There’s an art to building lasting customer relationships

Tom Silvestri

Oct 30, 2020

The newspaper business is obsessed with revenue.

Conventions, conferences, workshops and webinars in 2020 are focused on sharing everything that gets dollars in the door.

We all know why.

Many of the best practices are delivered at high decibels and with lots of attention-getting energy.

Some of the volume has to do with today’s virtual way of life that zooms by on computer monitors. A reminder; use that chat area, folks.

That’s what made a concise — but comforting — conversation about winning revenue stand out even more. It was led by a newspaperman with 50 years of experience.

Robert M. Williams Jr. offered homespun advice during the National Newspaper Association’s annual conference earlier this month and invited his colleagues pictured in the little screens to add more.

They didn’t disappoint.

The result was a list of common-sense actions that anyone on a newspaper advertising team can use to build lasting relationships with customers.
For starters, Williams asked: “When is the last time you talked with your customer and it wasn’t about your product?”

Creating a give-and-take relationship is “more than just selling them something,” he added.

Williams is a longtime community publisher from Blackshear, Georgia, a past president of the NNA and now the NNA director of creative resources. Here are my notes that captured Williams’ recommendations and the frontline tactics from his NNA colleagues:

  • Know that building relationships is not a quick process. It takes a lot of time and effort. It’s no different from nurturing a longtime friendship.
  • Realize in all of your dealings that clients want to know how much you care about them.
  • Consider not walking into a customer’s business with your “sales tools” — computers, binders, briefcases, etc. Instead, arrive empty-handed as you visit for an update.
  • Choose a casual time or pick different times for when you drop by.
  • Ask more open-ended questions.
  • Listen. (And while you’re at it, listen to more than the boss. Employees of the business have great insight, as well.)
  • Understand that nobody went into business “to buy advertising.”
  • Shop with your customers. Encourage your newspaper employees to do so, as well. (One participant noted a publisher who awards a gift card to the employee who spends the most with local businesses. You compete by bringing in receipts.)
  • Even if you don’t buy from that advertiser, at least give them a chance. (The reference was to buying a car and giving all of the advertising dealers an opportunity to compete.)
  • Provide your customers with case studies proving newspaper ads work. Consider building a library of testimonials and parking it online. Add video.
  • Talk to customers well ahead of a special section to get their suggestions before you commit to publishing. They’ll feel more a part of the project and not an afterthought.
  • Make sure ads stand out in the newspaper and online. (Hint: Avoid tiny type.)
  • Send sympathy cards to clients when there’s been a death in their family.
  • Make sure the sales rep thoroughly reads the newspaper to help the advertiser know it’s a reliable source “for what’s going on.”
  • Point out to new subscribers your list of advertisers and ask them to mention the newspaper when buying goods and services.

The session ended with the urge to ensure more ads had calls to action and more advertisers benefited from frequency.

“I don’t want to sell you one ad, one time,” Williams recalled telling an advertiser. “That won’t get it done.”

Besides, Williams wanted to make sure the client’s success was more important than a sale recorded by the newspaper.

It’s all about enduring relationships.

We all know why.

Tom Silvestri, most recently president and publisher of the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, is the executive director of the Relevance Project, the joint effort of the Newspaper Association Managers to strengthen the industry’s unique role as the provider of quality journalism and the keeper of public forums for thousands of communities across the continent. NAM is a group of state, regional and national press associations across the U.S. and Canada.