc. – and you will realise how wrong we are by not constantly trying to ameliorate the user experience on all our platforms.

How many of you have experimented with:

  • The balance between different, existing content categories.

  • Adding content categories you never had before.

  • The presentation order (context instead of chronology).

  • The publishing times of different topics.

  • Moving the “advertise” or “subscribe” buttons, changing their colours, size, shape.

This list can, of course, go on forever, but I will spare you more suggestions since I believe you have already gotten my drift.

When we started using desktop publishing tools in the 1980s, I remember a boss of mine who ordered me to rip up a page. When I was reluctant to lose all the work I had put into it, he answered: That’s why we have computers; they make it easy and fast to test different solutions.

He was right. But even though this still applies, instead of using experimental techniques, the news industry has transformed into a bunch of copycats, all more worried about what their colleagues are doing than actually trying to satisfy their clients.

Just like in the Vietnam case, decades of quasi-monopoly on many local markets has created an in-house culture of self-satisfaction. Legacy media have moved their brands from print to digital platforms and managed to become dominant players with very little effort.

With the airport incident as metaphor, we have lots of clients in front of our counters, but we are turning them away with our lousy customer experience delivery.

When the clients arrive, at best we allow them to glance at a badly lit billboard. If they – against all odds –still are interested in buying something, we lead them through a complicated system of corridors to end up at a deserted cashier’ s desk.

Then you have the nerve to travel to conferences to discuss why print dollars have turned to digital dimes?

If you don’t start working hard, start investing in the creation of amazing experiences in all client contacts, there’s a pretty obvious answer to the question: Why aren’t our digital revenues pouring in?

Isn’t there?