December 31, 1997
The Committee on Relations with Information Vendors (CRIV) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) made its second visit in a series of vendor site visits to West Group corporate headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota on November 19-21, 1997. The visit was another positive step toward fulfilling the CRIV's charge to "facilitate communications between information vendors" with AALL and to "foster a cooperative working relationship between librarians and information vendors."
West Group President and Chief Executive Officer Brian H. Hall and several West Group executive vice presidents were present to provide information about their departments and answer questions. AALL was represented by eight members from the eleven-member CRIV plus Immediate Past President Frank Houdek, Executive Director Roger Parent, and ex-officio CRIV member Margaret Maes Axtmann.
Members of the CRIV were able to voice their concerns about changes in customer service, billing, and manufacturing that have taken place since Thomson Publishing merged with West Publishing Company in mid-1996. Responding to these concerns, West representatives outlined current efforts to improve in each of these areas. Though West deemed some of the information as confidential, they openly addressed projected price increases, plans for expanding electronic products, and plans to address staffing challenges. They expressed willingness to discuss these issues further with the larger association at a future AALL Annual Meeting.
Particularly impressive to the CRIV was Hall's candor with regard to challenges brought on by the merger: "We didn't do sufficient research in the areas of customer service and manufacturing. We didn't follow our own best practices, and we got it wrong." Though, as Hall admitted, "There have been a few bumps in the road," he pledged West's commitment to "developing and sustaining a customer-centric focus" as stated in West's Mission Statement.
One of the actions West is making to insure high-quality customer service is to hire and train additional customer service representatives. Since July, West has added more than 60 representatives to bring the total number to approximately 220. West Group's goal is to add an additional 50 people who will be dedicated to phone support. This is not an easy job in an area with only a 2% unemployment rate, but it is a goal the company must address since
West receives, on average, between 3000 and 8000 calls daily and 1,400 mailings. The department is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.
West's improved customer service is facilitated by an extensive online reference tool available at staff work stations newly equipped with Pentium PCs. This upgraded technology allows West representatives to bring customer records to the desktop immediately, so that information alerts on the customer screens can be easily relayed to customers. Product managers, executive boards, and editorial boards all have access to the online product reference tool. Improvements in customer service have enabled employees to eliminate a backlog of 17,000 letters in the last few months.
In addition to customer service representatives who handle customer account questions, such as billing and invoicing, there are also West customer support representatives who answer technical questions related to West Group products. Customer support, part of the West Online Solutions business unit, employs 250 technical support people and 125 reference attorneys who support WESTLAW, CD-ROM and virtually all of West Group's products. They field about 2.5 million calls a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. WESTLAW response time averages 19 seconds. As for pricing, West is still endeavoring to merge all customer accounts into a single invoice. The new invoice will allow more characters for describing each title and products will be titled following a consistent methodology.
Another barrier to West Group's progress has been its blending of publishing and manufacturing. Though not as obvious to customers as the customer service glitches, it is this blending that has resulted in occasional faulty products and shipments. Production of 4,000 products and shipping of 22,000 separate shipments from a single site is a gigantic enterprise, which the CRIV was able to appreciate during an extensive tour of the printing plant, warehouse, and archives. With the merger, the publishing plant has had to accommodate additional printing processes and genres of products not in the old West Publishing repertoire, particularly the looseleaf--the bread and butter of many of the publishing houses absorbed by Thomson (i.e., Clark Boardman Callaghan, Research Institute of America) and then West Group. It is a challenging product for the West plant. Though as Hall said, "Manufacturing and publishing were combined without good planning," the planning is well on its way after the fact.
As for the customer bottom line, West pledges moderate price increases and careful assessment in setting any prices. Elements taken into account in pricing are cost, value, competition, page count, contractual obligations, and newness of the product. Product managers make decisions on pricing within discretionary authority. Though the projected increases in paper products may be viewed by some as moderate, for most law libraries they will probably exceed annual increases in budget. CD-ROM products will likely hold the line as far as increases. Electronic purchasing and price information will soon be available for many products.
Despite growing pains, West Group has developed over 170 new products and 50 new or revised text since the merger. Their new star product is KeyCite, located at http://www.keycite.com, a citation research service that is making inroads into the market.
West, the leading provider of information to the U.S. legal market, also has announced that its online Internet store, located at http://www.westgroup.com, is now "open for business." The enhanced westgroup.com site will, for the first time, enable legal professionals and consumers to view product and pricing information and make purchases over the Web twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, from the convenience of their home or office.
westgroup.com features an online product catalog of nearly 4,000 products from West Group. Currently, approximately 1,000 products are available for sale via the Internet, primarily publications in eight topical areas: bankruptcy, employment, estate, intellectual property, immigration, litigation, tax and securities; California and New York practice series and guides; and a complete set of Black Letter Series', Nutshell Series' and Hornbook Series' for the law school market. Purchases can be made online using a credit card or a West Group account number.
"The launch of westgroup.com is the first in a series of Web-based product announcements from West Group over the next few months," said Laurie H. Hansen, director of Internet Commerce Technology for West Group. "It represents our commitment to providing customers with the tools they need to be more productive in their work."
This is the second visit the CRIV has made to a publisher in 1997, having visited CCH Incorporated in Riverwoods, Illinois this past October. To the degree that such visits benefit the larger association, the committee will continue to make them. Both West and CCH generously provided facilities for the CRIV to hold private committee meetings. Most of the committee meeting at West were held in a suite of meeting rooms dubbed Thomson University, which houses an ample business library in addition to spacious training facilities for employees.
The American Association of Law Libraries was founded in 1906 to promote and enhance the value of law libraries to the legal and public communities, to foster the profession of law librarianship, and to provide leadership in the field of legal information. Today, with over 4,800 members, the Association represents law librarians and related professionals who are affiliated with a wide range of institutions: law firms; law schools; corporate legal departments; courts; and local, state and federal government agencies.