Customer Experience

Placing Customers at the Center

By Kevin Richman, Customer Experience · September 08, 2020

If ads and commercials are accurate, every company “puts customers first.” This implies that when companies make decisions, one of their primary concerns is how it will affect their customers' experience. Yet when you’re interacting with a company, how often do you feel the company is considering your goals, desires and expectations? This is the primary function of customer experience — to have a deep understanding of customers’ goals, values, wants and needs, and to ensure those needs are understood, used and prioritized in the decision-making process across the company.

Most of the time, we hope for a clear alignment — what is good for the company is also good for the customer. For example, rarely does a company or customer want a super complex and convoluted process. But what happens when company and customer priorities do not, or are perceived to not, align? These are the moments that reveal whether a company is truly customer-centric.

At Column, we view customer experience as one of our top priorities. That's why our customer experience team reports directly to the Chief Operations Officer, as opposed to the more traditional model of reporting to the head of marketing or sales. For us, customer experience is not a sales tactic or a marketing expense — it's an operational reality. If we want to be truly customer-centric, we need to think about how decisions across the organization impact our customers. We've already learned a lot about our customers — insights that have influenced our operations and our decision to become a Public Benefit Corporation. I want to share some of these insights with you.

Insight #1: Our customers care deeply about the well-being of their communities. This shouldn't come as a surprise, given that publishers and government aim to improve the local communities they serve. Newspaper staff and government both believe in transparency, accountability and maintaining an informed community — all key aspects of public notice. But their commitments do not end there. I've had countless conversations with customers who use their spare time to lead local support organizations, volunteer to mentor at-risk youth, deliver food to the elderly, support people with disabilities and more. The idea of a healthy community isn't just in their job description, it's in their DNA. Our customers' devotion to their communities motivates us to build technology that improves the distribution of vital public information.

Insight #2: People first, process second, technology third. We operate in industries that have been underserved by technology at best, harmed by it at worst. Building a great technology solution is important, but our users want and deserve more. They want to know the members of Column, to feel supported, and to trust that we have a deep understanding of the process when we're building new solutions. And we have built our Customer Experience function accordingly, placing full-time team members on support and live-chat, building people-first Success Plans with our publishers and providing countless training and feedback sessions with governments and law firms.

Many customers know our founder's story — he was a paper boy for the Manhattan Mercury growing up — but most do not know that Column spent its first year actually building our public notice tool from inside the Mercury. We sat with the Mercury's legals team and traveled around the state of Kansas learning about the people, processes and challenges behind public notices. We feel we have a strong understanding of the legal notice process, but we continue to learn and stay curious. We start most conversations by asking people to describe their process so that we can offer a product that truly addresses their needs. Our product is a culmination of our current knowledge, and the more we learn, the more we improve.

Insight #3: We're building technology for everyone. Not only are many of our customers traditionally underserved by technology, but they often lack exposure to the latest trends in software. Learning new technologies can be frustrating and confusing, so Column strives to deliver a product that feels effective, efficient and responsive. In reality, Column's strongest users are incredibly diverse. There is no correlation between our customers' age, gender or ethnicity — or even their perception of their own "tech-savviness" — and their ability to benefit from our product. Despite their different levels of comfort with technology, our customers all share a desire to improve the public notice process, as well as a strong sense of curiosity and a willingness to try new things. Column is building an intuitive technology that solves problems — not just something flashy.

Insight #4: Publishers want a partner that cares about the future of local journalism. As we engage newspapers across the country, a common theme has emerged: Publishers do not want a technology provider, but a technology partner. They want someone that shares their values about the importance of local journalism, transparency, accountability and investigative reporting. And while those values are part of Column's core DNA, that was not necessarily evident, especially given newspapers’ previous experience with technology companies.

This perceived misalignment was a key reason why Column became a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). We want to be explicit: We serve stakeholders such as journalistic institutions, not just shareholders. We view ourselves as a partner in supporting the distribution of public interest information, and we have shaped our organization to form a clear alignment with our partners' values.

Customer experience is ever-evolving; that’s what makes it so exciting. Column will continue to put our customers at the center of everything we do. We will remain curious and always seek new answers to our central question — how a technology partner can improve the distribution of public information via journalistic institutions. If you ever have any feedback or questions or want to learn more, feel free to shoot me an email at I look forward to hearing from you.

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