Jan. 29 2007 01:40 PM

An old friend asked me at the recent Graph Expo show if it made sense for printers to get into mailing. My answer was an emphatic "yes" every edge counts in a tough market, and adding mailing services is an easy way for a savvy printer to distinguish his business from the competition.


I must say, though, that his follow-up surprised me a little: "But what about working with all those Postal Service rules and regulations?" The subtext was: is getting into mailing more trouble than it's worth? And why should printers go to all that trouble?


Fair questions but maybe also a little misleading. With all the printing industry has faced of late cyclical business-cycle changes, drops in demand due to electronic alternatives and the inevitable price profit squeeze caused by open capacity new service offerings can be a smart way to drive growth.


The competition of today isn't just from the printer around the corner, it's much bigger than that. The entire printing industry is adjusting to technology advancements and shrinking profit margins. According to a recent State of the Industry Survey conducted by the National Association for Printing Leadership, customer demand for fulfillment and mailing services was expected to grow faster than ever over the next two years. So the real question may not be whether to get into mailing, but when.


More Alike than You Think

The challenges facing printers and mailers aren't all that different. Both are thoroughly accustomed to tight turnaround demands and other customer must-haves. Both industries understand pricing, quoting, billing and managing from a marginal revenue standpoint, as well as the merits of providing value-added services that not only build incremental profits but also improve operational efficiency.


While printers lose nothing by diversifying into mailing, they gain an invaluable differentiator one that's proven over time to result in increased profitability.


The skills, personnel, equipment and workflow that make you a printing professional can translate with little effort into a professional-mailing paradigm. The same infrastructure used to produce top-quality printed pieces can often accommodate mail-processing elements for a relatively small investment while your skilled operators will require much less extra training than you might expect.


Where to Begin?

What factors should you consider once you've decided to become a mailer? Start with the following steps:


Develop Industry Contacts Unlike politics and show business, getting into mailing is both "what you know" and "who you know." Experienced mailers have lots of valuable tips for someone new to the business and although they're usually pretty busy, they're rarely shy about answering questions that can help you get started on the right foot.


Make a list of the questions that most intimidate you about mailing, and find a contact in the industry who's willing to discuss them with you. Besides people right in your hometown, trusted sources include members of trade associations including the Mailing and Fulfillment Service Association (www.mfsanet.org), the Direct Marketing Association (www.the-dma.org) or PostCom (www.postcom.org).


Spread the Word Becoming a printer/mailer is an ideal way to expand your customer base, but among your existing customers who know you exclusively as a printer it presents an even greater opportunity to strengthen and enhance existing relationships.


Let those customers know about these new services you'll be offering, and let their needs guide you, for a start. What kinds of pieces do they regularly need to mail? What frequencies and quantities make up most of their mailing jobs? (Hint: the answers to these questions might be right on your pressroom floor.) They'll be impressed that their priorities are important to you and you'll have an edge in providing the speed and efficiency that will keep them coming back.


Help Your Team Adjust Schedule a meeting with your operational managers and employees; they're critical in making this work. By letting them be part of the process of transformation, you'll avoid future problems that could otherwise arise.


Because many existing employees will be asked to expand their duties in this new multi-service environment, it's important to make sure your most trusted staff are not only well-trained, but also adaptable. As with the similarities between a print shop and a mail house, many of your employees' skills will carry over, too: once the initial rough edges are smoothed, you may find your best bindery operator is also your most valuable inserter. Keeping these internal veterans happy and productive will allow for more fluid operations at every stage of your process. ·


The U.S. Postal Service A Friend in High Places

I can't say this strongly enough, "don't worry about the Postal Service." I truly believe that a drive for increased efficiency has made the U.S. Postal Service fairer and more reasonable to work with than ever. While they still have their rules and those regulations can be formidable the Postal Service has also come a long way, sales-and-support-wise, in relating to and working with volume mailers.


Don't get me wrong. The USPS controls the playing field, and being "called on a penalty" can cost time and money. Your success as a mailer will be defined by how well you (and your mailing software; see below) can navigate those rules for maximum productivity and profit. My advice is to learn to trust your local USPS staff; treat them as an extension of your shop the final quality managers. If you consider the Postal Service a partner and not an adversary, they'll come through for you.


Software Your Right Hand

Don't undervalue the importance of mailing technology in making your job easier and more profitable. Today's mail/list-management software designed to assist and sustain the mailing process and alleviate most Postal Service rules-and-regulation worries helps mailers deliver top results for their clients every time.


And considering that you're in this to increase your business, not limit it, don't settle for software that handles the end product of mailings only. Mail-processing software is important, but finding a solution that also incorporates list-management technology will allow you to offer all sorts of value-added services to your customers. They'll enjoy knowing that one trusted vendor is handling all their data and mailing needs. And you'll enjoy the extra business.


Don't Fear Change

Mailing is a completely different business than printing, and diehard industry veterans don't get into completely different businesses every day. Adding mailing to your slate of services is a big step not the most complicated step you're likely to face in your career, but an important one for you and your customers alike.


So trust your instincts; rely on your expertise, your personnel and your technology; and give your clients the one-stop shop they're looking for. They and you will be glad you did.


Ted Seward, a printing industry veteran, is vice president of Marketing for BCC Software Inc. For more information about BCC, visit www.bccsoftware.com or e-mail Ted at ted_s@bccsoftware.com.