Winning with digital: A CX Moment with The New York Times
Zendesk sat down with Jeff Shah, VP of Customer Care at The New York Times, to learn how his team solves problems for millions of readers around the world.
Last updated March 6, 2023
Since its launch in 1996, The New York Times website, nytimes.com, has evolved from a basic retread of the print edition to a dynamic digital hub where millions of readers get breaking news, recipe ideas, and their daily Wordle fix.
After investing in ancillary products like the New York Times Games section, The Times has seen its digital subscriber base steadily grow over the past eight years. In 2014, The Times had just 800,000 digital subscribers—today it boasts 9.3 million.
As part of Zendesk’s CX Moment virtual event series, we spoke with Jeff Shah, VP of Customer Care at The New York Times, about how he helps solve problems for the newspaper’s millions of readers all over the world—whether they need help cooking dinner, renewing a subscription, or solving a crossword puzzle.
The shift from print to digital
A lot has changed since The Times reimagined itself as a truly digital brand, and its readers need help with issues more complicated than simply placing a vacation hold or replacing a missing newspaper.
“Digital subscribers are more likely to solve problems in self-serve, but that also means that the problems we get when they actually reach an agent are harder to solve,” Shah explains. “So, we’ve had to make this shift between an old world where you focus on efficiency and productivity and standardizing the work to a new world where we’re focusing on the customer experience, building agent flexibility, and critical thinking.”
To help his team manage the transition, Shah empowers agents with the freedom to provide answers to a wide range of customer questions—including what might be a good substitute for gochujang.
“I don’t expect a customer care agent to be a master chef,” Shah says. “But it’s been this really interesting conversation with our internal teams about: what do customers really want to know? What do they want help with? And it struck me as interesting that anyone would write into customer care asking about a recipe substitution—but it was this great moment where we discovered there was a customer need around this.”
Insource, outsource—or both?
The New York Times has traditionally relied on outsourced customer support. But five years ago, The Times built a small in-house team to test different business models and high-touch care. This team has not only been successful in answering readers’ questions, but it’s also helped programmers improve the New York Times digital experience.
“We want to have a tight feedback loop with our product teams,” Shah says. “We have internal agents who are on a Slack channel with New York Times Games engineers and product people, saying, ‘Five people wrote in this morning saying that their Wordle is frozen.’ And that’s a really quick and fast signal to those teams that there’s a problem.”
To find the right balance between cost savings and high-touch support, Shah believes that about 20 percent of support should be insourced.
“Shifting that balance between nearshore and onshore, I was able to create some savings,” Shah explains. “It was successful—especially in the kind of cost pressure environment that we’re all in.”
Building brand loyalty with CX
Taking cues from Matt Dixon’s 2013 book, The Effortless Experience, Shah believes that getting readers’ problems solved quickly and easily is the key to customer loyalty.
“Your perception of the brand is gonna be that game, that recipe, that journalism—it’s not gonna be talking to an agent,” Shah says. “And that’s my goal. I want you to forget that you ever had to reach out to us at all.”
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