I am normally a BIG fan of the Harvard Business Review but their premature calls for subscription renewals have earned them a spot on my “pet peeves” list.

The timeline looks like this:

  • Nov 2015 – Pay for 12 issue subscription to HBR and start receiving print/online access to content.  All good.
  • Feb 2016 – Receive 1st invoice. Whaaat? 3 months ago I paid for 12 issues so I wondered (a) did they get my initial payment, (b) is my subscription really up for renewal this soon? After following up with customer service, here’s their response:

Our records do indicate that your subscription is paid through the November 2016 issue.

Your subscription has been entered into our automatic credit renewal program. Thus, when your subscription is about to expire, our system automatically enters a credit renewal for you and sends you a billing notice. If you wish to be taken off of our automatic credit renewal program, please let us know.

If you would like to continue your subscription, you may mail us your payment or call our customer service department with your credit card information.

Does this make common sense to you?  With 9 months remaining on the subscription, it certainly didn’t meet my threshold of “about to expire.” So, I asked them about why I received such an early notification and here’s their response:

As we process mailing labels two months in advance, the system wants to ensure that the upcoming renewal is paid before we start processing the December 2016 labels in early October.

Again, this doesn’t make common sense because even October is several months away. If it takes 1-2 months to create mailing labels, then HBR has a serious supply chain issue.  Surely there must be an HBR article explaining how to improve supply chain management? (In fact there are several.)

  • Mar 2016 – About the time I was being confounded by (and working through) these issues I received my 2nd Notice (see below) to find that the full amount was now due. (Ugh… eye roll.)
  • Apr 2016 – Between writing and posting this article I received my 3rd Notice (see below).  Just on the cusp of being 7 months from the expiration date, I have been handed off from the friendly retention manager and turned over to the receivables team. Things look bleak indeed.
  • Apr 2016 – One day after my 3rd notice I received an email from a collections agency saying service was suspended.  All this for an account which HBR acknowledged was “paid through the November 2016 issue.” Paid must not mean what it used to!

With this scenario as a backdrop, HBR has an opportunity to make some improvements.  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Time – match the timing of invoices to the timing of delivered services. Even accounting for accepted differences in subscription models, their practice of invoicing for months 13-24 after month 3 is out of alignment. I understand why HBR wants the revenue up front although they seem to have missed the customer impact. I wonder what would happen if I renewed as asked?  Would I then receive yet another invoice 3 months after I had paid? When would the madness stop? (Apparently, similar issues have crossed Minnesota’s Attorney General’s desk before as well.)
  2. Check for common sense – implement customer-friendly policies so customer service representatives (CSR) aren’t placed into the unenviable position of providing such flimsy responses. I’ll bet that the CSR knew the policy was silly, but had to defend it anyway.
  3. Plan for technology – first, I believe technology can be HBR’s friend where label-printing is concerned.  But even if we accept the notion that printing labels takes such a lengthy time (I don’t), HBR should ensure that the process for fulfilling digital-only orders aligns to the actual subscription expiration date. The invoice and expiration dates should be pretty close.

Original post conclusion: With luck, an enterprising HBR customer experience manager or brand advocate will glance at this post.  I hope their response isn’t a further defense of the label story.

New post conclusion: Will cancel my “subscription.”

Regardless, their story provides the pivot point – to pause occasionally to walk in our customers’ footsteps. Then ask these questions (and more)…

  • How would we react to receiving the service we deliver?
  • What kind of value does it provide relative to expectations?
  • How does it help or hurt our brand image?
  • Does it pass the common sense test?
  • And if not, what are we doing about it?

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#CXFail – HBR Subscription Renewals
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