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Old School That’s Good School: Tactics for Customer Care

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by Peter Goodman, Publisher, Stone Bridge Press

Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman

Certain basic business practices need renewed emphasis in an age of impersonal texting, e-mails, and digital interaction.

As a book publisher, you know you always need to focus on appearance and content in terms of readers. What first impression does your book give that persuades readers to buy it? Does its text do you and the author credit? Will it keep readers engaged, informed, and entertained so that they will come back to your imprint and your authors for more?

Appearance and content are also important to the success of your business operations. Getting stuff done—communicating, shipping, printing—is not just about the end result. Getting stuff done has its own aesthetic and logic. Your business practices, just like your books, must embody attention to detail, good design, coherent content, and understanding of other people’s needs.

With the siloing of our public forms of communication into private languages and interest-driven communities, many of the commonalities and lubricants of doing business are getting lost and no longer translate predictably across generational boundaries. I’m not suggesting a return to the “good old days” (which weren’t entirely good; remember typewriters and telex? Or maybe you don’t?). But I am suggesting that today’s casual and informal approach doesn’t always make for good business or for good publishing.

Areas That Will Reward Attention

Written Communications

You know about house style. Or at least I hope you do. Just as your company favors certain approaches to italicization, numbering, copyright page design, and other matters of word handling in the books it publishes, so the company should apply its own sets of rules to all its communications:

  • • Develop and enforce styles in press releases and all other written communications, including letters and blog posts. Use en-dashes, serial commas, capitalization, and hyphenation consistently and correctly so that your public persona is not in a thousand different fragments but presents a single face.
  • • Use letterhead—a paper and/or a digital template—or if you don’t need letterhead because all your communication is by e-mail, develop e-mail stationery that you use consistently, especially when writing to reviewers and people you don’t know.
  • • Find a typeface that fits your company’s identity and develop rules for margins, leading, and point size governing its use. Pick a matching display typeface (only one) for headers and develop rules about when and where to use it. Do not let your publicist, staff, or interns go crazy with fonts or format any way they want depending on mood or time of day. Create conventions; educate your staff; and enforce consistent usage.
  • • Proofread everything that comes out of your shop. Don’t assume those interns from the best universities can write or spell correctly (and try not to get too discouraged about the fate of the world when you discover they can’t).

Human Interactions

I often get so involved in what I’m doing that I find myself behaving poorly to people I don’t know well or people who interrupt my day with some “problem” or “urgent question.” That’s really unforgivable.

We all have to remember that our customers and our vendors and our authors (the three classes of interrupters in my experience) are our partners. We can’t do what we do without them. In many cases, they become our friends. And we can’t have too many friends. So here are a couple of time-tested old-school ways to nurture business friendships:

  • Respond quickly to inquiries, the same day if possible.
  • Use semiformal or neutral language until you get a feel for the comfort level of the person you’re dealing with. Do not start your letter with the salutation “Hey!” or “Howdy!” We lost a very promising review from an esteemed (and older) academic once because our publicist wrote to him using the language of a Facebook buddy.
  • Listen to the ways your employees answer the phone, talk to people, take down information. The art of phone conversation may be nearly lost in the age of texting, but that’s no excuse for people to clam up or be curt. Make sure everyone who answers the phone does so with a proper greeting and is trained to get all the vital information and to make notes and forward messages. This sounds very basic, but younger staff may actually need formal instruction in how to talk on the telephone.
  • A corollary to the above is, Don’t be afraid to use the phone. So many people now think that text messages and e-mails are adequate, when in fact they are easily ignored and have little persuasive power. We’ve had instances when we needed a quick answer and an editor thought it was enough to send an e-mail marked URGENT. It wasn’t enough. Pick up the phone and call if you really need something. It may sound old-fashioned, but it works.
  • Also, encourage face-to-face meetings with your customers and vendors. I often find myself telling printers who call soliciting work to “just send me information.” But when I take time to sit down with them, I always learn more because our real-time interaction prompts questions and answers and a lot more information tailored to my company’s specific needs.
  • It’s super-easy to do everything by e-mail and webforms, but if we never meet face-to-face (or Skype-to-Skype), we miss the opportunity to develop the relationships that we need to thrive, and that keep our industry special. And just because a vendor cold calls you, no need to be rude. If a vendor has done the research on your company and gets to the point, try hearing that person out; you may find a new friend.

Delivering the Goods

One of the few opportunities you have to impress a reader, aside from providing a great book, comes when you take an order and send merchandise to an individual, a store, or a wholesaler. Every step in the process, from the first contact via e-mail, e-commerce shopping cart, or phone (see above), to packing and shipping, is a chance to show your commitment to good service and create a friend—or to stumble and lose a customer. Are you doing the job right and truly delivering the goods?

  • Are your shipping charges clearly presented on your website? Are they fair to you and your customer, or are you obviously gouging? Are you taking advantage of fast and economical services such as USPS Regional Rate boxes? Have you signed up for PartnerShip through IBPA, and do you pass your savings along to your customers—and let them know you’re doing that?
  • Do you always confirm receipt of an order? If you’re not using a third-party fulfillment house, do you write a personal thank-you note on the packing list?
  • Do you make sure your books are packed with care, and with a packing slip? Do you wrap books neatly in Kraft paper before you stick them in a Jiffy bag? Or do you use rigid cardboard mailers or boxes instead because they afford even more protection? Do whatever you can to make sure your books arrive without scuffs or bent corners.
  • Are your labels preprinted with your company name, not crudely printed by hand?
  • If you have sent a rush order or an order for a major bookstore event, do you always make a point of checking in with the customer or the shipper to make sure everything has been delivered on schedule?

Over-Delivering the Goods

Do you go the extra distance and do things you don’t have to do? A number of years ago we published a book with royalty-free art, and for several years we were able to make that art available for download online. Since our website got revamped, we can no longer do that, but we still get requests from customers who have bought the book (even used editions now nearly 10 years old), asking where they can download the images.

Instead of telling them the images are no longer available, we make a point of explaining the situation and then asking them which images they are looking for. Then, if we can, we grab those images from our in-house archive and send them to the customer, free of charge. At some point we may decide that this is not a good use of our time, but for now we do this because we feel it’s the right thing to do and because we know we are gaining a customer—a friend—instead of doing only what’s easiest for us.

Just like personal relations, business relations take work. As young people, and a lot of us oldsters, spend more and more time hiding in our desktops and pouring words into smartphone text messages, it’s easy for us to forget that it’s the little things that strengthen our businesses, the physical contacts, the voice-to-voice and face-to-face meetings, the manner of presentation—everything I think of as the aesthetics of customer care. Work beautiful, is what I say.

Peter Goodman, publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, CA, is chair of the IBPA board of directors.

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