Thursday, October 25, 2007

Art Journals in the USA and customer service

The demonstration
14" x 11", pencil and coloured pencil in Daler Rowney Sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I subscribe to four Art Journals with American publishers. Almost without exception I'm extremely impressed by the quality and content of all the Journals. However, I've also got a generally poor impression of the subscription and delivery services they employ.

Let me explain why I'm not enamoured - and I'll also indicate at the end what I think should be the standard of service which ought to be offered.

First some context. I'm an overseas customer which means
  • I pay more, through more limited options to get a journal which is always going to arrive a bit later than it will be delivered to subscribers in its home country. That's not ideal but it's a pretty standard way of operating for people taking a service from another country - so that's all taken as a 'given'.
  • the option of writing a cheque from my non-existent USA bank account is not possible.
  • I could charge the subscription to my credit card and put the details in the post. However in these days of identity phishing, I refuse to put my identity details and credit card details in the post if I can avoid it plus I then have visit a post office to check the stamps required for overseas postage, buy them and post the letter.
  • I want to pay through a secure facility which meets industry best practice standards for e-commerce and data security.
So what are the problems I experience?

Incessant paper-based subscription reminders

The main irritant are the incessant subscription reminders - which start arriving about 3 months after I take out a subscription. All the magazines I subscribe do this and it's very, very irritating. I've not timed it but my impression is that they arrive about every three months and then step up the pace nearer the renewal due date. I reckon I get somewhere between 3 and 4 (maybe 5?) reminders for each journal (and I subscribe to four) - all of which are posted to me overseas. This is neither cheap nor environmentally responsible. Think of all the trees which have to be cut down to generate the paper for all those reminders!

Interestingly the cumulative effect of all these unnecessary reminders is that I ignore them all. I simply stop opening the envelopes and wait for the one with the 'final warning' message on the outside!

I never renew until just before the expiry date because I want to be confident that there is no mix-up over how long my subscription period actually is. This view is of course dictated by the speed with which I get renewal reminders after renewing my subscription which only serves to undermine my confidence in the subscription service!

The solution

Let me contrast this experience with services I subscribe to in the UK. Over here I am a Friend of a number of national organisations and subscribe to some journals. I pay an annual subscription and I never ever have this sort of problem.
  • Invariably all my subscriptions are either set up as a direct debit from my bank account or are an automatic debit to the credit card details I supplied when I subscribed (very cost effective for all concerned).
  • I just get one reminder letter that "the direct debit is about to be exercised / I need to cancel now if I don't want to renew" and that's it. If for any reason the debit doesn't work (eg change of card used) then I get a reminder that the issue needs to be addressed.
Simple, straightforward and cost-effective in principle - and it also works in practice.

Inadequate information (reminder letters and websites)

On the American Artist website it's very difficult to locate where to go to renew a subscription although it's very easy to locate the place to take out a new one! Communication with overseas/online customers does not appear to be the rational end-product of a co-ordinated communications exercise between subscription people and relevant webmasters. Subscription services can't second guess how people will pay - but the reality is that more and more people are starting to pay for services online.

Every reminder letter therefore needs to interface clearly with the relevant applicable website and to identify the precise URL to be used to access the secure site for online subscription renewals.

Referral to a general website address
- as in the Early Bird reminder from American Artist - is unhelpful for those looking to pay online through a secure site. Especially if that general site also does not have a clear icon or a link for renewal of subscriptions and/or lacks helpful information for overseas/online customers on its Customer Service page.
How can I renew my subscription, pay a bill, or check my payment status?
Call our subscription center at 1-800-562-2706.
American Artist Customer Service Page
Having renewed my subscription to Drawing Magazine this morning, I reviewed my Early Bird renewal letter re my American Artist subscription and then the website and could not understand why it was impossible to work out how to renew my subscription. Exactly the same companies communicated in two completely different ways in relation to two magazines owned by the same people!

Which makes me think that quality control around customer service and systems is weak.

One solution which occurred to me in the course of writing this post is to ask somebody living in the USA to take out a subscription on my behalf and to post each edition to me via airmail for an agreed sum. I bet I'd get it faster and cheaper!

Over at The Artist's Magazine and The Pastel Journal, the websites are much more helpful in enabling overseas customers to pay online. Nice simple links to 'subscribe/renew/give a gift' are the first things you see. Renewal issues are also addressed in the customer service FAQ page of the website.

The Pastel Journal subscription renewal page (which is actually a page belonging to a third party) even provides a very helpful link to a page which explains which are the companies that are not authorised to pursue subscriptions through aggressive marketing campaigns that seek identity information and bank account and credit card numbers!!!. I wasn't aware of this until I began to write this article and it's nice to see F&W taking a strong stance on this issue. However I do wonder whether these services maybe grew up because of issues to do with how customer service works.

Delivery issues

Anne Hevener, Editor of The Pastel Journal recently participated in a thread in the Wet Canvas Pastel Talk Forum about UK and The Pastel Journal. UK based WC members together with members living elsewhere fed back to Anne and F&W Publications about some of the issues around delivery and subscriptions. That's a very helpful way to proceed. However it would also be good to see some feedback to the thread about the actions taken as a result.

For me, as I indicated in the thread - besides the subscription reminders - one of the major issues I have with F&W publications is the time that their publications take to reach me. 6 weeks to 2 months is not uncommon.

However I believe I can announce a new record for sloooooooooooooow delivery. In the WC thread Anne indicated that the October issue of The Pastel Journal shipped on August 14th. It was supposed to hit the newstands in the USA by September 4th and subscribers are supposed to get it ahead of people buying it from a newsagent. Mine arrived yesterday - on the 24th October some 10 weeks after it was supposed to have shipped!!!

Now I know we've just had a postal strike but my other post has taken no longer than a week more than usual.

The solution

What I want is to see is a guarantee from the publishers about the service standards which I can expect to receive for the subscription I pay over. I'd like to see such a guarantee cover:
  • stated standards on delivery times in normal postal conditions. The standard overseas subscription should provide for the journal to be delivered in the fastest way possible - via air-mail. If artwork shipped back and forth between the USA and UK can take 7-10 days then so can journals. A discount could be given for agreeing to receive the publication by surface mail rather than airmail. (Or do it the other way round and charge a premium for air-mail).
  • quality control will be exercised eg through easy online access to feedback processes which mean data can be easily aggregated so that trends can be spotted easily.
  • extension of the subscription period for one more edition if an edition takes more than the standard specified delivery time to arrive. That's what I get for UK subscriptions. It ensures people pay attention to the real time taken to deliver to the customer!
  • all customers opting to pay online should also get all reminders sent on-line. Eliminating the cost of paper-based reminders should enable publishers to increase the subscription discount and/or pay the costs associated with faster delivery.
What I need is prompt delivery and online reminder e-mails sent with two months , one month and one week to go prior to expiry of the subscription. Easy to automate, easy to maintain and greener plus it saves money - which could go to reducing my subscription.

Let me reiterate - I think the Art Journals produced by American publishers are all excellent - but I think their subscription and delivery arrangements for online and overseas customers need a big overhaul before they achieve minimum customer expectations in the 21st century.

What's your experience?


  1. Katherine, to be truthful, the subscription service here is about the same. I just got an "Urgent" renewal letter for my Pastel Journal that is paid through December 2008. Sigh.

    I did miss several issues of the PJ and the Artists Magazine and I sent them an e-mail and recieved the back issues, so they did do a good job on that part of their service.


  2. Good to hear omissions get remedied.

    The problem I have is that sometimes the delay gets so long I forget that it hasn't arrived as I think I've already read it through reading some extracts online!

    Maybe I should keep a checklist?

  3. I know exactly what you're talking about! I have subscriptions to WC Magic and American Artist. They sent me renewal cards, which I returned at the last moment, checking off that I would pay later. I keep getting these annoying envelopes with payment requests that have no other options besides mailing a phone or web address to do online. So I keep putting them in the to-do box and when I pay all my bills each month (online) I fully intend to send them a check, but haven't yet. One of these days...

  4. Apologies to those who've just noticed that I hit the wrong button first thing this morning (before I'd started my first cup of tea - which is of course the explanation!) and created a new post from this one by mistake! DUH! Now deleted....

    Jo - I just took a look at what my Pastel Journal 'reminder' said. Apparently I'm paid up until April 09 but my 'offer' expired the 14th October. Shucks missed that one then!

    I'm not sure if all of this is normal practice in the USA with magazine subscriptions? It's just so unlike what happens in the UK.

    Jana - at least my reminder letter has a nice neat little box in the top right hand corner giving me my account number and pin number for fatser service by renewing online. I like that BUT I just won't be using it for the next 15 months or so!

  5. Everyone hit the "Mark" on this annoying issue. I quit purchasing all "Mags" by mail. Why? Do to the endless renewal letters. This is not just for art journals! I started back with my Knit journal - Interweave, I paid for a year, I accepted Artist Magazine, paid for a year, well I have been swamped with renewals. I thought I had not paid so Interweave got an extra year. Artist Magazine has sent only one issue.
    All of these renewals are automatically generated by computer, and the board of directors do not seem to care how much money it cost. Computer programming the files to send out to subscribers only once a year is not in their agenda.
    The owners do not care the cost. You pay for it anyway. How do we stop them from such waste?

    ((( Circle of Hugs )))

  6. Absolutely! And bravo! I have only subscribed to one US magazine (Games) and it was nearly impossible to find out how to subscribe online as an international customer. For years my parents actually got me a subscription in Chicago and posted it to me over here! The company have updated the system but even after not renewing I continually received envelopes in the post for months. A complete waste of paper and postage (and the fuel needed for airmail). I do think this is all pretty standard practice with the US magazines I'm afraid.

    Saying that, I think we need to be pro-active and point these things out in writing. I recently got fed up with a certain company here constantly sending me catalogues when I buy online. A polite email pointing this out (that I simply recycle them and it's a waste of paper, time, postage and fuel) they happily took me off the mailing list and pointed out that is their policy - to reduce catalog posting! So you may be surprised, or at least help initiate some change.

  7. Katherine, I'd like to join in with those of you who hate those early subscription reminders. Every now and then I'll intentionally let a subscription lapse. The magazine will call with a final reminder. I tell them why I don't subscribe anymore, but they don't care. I don't see any improvement in sight.
    p.s. I'm impressed with how thoroughly you addressed this issue.

  8. Ditto about the early subscription renewels. I just chalk it up to one of the evils of negative marketing and trying to make a buck.

    But may I be the first to say, "What a cool sketch this one is!

  9. Well we seem to be running at 100% on the feedback which says "not impressed" with repeat early renewal reminders!

    And you certainly may say that Tracy!


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