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Harry Hertz

Customer Care

A Time for Renewal

Short subscription cycles for charities and magazines are off-putting for customers

Published: Thursday, June 29, 2017 - 12:01

The title to this column probably has you thinking about some life-changing transition or a big vacation to refresh, or maybe a new exercise regimen. If that is the case, I am sorry to disappoint you.

I’m actually about those renewal reminders for annual donations you make to a charity or to renew a magazine subscription. The reminders usually start with “Thanks for your donation last year,” or “Don’t miss a single issue,” or “Immediate action needed.” The most recent one I received was a little more subtle; it said, “Your membership is within the expiration window.” Of course, the notice did not tell me how wide that window is. The common characteristic among these reminders is that they almost always start arriving way before the actual renewal date, but you would never know it from the wording in the mailing you receive.

There is a story on the Minnesota Attorney General’s website about a woman who, after several early renewal notices, received a notice that her subscription would be suspended and her account sent to collections if she did not make a payment. She still had six months on her current subscription. Some states require magazines to disclose the expiration date on renewal notices, but not my state.

It gets me angry, each time I receive one of these reminders, because I then have to check when the actual expiration date is. In the case of a charity, even if I were inclined to make an additional donation, the tactic makes me reconsider. Furthermore, I do not appreciate that my charitable giving is being used to pay for these mailings rather than for charitable purposes. With my magazine subscriptions, I keep thinking how my multiple subscription reminders are adding to the cost of my subscription.

Of course, I do have ultimate control; I can choose to not renew. But my donation is driven by the mission of the charity and my subscription by a magazine I want to read. I must admit there is one charity where the reminders were so frequent that I sent them a note and have not given to them since then. But it pains me that this was the final outcome because I did truly identify with the charity’s mission.

So why does this practice continue? Because there are enough people, I assume, who do respond to these announcements. And in the case of charities, it can be a spiral of short renewal cycles because once you donate, the clock starts over for their reminders.

The end result for the customer is to keep a list of renewal and charitable giving dates, which then must be checked with each reminder. As expected, that does not build a positive relationship.

Every time I get one of these reminders, I think of several questions in the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. The first question is, “How do you promote and ensure ethical behavior in all interactions?” Are these early solicitations and the way they are worded really ethical? The second question is, “How do you build and manage customer relationships?” The third question is, “How do you manage relationships with customers to increase their engagement with you?” In terms of renewal notices, I know how I feel as a customer!

On the other hand, there is one more Criteria question to consider: “How do senior leaders, in setting expectations for organizational performance, include a focus on creating and balancing value for customers and other stakeholders?” In the case of charitable donations, are senior leaders pushing frequent renewals notices as a way of serving a greater good—that of more charitable dollars for the beneficiaries? For magazines, I have less sympathy with the interests of noncustomer stakeholders.

The challenge for leaders of these organizations is balancing ethical considerations with the needs of all stakeholders. Where do you draw the line?

First published May 30, 2017, on the Blogrige blog.


About The Author

Harry Hertz’s picture

Harry Hertz

Harry Hertz retired in June 2013 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he had served as director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 1995. For more than 15 years he was the primary architect of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, responsible for expansion of the Baldrige Program and Award to healthcare, education, and nonprofits, including government. Hertz serves on the advisory group for VHA’s Center for Applied Healthcare Studies, and on the adjunct faculty of American University. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T.