In 1993, I was in the final throes of acquiring a masters degree in Business Communications from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. The course work was pretty well completed, so I was finally forced to face that awful moment: selecting a topic for my final project/thesis. The choice was pretty wide open, subject to the department's approval, but it had to address a communications issue in business. I didn't have a clue what my topic would be.


Mail Service's Status Lags

Then one day, during a class discussion about major corporate reorganizations, one of my fellow students commented, "Now how would someone in, say, the mailroom, ever comprehend this?" A red cloud went over my eyes. I immediately began to ask her, shall we say, emphatically, just what made her think that those of us who work in mail are incapable of grasping major concepts? Besides, my grades were better than her's although I didn't mention that.


It was clear from her reaction and the rest of the class that they had never really thought about mail services. The only image they had of their companies' internal mail, if they thought about it at all, was of some not-very-bright, unambitious Neanderthal sorting letters in a small room in the basement. After all, what's to know about mail how to lick a stamp?


I had found the topic for my thesis.


My research question became: how can mail service managers convey the importance of the mailing function to their organizations? I was able to interview many managers around the country, thanks to Mailing Systems Technology and Memo to Mailers, who publicized my efforts. It seemed that I had really struck a chord. I was swamped with phone calls.


I learned a lot about perceptions, reality, image and marketing. Many mail centers felt unappreciated for the work they did and that they were frequently scapegoats for other departments' foul-ups. Many of them had developed a "bunker mentality" us against them. Few, if any, had a strategic plan for changing their images. Mostly, they just kept soldiering on, but not without grumbling about it.


Professional Respect Increases

Six years later, has anything changed? You better believe it! I really can speak authoritatively only about the industry in which I work higher education but at least here, the change has been nothing short of spectacular. And it certainly has been my impression that mail services has been undergoing a similar change in other industries as well.


First, Postal Reclassification has been a great boost to our level of professionalism. Having said that, I'm sure a lot of managers would term it, at best, a blessing in disguise. The U.S. Postal Service's goal of automating mail led it to put restrictions on bulk mailings, especially in mailpiece design and database management. When first implemented, the requirements seemed nearly impossible to meet, especially in the free-for-all atmosphere of higher education. However, it gave us a real reason to go out to the academic departments, present the "new world" and come across as the professionals to whom they would look for help.


Professional certification also has provided us a method of acquiring real credentials. In 1993, certification programs were in their infancy. The Mail Services Management Association (MSMA) had fewer than 50 Certified Mail and Distribution Services Managers, while the International Publishing Management Association (IPMA) had just begun its Certified Mail Manager program. Both of these have · grown rapidly, with the MSMA having more than 250 CMDSMs around the country and IPMA recently certifying over 30 CMMs. The certifications are not easy to acquire, and they are a source of pride for those of us who have achieved them. Besides, it never hurts to be able to put some initials behind your name, in any industry, but especially in academia. The National Association of College and University Mail Services (NACUMS) strongly urges its members to join MSMA and/or IPMA and acquire certification. 


Employing Communication Tools

Very importantly, we have learned to rely on each other. Thanks to the Internet and an excellent array of trade publications, we no longer have to feel we're the only ones fighting the good fight. Mailing Systems Technology, Mail Magazine, Business Mailers Review, Postal World, Mailers Companion each of these provides invaluable information on new technology, regulations, techniques and management strategies. 


The Internet has had a tremendous impact in establishing communications among many higher education managers. Thanks to Cunimail, the listserv established by Lou Eichler of the University of Iowa, we can instantly contact over 500 institutions in the US and Canada with questions, comments and, yes, complaints. E-mails fly back and forth, comparing service levels around the country, recommending or not different types of equipment, software and suppliers, suggestions for management actions, just basically whatever comes to mind that day.  Additionally, many mailing organizations now have listservers MASA, IPMA and APC, to name a few and now Mailing Systems Technology has opened a message board for our industry.


Marketing the Business of Mail

The biggest change, however, has been in the approach to dealing with our internal customers. Most institutions of higher learning never use the "m" word mandate so our internal customers are free to use any mailing service or lettershop they wish. There was a time when we would simply take what work was brought to us and then complain it wasn't compatible with our machinery, or it needed a surcharge or it was too flimsy a paper stock or, or, or... Now, we realize our future is in customer service and in being a presence within our organizations. We must market ourselves to our customers, just as any business would.


Today, many mail services, including ours here at MIT, have full-blown marketing plans. Our goal is to be the first choice of departments on campus when they are involved in any kind of mailing. We have laid out a strategy to position ourselves as the mailing professionals on campus. We're using a variety of tactical moves to get there. 


Many mail services have their own Web pages. This medium gives us a chance to publish our policies, guidelines and link users to other resources, such as ZIP Code information, international postal codes and express carriers' home pages. It also gives us a means to communicate with our customers electronically. That alone astonishes some of our customers, especially the "what's-to-know-about-mailing" faction.


From Reactive to Proactive

The bottom line is that we've gone from being reactive to proactive. Instead of simply taking whatever came down the pipe (and we all know what sometimes comes out of pipes), we are getting ourselves in front of administrative managers, recruiters (admissions), planned giving managers (alumni development), designers and even faculty. In the very caste-conscious world of higher education, that is a true sea change. 


We've also changed the language a bit. Don't ever call our mail center a "mailroom!" Perception is reality, and what image comes to mind with "mailroom?" A dark, dirty and crowded room in the basement. Even the Postal Service has picked up on that. In 1997, it changed the title of its publication Mailroom Companion to Mailer's Companion, in response to its customers' objections to "mailroom."


Mail services may never be, well, actually, will never be in the executive suite, but we are moving out of the basement. We've at least made it to the main floor!


Penny Guyer, CMDSM, is manager of Mail Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Contact her at 617-253-6728, or at 77 Massachusetts Ave, WW15-118, Cambridge MA 02139-4307.