Do you make it difficult for customers to spend money with you?

Do you have "barriers to entry" that deter old customers and new from buying ads or subscriptions.

"Barriers to entry" are the hoops customers must jump through before

they can buy your product. Newspapers are full of barriers to entry, as are most old-line businesses.

For illustration purposes, I'd like to tell you about the most ridiculous barrier to entry I can remember. It was a barrier created by the local phone company in Dallas, where I'd recently moved in the 1980s. I called the phone company from an office phone to order phone service at my new home.

"You can't order phone service over the phone," a Lilly Tomlin-type person working at the local phone service told me. "You have to come down to the phone store in person to order service."

"It's ridiculous," I complained, "that the phone company won't do business over the telephone."

Despite my protestations that the phone company should be the first company to offer service over the phone, the phone company's phone answering-person (snort-snort) repeated to me that I had to come in person to their telephone store to order phone service.

Having no real choice, I took a half day off from my new job and wandered around town, half-lost, until I found the phone store and ordered phone service.

The phone company could get away with that "barrier to entry" because it was "the only game in town." If I wanted phone service, I had to play by the company's rules.

Newspapers have too often acted like they were the "only game in town." If you wanted to advertise, you had to play by the newspaper's rules.

Just as phone companies have lost their primacy and monopolies, newspapers are rarely the "only game in town" anymore. They face a lot more competition, and more is on the way.

Yet many newspapers still try to enforce their old "barrier to entry" rules.

Examples:

• Want an ad in Sunday's paper, call by 5 p.m. Thursday.

• Want an ad in tomorrow's paper? Call by 5 p.m. yesterday.

• Want an employment ad? Well that's a different rate than an auto ad, which is a different rate than a garage sale.

• Want a photo(s) with your ad? No, we don't do that unless you're a contract advertiser.

• Want an Internet ad? Sorry, it has to run in our newspaper's print product two days from now before it can go on the Internet.

• Want to buy an ad or subscription at 9 p.m.? Call back after 9 a.m.

• Want to buy a display ad? You have to buy it by the column inch, a mathematical buying system used no where else in the universe.

• Your Sunday paper didn't get delivered by 11 a.m. Sorry, the circulation department closed at 10 a.m.

The list can go on and on, and each paper has created its own barriers to entry over the years. (Haven't you?)

Then the world changes.

This technology called the Internet comes along. Companies like Ebay, Craigslist, Amazon, Monster, etc., come along.

They don't have the barriers to entry that most newspapers erect in front of customers.

Craigslist doesn't charge for classifieds ads, except for employment ads. Ebay sells/auctions all kinds of products every minute of every day. Monster.com lets you manage your own career. Amazon let's you browse to your heart's content whenever you want.

It's about empowerment. The most successful new companies give their customers virtually unlimited capabilities to buy what they want, when they want.

Some old-line companies have made necessary adjustments. For example, the airline industry empowered its customers (and eliminated millions of dollars in expenses) by posting its full reservation systems online. Customers can check schedules, compare rates, make/change/cancel reservations and print boarding passes with almost as much power as airline employees.

If you're a newspaper executive, I challenge you to look at the traditional barriers to entry that restrict customers' capabilities to buy products from you.

Do an internal check, and ask yourself and department managers:

• Can our customers buy products 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

• Can our customers buy an online ad without having it run first through our printing press, two or three days from now?

• Can customers buy an ad that is published online before it is published in print?

• Can customers create their own ads online, order that ad and pay for it without talking to someone at the paper during "regular business hours?"

• Can a customer stop/start a subscription without talking with someone at the paper during "regular business hours?"

The list can go on an on. Technology is not to blame for these barriers - it's your company's culture!

To be more successful in a world that is becoming more and more interactive, it will be necessary to empower your customers and eliminate "barriers to entry."

As a goal, try to identify one barrier to entry a month, for a year. At the end of the year, your newspaper will have happier customers, and a better bottom line.

(Marc Wilson is ceo of townnews.com. He's reachable at marcus@townnews.com)