cSubs (www.csubs.com) is an innovative company that offers a complete, managed, web-based system that enables companies to easily and conveniently control and administer all print and electronic subscriptions. In operation for 30 years, cSubs has grown steadily under the watchful eye of self-titled “evangelist” Julie Sue Auslander. You don’t come across many “evangelists” in the subscriptions world, so I was intrigued to interview Julie for this article to find out how she differentiates her company from the competition and find out how her philosophy drives her success.
Background and philosophy
Julie’s first career was as a teacher and she earned her M.Ed from Columbia University. There came a point where she needed to supplement her income to support her family and, in true entrepreneurial style, she started her subscriptions business from the kitchen table. Eventually, her husband joined the business and together they worked through the early years and tough times. But in 1986, Julie got her first big contract which changed everything. Her business moved from small and individual subscribers to a huge corporate account. The great thing about this big new account was that Julie worked very closely with the client who had faith in Julie’s approach and helped in turn to shape the cSubs company to provide excellent value and service to the corporate market. This focus on value and service is what still drives cSubs today.
I asked Julie what her underlying philosophy is for her company and she summed it up. “We operate with a sense of community. Our clients are part of that community.” It’s a refreshing approach. Instead of viewing clients as a necessary evil, they are an integral part of the business. In such a competitive industry as subscriptions, clients often leave one supplier for another because of pricing issues. Many suppliers aim to undercut their competitors on price to win business. I asked Julie if any of her clients had left because of price. “No. No client ever leaves because of price. We are extremely competitive on price too and we partner with our clients to make savings, rather than let them walk away to a competitor. We know we can also offer them a superior service while they are under price constraints. You have to work with your clients in the bad times, help them to make savings and manage their subscriptions effectively, and then they will be great clients with you in the good times.”
As well as this sense of community with clients, Julie also sees her company as a family and has designed policies and programs to reflect this. The corporate culture of cSubs is characterised by every employee’s sense of belonging and responsibility for co-workers and volunteering to help each other without having to be asked. Working parents with young children are welcomed by progressive workplace policies that contribute to the “family” environment. Julie says this approach is different from other subscription agencies and helps them to stand out from the crowd.
Women owned businesses
Julie has a passion for supporting and helping women owned businesses and purports that they have a very different way of doing business. I challenged Julie and proposed that if I walked into her company tomorrow, how I would know it was a woman run business as opposed to any other? What would be different? She said “Women do business differently. We look for consensus, we nurture individuals, and we create meaningful teams. So, when you walk into my company, you will witness an empowered happy workforce, who delights in serving our clients. Equally, we nurture our clients and create meaningful relationships with them. We get the people aspects of doing business right – that’s a priority – and successful businesses are pretty much about good relationship management.”
She must be doing something right, as over the past few years Julie was named as one of Enterprising Woman’s “Woman of the Year,” received the Women PresidentsOrganization’s prestigious “Mary Lehman MaClachlan Award for Economic Empowerment,” and was named one of 16 “Star” among all women presidents nationwide by the 11,000-member Women Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). cSubs has also been named one of Inc. Magazine’s “5000 Fastest Growing Companies” for each of the past five years, and has received many awards and accolades for diversity in the workplace, customer service excellence, and innovative technology.
|“[Librarians] are still key stakeholders in information purchasing decisions…”|
With her a passion for transforming the landscape for women business owners, Julie often mentors women entrepreneurs and serves as a source of encouragement and guidance. Julie believes that women owned businesses wed both the right and left brain to run more successful businesses, have happier employees and healthier families.
Out of the 18 employees at cSubs, the majority are women with families. Julie’s policies are designed to provide flexibility so that employees can take care of the unexpected. Employees can pick up their sick children from school or attend to other family situations at short notice. This saves employees from being stressed out or feeling guilty and promotes a calmer working atmosphere. There is also plenty of scope to work from home and employees are given the right tools and technology to be able to do this. This can be useful if someone is ill and does not want to spread their germs around the office. They can work from home without infecting other people and make a speedier recovery.
There is also an innovative reward scheme at cSubs. Julie has created “cSubs dollars”. These are awarded for unsolicited, positive client feedback, creating new solutions to problems, new client or employee referrals, and innovative ideas to improve day-to-day processes or community service. The rewards can be exchanged for family vacations. This staff motivation is critical for Julie. It empowers the employees to continually strive to deliver better service to their clients and helps to make the business more efficient. These incentives drive the client focus of the company.
The changing business landscape
cSubs operates in the corporate market which is the most challenging market for subscription delivery. The client base has both the traditional library services, which manage subscriptions centrally, as well as decentralized clients using procurement departments, serving multiple end users. “We are dealing with both types of client contact – librarians and procurement professionals,” said Julie. “The difficult market conditions and changing job roles in organisations has benefited cSubs and we now work more closely with both groups of people.”
There was a time when procurement departments were quite powerful. They were naturally very cost focused but if they didn’t understand the products they were “buying” – and information services are not straightforward or easy things to buy – then they would often reject the service or limit it in some way. Many corporate organisations then broke up that centralised power base and gave specific individuals the right to purchase resources for their own departments or cost centres. They had more freedom to choose the services they needed but this made selling subscription services much more complex.
|“We try to be at the forefront of change and ensure that our clients benefit from our learning.”
Now, the trend is back to more centralized procurement but procurement professionals have evolved too and want to have qualified vendors working with them to help make the right purchasing decisions. “Procurement staff are much more amenable to vendors now,” said Julie. “They will never get back to the headcount they had years ago and they need assistance and guidance from specialist vendors like us to make the effective purchasing decisions. We can help them with good reporting on cost savings and cost avoidance. They really like that. We are also completely transparent in our pricing model which is a huge advantage to purchasing people.”
The landscape has also changed for librarians. “More and more librarians are losing their jobs due to organizational downsizing and cost cutting. Like procurement professionals, they are still key stakeholders in information purchasing decisions but they have fewer resources and are under more pressure to deliver value for money. Again, that’s where a company like cSubs comes in. We can help to manage those resources effectively, report on the usage of journals across the organisation, realise costs savings and help the librarians keep within their strict budgets. An example of this approach is a client of ours who purchased a site licence to a product. They had 25 people using the product with requests from other potential users wanting access too. The client rejected the additional users based on cost. But, the more people you add to the licence, the cheaper it actually becomes for each department. This was a critical product for the organisational to have and as we added more users, we were able to credit back some cost centres as their spending actually went down. We are in a position to look at all these options whereas the librarian may not have the time to appraise all the options and will sometimes just see ‘more users, more cost’. We ended up saving money and crediting money back to some cost centres.”
I asked Julie about the world of e-journals. There are theories that as e-journals take over from hard copy journals in many sectors, that the intermediary like cSubs will not be necessary. It’s all online, how hard can it be to manage that? “No, it doesn’t work like that,” said Julie. “We are managing more databases and site licenses than ever before. Companies need to keep a close track on this license, to manage usage, user seats, and compliance with terms and conditions. Finance is constricted and the message is ‘spend wisely.’ Licenses can be very expensive and the procurement and library staff doesn’t necessarily have the resources or technology to track them closely. We do”.
How does cSubs keep up with technological change in organizations? “We continually develop processes in anticipation of the next trend,” said Julie. “We keep ahead of the curve. In the ‘90’s, we were able to provide our orders over the internet. Our clients weren’t quite ready for that, but we were. We envisage best practice in the industry and wait for the industry to catch up, so we are always prepared for the next wave of innovation.”
Client focus and retention
This constant drive towards innovation also helps cSubs to manage their business efficiently. They are always looking for improved ways of doing business and the staff are very much part of this innovation, not just Julie as leader of the company. This approach, along with the nurturing nature of the front line service, has helped cSubs to achieve 99% client retention since the company started. That’s impressive. “Of course some clients leave us,” admits Julie, “but it’s never because of price or service. We are just not the agency for them. Often the reason is that the client cannot pay their invoices. We will do our best to help them manage their resources better but it’s not always possible.”
“Our relentless focus on our clients helps us to achieve our great retention rate. Everyone in the company is dedicated to customer service. Our current clients are of course reducing their subscriptions in this tough market, but we are helping them to manage that process. But alongside these reductions in subscriptions, we are picking up big corporations who have been referred to us by our current clients and who need to cut costs massively. Our current client base is out there telling others how effective we can be for them.”
I asked Julie if she thought that the market will bounce back to how it was before the credit crunch. “No, there has been a cosmic shift. There is a long horizon before any comeback is in sight. The freefall for spending money will take a very long time to return, if ever. As I said, we keep a very close eye on how the economy is doing, how businesses are reacting and how the world is moving ahead. We try to be at the forefront of change and ensure that our clients benefit from our learning.”
“We will drive into what the market wants and provide it.” That’s a bold statement but having spent some time talking to Julie, I’m sure it will come true. It’s what evangelists do.