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TOC Frankfurt Preview: “Customer Experience” is What Matters Most

• Sheila Bounford, a speaker at next week’s TOC Frankfurt conference, believes that publishers need to integrate customer service into their business strategy.

• Focusing on customer experience, feedback, and market research could lead publishers to a better understanding of their end-users.

Sheila Bounford

By Michelle Jones

PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND: Now in it’s second year at Frankfurt, the Tools of Change Frankfurt conference is a technology-focused sidebar to the Book Fair. But at least one of the speakers at this year’s TOC won’t be championing technology as the be-all end-all. Sheila Bounford, deputy managing director at UK book distribution company NBN International, says that in addition to moving into digital platforms, publishers also need to concentrate on a rather old-fashioned concept: customer relations.

In her TOC presentation, Bounford will encourage publishers to rethink how they define and serve their customers as part of their evolving business models.

But does this have a place in a tech-focused conference?

O’Reilly’s Kat Meyer thinks so and asked Bounford to speak at TOC after hearing her presentation at the Association of American University Presses this past spring.

“Sheila’s message is so important,” Meyer says. “Yes, she is talking about delivering a ‘traditional’ product in a ‘traditional’ way, but the lesson she drives home is: fantastic customer service is cutting edge.”

Customer service is one of the functions Bounford’s company, NBN, provides for the nearly 500 imprints of American academic and small presses it represents and distributes throughout the UK and Europe. Despite this, Bounford says hardly any of those publishers ever calls to discuss customer service with her Plymouth, England-based team.

“There’s almost no dialogue between publishers and the people who currently run customer services and I don’t think businesses can survive in the modern world without paying a lot more attention to customers,” she says.

NBN International

Meyer agrees, saying “customers expect to be made happy, and if they don’t get that — at any of a publisher’s potential outlets, they will go to another outlet, or choose another book.”

Bounford believes publishers need to reverse a nearly 100-year trend of moving away from their customers, a distancing that came as retail removed the direct connection to the book-buying public. Not only has the distance increased, Bounford says, but now publishers don’t yet think of the end-users of their products as their customers. Instead they think of the book stores, library suppliers and, yes, third-party international distributors like NBN as their customers.

“One of the key words I’ll keep focusing on [at TOC] is ‘experience,’ they have to start thinking of the experience of obtaining their content,” Bounford says. “That could be the experience of obtaining the physical book, a quote, a chapter…My thesis is that even to survive to get as far as working out how to reshape businesses for the future, you…have to learn to tune in with what it is your customers are looking for — and that may not always, of course, be a printed book.”

Bounford says she doesn’t necessarily have answers for her TOC audience; what she has is a lot of questions they should be asking themselves. Things like how many of them have used a market research company to solicit feedback from customers. Her guess is fewer than one in 10 will have done so.

She’ll also be cautioning against taking the “Tools of Change” name too literally.

“Tools almost implies that you find the right tools and everything’s all right. And change we think of as something that happens and it’s done,” she says. “I’ve been working in this industry for 25 years and it’s been changing continuously throughout that time. It’s very dangerous for us to think of change as something that will happen and then we can all go back to normal. We have to accept this continuous process that will affect us forever.”

By the way, though she may be the odd woman out at conference of techies, Bounford’s not a Luddite by any means. Before they met in Salt Lake City last June, Bounford and Meyer connected on Twitter when Bounford was “splashing around” just to see what was going on with blogging and new media.

Interested in attending Tools of Change Frankfurt? Use code TOC10BL when you register to receive 20% off the €499 + VAT registration fee.

DISCUSS: Has Publishing’s Digital Obsession Undermined Fundamental Business Practices?

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