Thank you for calling the Burlington Free Press. How may we ruin your day?

The newspaper business is in trouble for reasons beyond its control: new technology, changes in consumer preferences, and especially changes in advertiser preferences.

But beyond all that, the newspaper industry seems hellbent on killing itself.

call-centerI just had a most unpleasant interaction with the Burlington Free Press’ “customer service” system. Not the call center employee I finally managed to talk to after about 20 minutes of voice-mail slogging; she was perfectly fine. But everything else, good God.

Here’s my situation. I’ve been a subscriber to the digital service plus home delivery Thursday through Sunday. What I wanted to do was cut back to Sunday only delivery because, since the Free Press shut down its Statehouse bureau, it’s become less relevant to me. And the Sunday paper is basically a freebie, thrown in with digital access because they want me to get all the advertising in the Sunday paper.

First of all, I went online to the “My Account” page, and there was a button that offered me the chance to Manage Account. But when I clicked on this button, it offered me three options: “Increase delivery frequency,” “Update credit card,” and “View account history.”

See, you can increase your subscription, but you can’t decrease it or cancel it. It’s the Roach Motel of online customer service.

So I called the toll-free Customer Service line, and went straight into voice-mail hell. Early on, there was a nasty surprise: a recorded voice informed me that the Thanksgiving Day newspaper is automatically included in every subscription whether you usually receive the Thursday paper or not, and would cost more than the usual Thursday paper. You see, it offers so much “reader value,” i.e. advertising, that the costs of delivery are reputedly higher “because of the complicity of home delivery.”

Seriously, “complicity.”  That’s what the voice said. Representing a newspaper.

Aside from the sloppy illiteracy, that’s just a cheap-ass way to make your customers feel dumped on. And if I hadn’t called Customer Service for an unrelated issue, I wouldn’t have known about this extra charge until it was too late.

The voice mail prompts went on and on. And after I’d provided all kinds of answers, including name, address, and phone number, I was asked whether I wanted a live operator or more voice mail. I chose “live operator” immediately. Whereupon I was informed that my wait time would be *nine* miinutes.

If I didn’t want to wait, I was offered the option of a call-back “within seven to twelve minutes.” When I selected that, I was asked to provide my name and phone number.

Seven to twelve minutes later, I got a call back. From voice mail! It asked me for my name and other information, again. Finally, I was connected to the call center.

Where, let me stress once again, the live operator was very nice and helpful. Didn’t even try to talk me out of reducing my subscription.

She did, however, note that I’d still get next Thursday’s paper. And be charged for it.

I declined. To her credit, she didn’t fight back; she just took my order and thanked me for calling.

So now the Free Press’ “customer service” has left me upset and feeling like the mark in a three-card monte game instead of a “valued customer.” And left me hoping I never have to call them again.

Really, does Gannett even want to be in the newspaper business? They’re not acting like it.

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