Creating Virtual Ladies With Stubby Pencils
That Bookspan—the amalgam of the old Book-of-the-Month and Literary Guild—was cited and fined for treating customers badly is a shame.
It’s true that the negative option book club is—without question—the most complex of direct marketing business models. It operates under a crushing schedule of 15 mailing cycles a year. Ten to 15 different kinds of communications between the member and the club could be in the mail at any given time: packages of books, returned books, announcements of new books, rejection (do-not-ship) slips, bills, statements, dunning efforts, payments, bonus book orders and bonus books shipped.
All of these transactions are date sensitive. If a rejection slip didn’t reach the club on time, an unwanted book is shipped that’s later returned for credit. If a payment is slightly late and not posted before the next statement went out, the member would be upset at being double billed.
The logistics are horrendous.
At one of many long, liquid lunches that I had with my boss, mentor and great friend at the Better Homes & Gardens Book Clubs, Lester Doniger, I put this question to him:
How in the world could book clubs with hundreds of thousands of members keep these myriad transactions straight before computers?
Lester took a sip of his white one and smiled. “Ladies with stubby pencils,” he said.
The Oh-So-Personal Touch
The majority of executives at work today have no idea what business was like before computers.
At book clubs prior to the computer, all transactions were posted by hand. In a large room were tubs of files overseen by “ladies with stubby pencils.” The files were arranged alphabetically by the customer’s name. For example, Aa to Ag was handled by Alice. Annie was in charge of Af to Al, while Am to Ar was Audrey’s territory.