I normally don't delve into my day job here, but I'll make an
exception today for expediency's sake. On Friday, the SF Chronicle's consumer-rights columnist ran a
about complaints from Wired subscribers that they were getting
threatening letters from a collection agency when they let their
The reason turned out to be that they were among the small fraction of our subscribers who signed up for an automatically-renewing subscription under the bill-me option, rather than the usual credit card option, and then didn't send in a $12 check at the end of their billing cycle. They thought, quite reasonably, they were just letting their subscription lapse and were not aware that they had signed up for the auto-renew plan, probably because the details of the subscription plans are not marked as clearly as they could be.
This was really distressing to hear for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that sending letters from a collection agency for $12 is a poor way to treat customers. But the good news is that it has clarified a problem that we can fix, and for that we're grateful to the Chronicle.
Circulation is one of those tangled parts of the magazine industry that's dependent on all sorts of third parties, ranging from the US Postal Service to independent subscription agents, each of which add a layer of uncertain customer service between us and our subscribers. And as a subscriber to loads of other magazines, I know how frustrating that can be. But in this case the problem turns out to be in our own policies, which we're going to change.
As Joe Timko, the circulation manager, said in the piece, we're going
to stop turning over accounts to collection agencies
(although these agencies weren't authorized to do anything other than
send badgering letters, the wording sounded pretty serious). Although I
had heard these complaints before, I had always assumed it was bad
behavior from third-party agents, which are a declining fraction of
our subscription business. The bad news was finding out that this was
actually our own doing (even if it affected just a small percentage of our
subscribers); the good news is that this means we can stop it
immediately, as we've now done.
Second, we're going to make it much clearer which subscriptions are automatically renewing and which aren't. We're not going to eliminate the option of an automatically-renewing subscription, because many subscriber prefer those, especially with credit card billing (the only checks I write these days are to renew magazine subscriptions, which always seems like an anachronistic hassle), but what's important is that we ensure that the unsubscribing procedure be quick, simple and painless. No AO-Hell run-arounds.
Right now, it's not nearly clear enough how to do that (or even to find out if you have an automatically-renewing subscription or not). This week, I'll start working with the Conde Nast circulation department on improving that. Transparency is the key.
Finally, I'd like to hear directly from anyone who is experiencing problems with their subscription. Although I can't promise a personal reply, I can promise that I'll be forwarding each email to the circulation managers personally and will ensure that they all get reviewed and resolved to the best of our ability. Email me at this address: email@example.com.