International fulfilment

Publishers’ approach to international fulfilment has made great strides in the past decade and they are demanding more and more from their suppliers. Quadrant Subscription Services (QSS) handles the fulfilment for many prominent domestic publishers and also such large international ones as BusinessWeek, The Economist, Forbes and Newsweek. James Evelegh met up with QSS’s Dave Appleton and Nick Barnes to discuss the current state of play.

By James Evelegh

Domestic publishers have got it so easy! Generally speaking all their readers are awake at the same time, speak the same language, pay in just one currency and live at a nice-easy-to-key address. Also, although this might change with any de-regulation of postal services, delivery labels can be output in a single run and copies are delivered by a postal operator who, despite recent upheavals, is a lot better than most. For international publishers life is a tad more complicated.

The key decision for an international publisher is where to manage fulfilment and customer services. There are two extremes – total centralisation (ie all fulfilment in one location) or total decentralisation (setting up an operation in every single country). Generally speaking, and costs permitting, it is advantageous to site your fulfilment as close to your readers as possible. For the vast majority of international publishers, the relatively small numbers of readers involved, and their dispersed nature, means that total centralisation is the only viable option. Typically they will manage all readers on their domestic circulation system which will, hopefully, have sufficient functionality to allow them to offer their international subscribers a tailored service (eg correctly formatted address labels, currency of choice, flexibility of payment mechanism etc).

Where a publisher has reached a critical mass of readers in any country or region, then typically they have appointed different bureaux to handle different regions. The most common split is to have your north American subscribers handled by a bureau in the US and your UK and rest of the world subscribers handled from a UK or European bureau.

A third way

Technological advances now mean that there is a third way. It is now possible to hold the actual subscriber database in a single location but to have customer service and fulfilment carried out at satellite offices around the world. QSS has been enabling publishers to set up local offices for some time now. Traditionally the link to the main database was through the keying of data into a locally held database, using bespoke input templates with the data then being periodically exported to the main system. One of their early clients to do this, Forbes, is still operating a template approach. Some publishers now want to take this a stage further: satellite offices with real time access to a central database which is hosted and controlled by QSS. The fact that QSS now offers this functionality owes much to its ground breaking work with one of its biggest international clients – The Economist. In fact a closer look at how the Economist handles its international fulfilment gives an interesting insight into both traditional and modern approaches.

How the Economist does it

Whilst the Economist’s circulation is global, two countries predominate – the UK and USA. The Economist uses two different fulfilment bureau; one in the US which looks after all north and south American circulation and one in the UK (QSS) which looks after UK and the rest of the world. The US bureau looks after all aspects of customer service and fulfilment for north and south America. The service QSS offers is sophisticated enough to allow the Economist to offer a high degree of local customer service to its readers in the Asia-Pacific region, whilst retaining central control over the database. The volume of Asia Pacific subscribers, as well as the cultural and distance challenges of servicing these readers, justified a degree of local servicing. Economist subscribers in Europe, the middle east and Africa are all serviced direct from Haywards Heath.

It would seem that the hosted, real-time access solution offers publishers both the benefits of local fulfilment operations and centralised control. It could, in the future, negate the need for different bureaux for different regions.

The decision where to host your fulfilment and customer service operation is key, but is generally one of those decisions you make or review every five years or so, so great are the implications of any change. Most other aspects of international customer service impinge on a day to day basis.

Move to greater flexibility

Whether it was to preserve their sanity or the result of system inflexibilities many bureaux and software providers, in the past, tried to impose a one-size-fits-all service straightjacket in the area of international fulfilment. But, in today’s marketing lead environment, publishers are no longer satisfied with system restrictions that dictate that they have to offer US dollars in such and such a country rather than the local currency or where the database is not able to output address labels in a way that complies with the requirements of their chosen distributor in Zagreb. Both Dave and Nick say that this move away from a standard service offering towards a flexible customer driven approach is one of the biggest changes they have noted in the last ten years. The two areas where this is, perhaps, most obvious are: addressing / distribution and currency.

Addressing and distribution

In an effort to eke out every last penny of saving and shave every possible second off delivery times, publishers are forever tinkering with their international distribution requirements. From a fulfilment perspective there are two practical implications; firstly, output routines need to be flexible enough to slice and dice the mailing list into any number of different permutations (and to change it back again at very short notice) and secondly, since each distributor has the potential to want the data output in a different way (for instance one might require the postal code to be in field 9 and the other might require it in field 10), the database system needs to hold the addresses in fixed format fields. The exact position, in the output file, for many name and address fields will vary according to country, distributor and also publisher. If the data has been input free format then it is much more difficult for the output routines to easily identify each component of the name and address record.

But this goes beyond the purely technical matter of field identification. It is one thing having a specific field in which to put the data, but it is another to actually know what’s supposed to go in it. As any data inputter will tell you, it is not always immediately apparent from a subscription card what the subscriber’s actual name is. Asian names are a case in point. In many parts of Asia it is standard practice to put the family name first; so John Smith would write MR SMITH JOHN on his application card. If the data is keyed into the wrong fields then there is almost endless room for confusion; for example an incorrectly derived initial leading to an address label of "Mr S John" or a salutation on a renewal letter of "Dear Mr John." This is further complicated by a growing trend in Asia to ape western naming conventions which means that many are now putting their family name last! If you’re starting to get giddy then this is a pretty good time to restate the value of local customer services. The Economist’s Asian customer service operators are ideally placed to make the correct call in these matters. And to allow the system to produce an address label which meets with the requirements of the individual subscriber, QSS has included a flag on screen for the inputter to indicate whether the subscriber is using "Asian or western naming standard". This is yet further evidence of the shift to almost limitless flexibility.


As for currency, gone are the days when sterling for UK and US dollars for everyone else was acceptable. Publishers now want the flexibility to be able to bill and receive payment in any currency from any part of the world, which means that the database system needs to be able to hold and maintain a currency for each country, its exchange rate with the publisher’s base currency and the ability to produce subscription rates in any number of different currencies. The bottom line is that, according to QSS, a publisher should be able to quote in any currency and a subscriber should be able to pay in any currency.

The greater functional offering that bureaux like QSS are offering their customers is only one part of an improved package for publishers. As Dave and Nick noted, some bureau have moved on from the days when they were simply expected to key orders and produce labels and renewals. Depending on the publisher’s requirements some bureaux are now offering higher level management services like circulation modelling as well as acting as principal contact with publisher’s chosen distributors and subscription agents.

Other trends

Most of the trends visible to domestic publishers are mirrored (and amplified) in the international arena, such as the huge shift to email (from phone) for customer services, the proliferation of web based business (and the consequent increased exposure to fraud, especially with credit card orders from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria) and the requirement to accurately record and maintain data protection preferences in compliance with local and international law. Ten years ago a single data protection field was deemed sufficient by most publishers. Now, in the international arena, it is possible to have a matrix of 64 potential responses.

The key message coming from Dave and Nick was that publishers had moved away from a broad brush approach to international circulation. Infinite flexibility – both in relation to the location of the operation and the breadth and depth of the service – is the new watchword and switched-on bureau and software providers are working hard to knock down the old restrictions.